Ever wondered where World War III might break out?
A clear and troubling consensus has emerged in the American national security community that the Taiwan Strait is the most likely place for a major war to erupt between the United States and China; that it might start soon, and that such a conflict might quickly escalate into a nuclear confrontation.
In March, the leading foreign policy organization in the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, issued a report concluding that Taiwan has become “the most dangerous flashpoint in the world.” There, a unique and troubling set of geopolitical developments have conspired to make a shooting war between the People’s Republic of China and the United States more likely than ever before. Recently the newly appointed commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific Region, Admiral John Aquilino, remarked that a possible invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) “is much closer than we think.”
Ever since a pro-Western government was established on the island in the wake of Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Beijing has waged a patient and methodical campaign to re-establish sovereignty over the island, which today is home to a thriving, autonomous democracy of 24 million with a high-tech-oriented economy and a strategically invaluable semiconductor industry.
Taiwan has a military of 300,000 members and more than 400 jet fighters, but the primary deterrent preventing Beijing from seizing the island by force has been the military might of the United States. For 40 years, Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” has been successful in both deterring China from seizing the island by force, and dissuading the Taiwanese from declaring independence, an act which various PRC officials have said would be an open provocation to war. Current U.S. policy officially recognizes the PRC as the sole Chinese nation, but also promises military and political support for Taiwan. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act declares that the U.S. will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means as a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the United States.”
Thus, the United States has not promised to defend the island but left itself the option of doing so. It has also signaled to Beijing by various diplomatic and military channels its inclination to do so. This policy, also known as “dual deterrence,” has come under considerable pressure of late. President Xi Jinping has offered up a number of rather stern, even bellicose messages that he intends to make unification a reality sooner rather than later. Indeed, Xi sees unification today as an indispensable objective in his strategy of “national rejuvenation,” in which China assumes its rightful place on the world stage and begins to shape the rules-based international order in a way that he has described as “just and reasonable,” given China’s rising importance. As Xi said in a recent speech, “China must be, and will be united… We do not forsake the use of force.”
The Chinese strongman refused to speak with President Donald Trump in 2016 until he re-affirmed that America would not alter its “one China” policy, and Chinese officials have raised strenuous objections recently to President Joe Biden’s decision to relax even further than the Trump administration certain strictures on U.S. political and military communications with Taipei—Taiwan’s capital—calling the decision unwarranted interference in China’s internal affairs, and militarily provocative.
Meanwhile, the PRC navy—the most powerful in the world by far next to the U.S. Navy—has stepped up the frequency and intensity of its live fire exercises in the Taiwan Strait. Chinese ships and aircraft regularly harass U.S. naval and air patrols operating in international waters in the South China Sea. Beijing’s diplomats have accelerated their campaign of bullying neighbors like the Philippines and Vietnam into accepting its territorial claims and signing exploitative contracts with Chinese companies.
Of great concern to American policymakers and military strategists has been Beijing’s steadily improving “anti-access/area denial” capabilities, which are designed, as defense expert Michele Flournoy writes in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, “to prevent the United States from projecting military power into East Asia in order to defend its interests or allies. As a result, in the event that conflict starts, the United States can no longer expect to quickly achieve air, space, or maritime superiority; the U.S. military would need to fight to gain advantage and then to keep it, in the face of continued efforts to disrupt and degrade its battle management networks.”
Meanwhile, Beijing has also orchestrated a sophisticated and complex information warfare campaign on Taiwan itself. According to Rush Doshi, director of the Brookings Institution’s China Strategy Project, this initiative is meant “to support China’s favored candidates and sow distrust in Taiwan’s democracy.” Beijing has co-opted a host of media outlets on the island, even gaining control over one of the island’s largest media conglomerates, in order to shape favorable perceptions of what life would be like under its rule.
Xi and his Chinese Communist Party colleagues, most Western experts agree, share a perception that the United States is a declining power, no longer suited for leadership in international affairs generally, let alone in East Asia. This belief itself is a highly destabilizing factor for the U.S.-China relationship, for it tends to fuel Beijing’s sense that America lacks the will to defend its interests and allies in East and Southeast Asia.
And then there is the generally ominous issue of the PRC’s long-range intentions. The vast majority of Western international relations and China scholars now reject Beijing’s depiction of its new assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region as an integral part of its “peaceful rise,” and believe it is pursuing a strategy of regional hegemony in Asia, and perhaps even a direct challenge to U.S. global leadership in the long run.
Among those who seem to buy this interpretation of China’s foreign policy, count President Joe Biden, who remarked on March 25 that “China has… an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the word, and the most powerful country in the world. That is not going to happen on my watch.”
Biden’s inchoate China strategy is by most accounts off to an excellent start, largely because he has taken firm and dramatic steps at home and abroad to shore up America’s faltering prestige and reputation by reaching out to key allies and partners, rejoining a number of international institutions and agreements, and passing the most ambitious domestic reform legislation since the New Deal. Moreover, he has warmly embraced the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Countries—India, Japan, Australia—with a view to formulating a joint strategy to contain China’s naval power and its robust diplomatic effort to lure America’s Asian allies and partners into its orbit.
But the sense that China might be tempted to seize Taiwan sooner rather than later, before Biden mobilizes allies and redirects American military assets from the Middle East to the Pacific, has led to a lively debate in strategy circles about the future of the of strategic ambiguity. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, published a major piece in Foreign Affairs with his colleague David Sacks, arguing that the policy had outlived its usefulness, and that Washington should declare that its forces will indeed come to Taiwan’s aid to repulse a Chinese invasion. Such a clear directive, assert Hass and Sacks, “could strengthen U.S.-China relations in the long term by improving deterrence and reducing the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait.”
Three other leading U.S.-China relations scholars published a critique of the Haass-Sacks essay a few weeks later, also in Foreign Affairs, arguing the reverse: that removing the ambiguity would be viewed by China as an extremely provocative move that might well trigger such an invasion. According to Bonnie S. Glaser of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, such a move might well force Xi’s hand, because “failure to take decisive action [against the U.S. and Taiwan] would open him up to domestic criticism and jeopardize his bid to be China’s leader for life.” She argues that under the current policy, “Xi is unlikely to jeopardize other Chinese interests in order to urgently achieve this goal.” Far better for the new U.S. president to preserve official ambiguity, and to issue private warnings to China’s president about the severe consequences of undertaking such an operation, if and when one appeared to be imminent.
Michael J. Mazarr of the Rand Corporation concurs with Glaser’s criticism of a blanket guarantee of U.S. help: “If China believes that the United States is about to make a security pledge to Taiwan, that prospect could itself become the impetus for China to take rash action.” And such a guarantee, says Mazarr, would seem to demand the stationing of significant U.S. forces on Taiwan as a signal of resolve, a move that would be sure to prompt a Chinese military response. “Rather than forestalling war,” writes Mazarr, the security guarantee “could easily set a chain of events in motion that would make conflict inevitable.”
There are other sound reasons for maintaining the status quo as the Biden administration goes about the business of restoring America’s military deterrent and working out ground rules and protocols with Beijing to manage their increasingly fraught rivalry. Biden needs to think seriously about whether, given the vast shift in the balance of power in the region, it makes strategic sense for America to challenge a Chinese attack on Taiwan with force, given that unification of the island with the mainland is a much, much more vital issue for Beijing and the Chinese people than preserving Taiwan’s autonomy is for the Biden administration or the people of the United States.
The prospect of a clash in the Taiwan Strait for U.S. forces, all experts agree, is not a happy one. Taiwan is 100 miles from mainland China and 5,000 miles from the base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii. Given the PRC’s formidable A2/AD capabilities, American forces would suffer grievous losses simply attempting to sail to the Strait, let alone what they’d suffer as the conflict escalated. It’s been an open secret in Washington for a long time that the China team regularly defeats the U.S. team in the Pentagon’s war games. In March of this year, Air Force Lt. General S. Clinton Hinote told Yahoo News that the U.S. team had lost “a number” of recent war games and that in the most recent game—last September—“it wasn’t just that we were losing, but were losing faster.”
Is preserving Taiwan’s autonomy worth risking thousands of American lives? Or nuclear war? The answer, surely, can no longer be a kneejerk “yes.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Richard Haass’ name.