Future War: Taiwan

June 1, 2006 Topic: Security Regions: Asia Tags: One-China Policy

Future War: Taiwan

Mini Teaser: A plausible scenario for a Sino-American clash in the Taiwan Strait.

by Author(s): Ted Galen Carpenter

Washington, June 10, 2013

IN LAST week's U.S.-Chinese war over Taiwan, the president was propelled towards conflict by strategic miscalculation, rather than a bold defense of a popular but geopolitically dispensable ally, according to a senior administration official. The president had hoped to repel China's rising bellicosity with a show of force, rather than the actual use of force. After Beijing responded by ratcheting up tensions in the Taiwan Strait, both sides feared that a subsequent climb-down would damage their global credibility and leadership, the official said.

In addition, Washington misread Taiwan's own perceptions of its national interests, according to a Western diplomat stationed in Asia. Taiwan's ruling party saw its opportunity to assert itself vis-à -vis Beijing rapidly waning, and believed it had to be claimed. Washington's intelligence deficit regarding Taipei's leadership further undermined its ability to anticipate and therefore control events, and contributed to the spiraling of tensions.

"The national security advisor from the start recommended military force, arguing that China had dangerous expansionist ambitions. He argued that China's rapacious consumption of the world's raw materials was a liability. He said China had become a strategic, economic and cultural rival", said the senior administration official, who declined to be identified. "The secretary of state argued against that. He pointed to the technical advantages Beijing had gained since the European Union relaxed its moratorium on arms sales. The president opted for a third-way approach between a military response and diplomatic maneuvering, hoping to intimidate Beijing by flexing some military muscle in the Taiwan Strait. It ended up being a third way to war."

According to the Western diplomat, Beijing had accurately read the president's reluctance to resort to military action but, like the president, underestimated the potential for war as a result of escalation. And both Washington and Beijing failed to accurately assess tempers in Taipei.

After Taiwan's president last Monday sought an amendment to his country's constitution to change the country's name from the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan, the White House did not see war anywhere in the offing, said the senior official. Beijing's shrill statement in response was expected to dampen Taiwan's enthusiasm for independence, particularly Beijing's characterization of Taiwanese government officials as "separatist traitors." The statement also said, "We urge our Taiwan compatriots to repudiate this irresponsible leadership before it is too late. The People's Republic of China has said repeatedly that it wants to settle the issue of Taiwan's reunification by peaceful means. Some provocations are simply intolerable, however."

After Taiwan appeared undeterred, the United States shared with Taiwan satellite data, showing extensive activity at Chinese military airfields directly across the strait from Taiwan, the official said. In addition, U.S. officials pointed out that China had more than 1,200 missiles targeting the island.

The secretary of state urged the president to issue a statement reiterating Washington's long-standing position against any unilateral changes in the status quo by either Taipei or Beijing and explicitly condemning the proposal to change Taiwan's constitution, according to the official.

At that point, the president was under significant congressional pressure to stand up to Beijing's confrontation, particularly from the House majority leader. The president instead issued a statement mildly critical of the Taiwanese proposal. The official said Washington was blindsided by Taiwan's blunt rejection of the U.S. criticism. "It is up to the people of Taiwan to decide whether to change the name of our country to the Republic of Taiwan. The communist authorities on the mainland have nothing to say about it, and even a friend like the United States has no right to interfere in the affairs of a sister democracy", said Taiwan's foreign ministry in a statement.

IN HINDSIGHT, Taiwan's position should have been anticipated by Washington, said the Western diplomat in Asia, in a telephone interview. Taipei had been increasingly convinced that going on the offensive was its best defense, given Taiwan's deteriorating geopolitical circumstances. Beijing's strategy of isolating Taipei had been successful. By the time Taiwan's government proposed the constitutional change, it was recognized by just 16 countries. Taiwan's leaders may have thought that they had nothing to lose by being bold, since the alternative was inexorable diplomatic extinction, the diplomat said.

Also, the changing military balance may have also encouraged the belief that it was "now or never", the diplomat added. China had been purchasing cutting-edge weapons from Russia for years, and from the European Union since it dropped its moratorium on arms sales to Beijing. Meanwhile, Taiwan had starved its defense budget, choosing instead to spend money on domestic priorities. The balance in 2013 was still uncertain, but time clearly was not on Taiwan's side.

"Officials in Taiwan also believed that brinkmanship would ultimately bring America to its defense", the diplomat said. "Taipei has long thought it could depend on the assurances of the TRA", referring to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Although America's obligations under the TRA are not a clear-cut defense commitment, the law does require the United States to sell Taiwan defensive arms and to regard any PRC use of force as a grave breach of East Asia's peace. The latter provision seems to suggest that the United States would use its own military forces to defend Taiwan.

It was after the House majority leader introduced a resolution expressing support for Taiwan's right to make changes in its constitution and affirming that the United States would "take all necessary actions including the use of force to repel aggression in the Taiwan Strait" that the White House felt compelled to head off additional congressional action in support of Taiwan that could further push the United States towards a war footing, said the senior official. After more than forty cosponsors signed on to the resolution, the president announced that he was redeploying the two aircraft-carrier battle groups of the USS John C. Stennis and the USS Ronald Reagan to "waters near Taiwan." The senior official said that at that point, the president again urged Taipei to put the proposed constitutional change on "indefinite hold."

The president's move did not quiet the hawks, though. On Thursday, the Weekly Standard published an article that was cited on the House floor:

The experience of the 1930s taught us that free nations make a colossal blunder when they attempt to appease totalitarian aggressors. The president should state unequivocally that if China attacks Taiwan, it means war with the United States. Faced with such a clear and determined policy, Communist China will back down, especially since its military forces are no match for America's. If the gang of thugs in Beijing persist in their saber rattling, the United States should respond by threatening to abandon the one-China policy and recognize Taiwan's independence. If Beijing insists on disrupting the peace of East Asia, China's communist rulers need to know that they could lose far more than they anticipate.

Meanwhile, the Taiwan resolution was moving rapidly through the House of Representatives, reinforcing the impression that the calls for war could spiral out of control if the president appeared complacent. During the floor debate, a number of House members--mainly conservative Republicans, but including many liberal Democrats--rose to praise Taiwan's democracy and to denounce what they described as the PRC's belligerent military posture, dismal human rights record and flood of Chinese imports that caused America's chronic bilateral trade deficit. Only a handful of representatives urged caution, warning that precipitous action could derail a crucial U.S. economic and political relationship and suggesting that going eyeball to eyeball with a nuclear-armed nation risked catastrophe.

The congressional tsunami of hostility toward the PRC was rising precipitously. The business leaders that pointed to America's nearly $350 billion-a-year relationship with the PRC were accused by lawmakers of being willing to sacrifice America's honor and values to protect the profits of corporations. "After the business community was shouted down, it became clear to the president just how difficult it was going to be to quell the growing nationalist fervor", said the senior official.

Beijing's next move dramatically heightened tensions in Washington. On Friday, China's naval and ground forces attacked and quickly occupied the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu. Taiwan's president called on the United States to honor the provisions of the TRA. "It is clear that the goal of China's communist regime is to subjugate free and democratic Taiwan. America needs to take decisive action to repel this aggression or its credibility will be destroyed."

WASHINGTON NOW faced in reality the hypothetical scenario that the Eisenhower Administration had agonized over during the Formosa Strait crises in the 1950s, when President Eisenhower considered how he should respond in the event that the PRC ever conquered the offshore islands but did not launch an assault on Taiwan itself. Fortunately, China had never escalated matters to the point where Eisenhower was forced to make a decision. The current administration faced no such luxury, and it was as badly divided as the Eisenhower Administration had been about an appropriate response, said the official. Ultimately, the president split the suggestions down the middle when he announced he was sending another battle group, led by the USS Abraham Lincoln, to join the Stennis and the Reagan, but refrained from taking military action against PRC forces.

Essay Types: Essay