One group of U.S. analysts think China is feeling strong enough to take Taiwan, while another group thinks Beijing won’t risk it. A look at both arguments show where the U.S. and China’s current options lie.
A few weeks before Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, U.S. President Joe Biden was in Japan and standing next to his Japanese counterpart on May 23 when he was asked whether the U.S. would “get involved militarily with Taiwan” if China invaded Taiwan. Biden quickly and clearly answered “Yes” and then added “That’s the commitment we made.”
The strong wording ruffled some feathers and caused a senior Chinese official to declare that the U.S. is “playing with fire by using the ‘Taiwan card’ to contain China,” adding that the U.S. will “itself get burned” in the process.
Just a few days later, on May 27, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Stanford University China expert Oriana Skylar Mastro in which she states: “I have been involved in dozens of war games and tabletop exercises to see how a conflict would turn out. Simply put, the U.S. is outgunned.” She then listed a few good reasons for her statement.
It did seem a bit rash of Mastro to so blatantly follow up Biden’s strong “yes” wording with a “no we can’t.” At a time when deterrence seems to be the only thing that is keeping China from invading, her possible undermining of that deterrence does seem reckless.
Mastro’s statements have in the past ruffled feathers in Washington’s analyst community. One highly experienced China scholar, Michael D. Swaine of the Quincy Institute, wrote in June 2021 that Mastro’s then-current article in Foreign Affairs, The Taiwan Temptation: Why Beijing Might Resort to Force, had missed some important foundational facts.
Swaine has extensive experience in the China-Taiwan issue, having studied its details over decades of working as a senior China analyst at think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He made the interesting point that Mastro had in her 2021 article failed to take account of the fact that China’s most immediate concern is not to take control of Taiwan despite the huge risks — he mentions that the risk of nuclear war was another Chinese consideration that Mastro did not mention in her 2021 article — but that the most important issue for China was that it needed assurance that Taiwan would not move toward declaring independence, and that the U.S. would not be seen as helping Taiwan in that direction.
Swaine ends his article with: “Mastro is correct in concluding that there is no ‘quick and easy’ fix to the Taiwan issue. No one thinks there is. It can only be managed for the foreseeable future through a credible mix of deterrence and reassurance measures on all sides that go beyond the mere mouthing of a continued fealty to the ‘one China policy’ by Washington, or of a ‘peaceful resolution’ by Beijing. We have yet to see such measures by either side, and Mastro’s analysis unfortunately does not contribute to efforts to achieve a more realistic, balanced approach.”
So, it could be deduced from Swaine’s article that the U.S. could significantly reduce cross-strait tensions by remembering to act in a way that reassures China that it has no reason to fear that Taiwan would move toward independence. After all, this fundamental focus on reassurance has been helping to keep the Taiwan Strait peaceful for decades.
One could almost see a senior U.S. diplomat phoning his Beijing counterpart and saying something like: “Now, China, hang on there. You know we don’t want any trouble with you over Taiwan, so we will make sure Taiwan never, ever declares independence. However, we can see you are building all those shiny carriers and anti-ship ballistic missiles to name just a few. So, please understand that we have to do our part to make sure you guys don’t start to think ‘the crazy move’ will be an easy move. For that reason we are going to have to pad our side of the see-saw with some more weight. I hope you understand that this is just to keep you guys honest and doesn’t mean we want Taiwan to do anything crazy.”
However, in Mastro’s defense, when one takes into account the growing military might of China, coupled with some new versions of old threats by China’s leadership, one might be justified in fearing that China might be getting to the point where it believes the time has come to be reckless. One does get the feeling that somewhere out there in China, all those years of talking about the subject, all those years of demanding a result, all those years of building up to “the” result … could be coming to a head sooner than later.
We can only hope that China can stay patient enough for a few decades longer — that it can continue to demand unification while accepting the reality of Taiwan continuing to rule itself as long as it never moves toward a point of independence. All indications are that China believes it will take Taiwan by force sometime in the future. We can only hope that they can accept if that “sometime” is not “very soon”.
In the meantime, Taiwan’s allies can only do what they can to “make their side of the see-saw heavier” in order to balance the growing threat with a growing counter-threat. One such re-balancing move would be for the U.S. to work closer with regional allies like Japan, India and Australia to form a united front. A united front that would be designed to punish any “crazy move” while at the same time not provoking such a move.
In that context, one would expect a country like Japan to build up the part of its military that would work with the U.S. to counter any Chinese invasion of Taiwan. One would also expect the U.S. to work with its allies to make China more vulnerable to financial reactions like sanctions, if those were ever needed.
In conclusion, it would be foolish to see the Taiwan issue as simply a matter of increasing China’s sovereign territory for emotional reasons. After Biden’s strong words China countered by saying that the U.S. is “playing with fire by using the ‘Taiwan card’ to contain China.” This is a strong reminder that China primarily sees Taiwan as the politically isolated weak link in the first island chain that is keeping China from breaking out into the Pacific.
Some analysts believe such a breakout would be catastrophic for the U.S. If Taiwan falls, all the other dominoes are bound to fall. Taiwan is an existential line in the sand, and if that line is crossed the U.S. might have no choice but to go all the way — even if it escalates to nuclear war.
Image: The Official CTBTO Photostream
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