Post #299: War Over Taiwan? Avoiding a US-China Miscalculation

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The Increasing US Commitment to Taiwan

Taiwan has returned as a troubling issue in US-China relations.  It is no longer merely a case of verbal jousting over the island’s autonomy versus Chinese claims of sovereignty.  The new round of US-China tensions over Taiwan actually began in the Trump administration, when the administration authorized new arms sales to Taiwan, an official visit to Taiwan by a senior US official (Alex Azar, secretary for health and human services, the highest-level visit since 1979), and strong statements of support for Taiwan.  Early on in the Biden administration, the Chinese responded with pressure of its own: repeated violations of Taiwan’s air defense zone by PLA aircraft and regular coastal patrolling by PRC coast guard and PLA naval vessels, all justified as reactions to US naval maneuvers near Taiwan and closer political ties.  US media reported internal debate in the administration about whether and how to clarify the “strategic ambiguity” that has long existed in US declaratory policy regarding Taiwan’s security.  Some officials argued for a stronger verbal commitment to Taiwan’s defense, others for directly warning Beijing or increasing military aid to Taiwan.  A US Senate bill, the Strategic Competition Act of 2021, calls for bringing Taiwan within the compass of US regional defense plans. 

Officially, a State Department spokesman said at a news briefing: “We have, of course, taken note with great concern the pattern of ongoing PRC efforts and attempts to intimidate in the region, including in the context of Taiwan. In support of longstanding U.S. policy . . . as reflected in the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States maintains the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan” (Ned Price, Department Press Briefing, April 7, 2021, https://www.state.gov/briefings/department-press-briefing-april-7-2021/.)  Blinken followed up with this statement on April 11, 2021: “All I can tell you is we have a serious commitment to Taiwan being able to defend itself. . . .it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change that status quo by force” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/11/antony-blinken-china-aggression-taiwan.)  The state department announced more frequent official visits to Taiwan, leaving strategic ambiguity less ambiguous. 

Notably, none of the US statements reaffirmed the Nixon-era promise to respect the “one-China” principle (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/05/opinion/biden-taiwan-china.html).

Avoiding a Collision

The central issue regarding Taiwan should be self-determination: Do the people of Taiwan want to remain politically separate from the mainland or become a Chinese province?  Separation has long been the preferred choice, growing stronger by the year as the Taiwan-born population increases and (as polls consistently show) people’s identification as Taiwanese rather than Chinese also increases.  But separation does not have to mean independence; for its own security, Taiwan must preserve the fiction that it is not a “country.”

On the mainland, however, the frame of reference for Taiwan is entirely different. The PRC leadership’s patience to achieve reunification with Taiwan is running low, Xi Jinping’s desire to be the leader who achieves reunification is probably very strong, and China’s capability to achieve reunification by force is greater than ever.  Blockade, cyberwar, and attacks on US planes and ships that might try to defend Taiwan are often mentioned.  Two US naval commanders offered the prediction in early 2021 that China might try to seize Taiwan in the near future—a view, however, that may reflect a desire for more forces and funding rather than a realistic appraisal of Chinese strategy.

The challenge for both Washington and Beijing is how to avoid a collision.  For the US, that should mean reducing arms to Taiwan and reassuring China that Washington remains committed to “one China.”  For China, that means stopping shows of force in the Taiwan Strait and supporting ways, as it has in the past, for Taiwan to participate in international gatherings, such as on the pandemic. For both countries, it means regular military-to-military consultations and maintaining the strategic ambiguity that has served well in preventing war. 

Crisis Management: A Lesson from the Past

A few weeks ago the administration’s chief China adviser, Kurt Campbell, said the US would continue to observe strategic ambiguity, but noted that China was not paying attention to crisis management mechanisms that might prevent a miscalculation in places like the Taiwan Strait (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/06/hotlines-ring-out-chinas-military-crisis-strategy-needs-rethink-says-biden-asia-chief-kurt-campbell).  That is worrisome, and not only because Campbell indicated that the US would continue seeking ways to upgrade Taiwan’s profile in international organizations.  The other contingency is Chinese military pressure on Taiwan and the US response.  The Biden administration has made clear that it would defend Taiwan in a crisis.  And now, Daniel Ellsberg has released a RAND Corporation study of the 1958 crisis over Taiwan in which US decision makers debated use of nuclear weapons against the China mainland if China attacked Taiwan and conventional weapons were believed inadequate to defend the island (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/22/us/politics/nuclear-war-risk-1958-us-china.html).  The military was particularly hawkish in that crisis, talking about a nuclear attack on Chinese airfields first and cities next if necessary. 

Today, of course, China has its own nuclear weapons as well as substantial non-nuclear means, such as cyber warfare and missiles, for dealing with US naval and air forces in the Taiwan area.  While the chances of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan are slim, they are less so if China’s objective is to disrupt Taiwan with cyber attacks and neutralize US naval forces with missiles.

The RAND study focused only on the US side of the crisis.  Back in 1976 I published a study of Chinese motives and action in the 1958 crisis.  I argued that contrary to other interpretations at that time, Mao Zedong was beset with economic problems, leadership challenges, and disagreements with the Soviet Union; he did not want or need an external crisis. But the strategic situation looked threatening to Mao: Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan’s leader, was increasing forces on the offshore islands (Quemoy and Matsu), and the US was deploying a nuclear-capable  surface-to-surface missile on Taiwan.  Probably also influencing Chinese thinking was the US military intervention in Lebanon.  China’s relative military weakness was being exposed, yet Mao rejected Soviet nuclear assistance that would have put Russian bases on Chinese soil.  Mao’s decision to launch an artillery bombardment of the offshore islands was not intended to threaten an invasion of Taiwan but to put pressure on the Americans to rethink their defense relationship with Taiwan while preserving the “one China” principle—the inseparable link between the mainland, Taiwan, and the islands in between. Though the crisis subsided, it showed a serious misreading by both sides of the other’s intentions. 

The lesson for today from both the RAND study and mine is consistent with Kurt Campbell’s concern about crisis management.  Washington and Beijing are clearly not on the same page about Taiwan at a time when China has robust nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities in the Taiwan Strait area.  The need for more, not fewer, points of contact to avoid miscalculations is greater than ever if we are to avoid a catastrophic war neither side wants.*


*Here’s a perfect example of cooperative activity for mutual interest: Two research teams, one Chinese from the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and the other American from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, jointly produced a report in April 2021 on “China-U.S. Cyber-Nuclear C3 Stability” (https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Levite_et_all_C3_Stability.pdf).  The purpose of the project is to “awaken national policymakers to the urgency of maintaining cyber stability and that nuclear states will fully recognize the dangers of cyber attacks and their respective vulnerabilities to such attacks, and thus take steps to reduce nuclear instability accompanying advancing cyber technologies and prevent nuclear war.”

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5 Comments

  1. Mel,

    The concept of sharing strategic outlooks with our competitors motivates me to recall John Holdridge’s experience with his counterpart in developing the Shanghai Communique on the pathway to Nixon’s visit. He writes about it in “Crossing the Divide”. John became close in later years.

    Parallel experience with Paul Nitze who had the “Walk in the Woods” leading to Reagan’s nuclear arms with the USSR. I took Nitze’s select seminar at SAIS in the mid-50s where we talked endlessly about global “real politic”. Paul took pride in his hard-headed approach, yet he died five decades later knowing he played a heavy hand in securing non-nuclear wars during his lifetime.

    My impression is that Richard Holbrook & Anthony Lake played a comparable role in the Balkan War, mid-90s.

    Do we have comparable persons or teams in place to negotiate deals with counterparts in Moscow & Beijing? Do they have counterparts?

    John

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Hi Mel,, really important for Taiwan and Chinese historical development.

    You might consider training your keen eye and mind on the end if democracy in the US and how to prevent it. Treating the US as a “patient” in decline and in danger of ending its run as a democracy. Looking at our nation as if was a foreigh power in danger? By looking at he US with a cold eye and applying your progressive prescriptions seems like a interesting and appropriate exercise. Hope so. Bob

    >

    1. You read my mind, Bob. In Post #300, I will be writing on defending democracy. Unless we are successful, foreign policy has no center, no capacity to influence others.

  3. Dear Mel:
    You are on VERY solid ground with your assessments and conclusions; given your vast expertise in the past as to all things Chinese. The view on “strategic ambiguity” is, as the name implies, ambiguous and subject to change at many levels: “Proceed With Caution!”

  4. Hi Mel,

    Bloomberg sent this note out recently. It would be good to see Bloomberg’s list of “China’s shortcomings.”

    China’s global image has suffered in the last few years, be it because of Covid-19, allegations of abuses in Xinjiang or the squeeze on dissent in Hong Kong . A more aggressive defense of the country’s policies by Beijing’s diplomats — often criticized as “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy — hasn’t helped. This week, there seemed to be a tacit acknowledgement by President Xi Jinping that things need to change.

    During a meeting of the Politburo, composed of China’s 25 most-senior leaders, Xi called on officials to create a “trustworthy, lovable and respectable ” image for the country. Beijing needed “a grip on tone” in its communications with the world, he added, and should be “open and confident, but also modest and humble.”

    It’s as yet unclear how Xi’s exhortations will translate into action. What has been apparent, however, is that under Biden, the U.S. has moved quickly to strengthen alliances that had been strained during the Trump administration. That in turn has highlighted China’s shortcomings , which may now be too pronounced to ignore.

    Lately, I see a wave of patriotic fervor at the local level here akin to Bo Xilai’s group red book-waving song-and-dance gatherings in ChongQing 12 years ago. Could be just 100 year CCP anniversary fervor, but friends in the know say they fear a Cultural Revolution-type revival. I seriously doubt it, but such people know far more than me.

    Best,

    -Joe

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