Taiwan trap: Will China and the US still go to war over the island?

Beijing reacted with war exercises to Taiwan’s new pro-independence president. China is adamant that Taiwan must be reunified, Washington is adamant that it is independent. Is this the next war?

Taiwan's armed forces conduct a two-day routine drill to demonstrate combat readiness on 11 January 2023.
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Taiwan's armed forces conduct a two-day routine drill to demonstrate combat readiness on 11 January 2023.

Taiwan trap: Will China and the US still go to war over the island?

If there is one thing the world does not need right now, it is another flashpoint involving nuclear weapons, seething nationalism, wounded pride, and hot tempers.

This is already a dangerous and uncertain time, wracked by a period of political unrest and military conflict that is straining an international world order that has, since 1945, managed to keep most wars to a localised minimum.

Suddenly, in the space of two years, Europe’s east has had a major ground war to contend with in Ukraine, while the Middle East has convulsed at the devastation in Gaza, compounded with the first direct conflict between Israel and Iran.

The way the world deals with major military conflict now has more shortcomings than strengths, revealing how the post-war international system has prematurely aged. The impulse to solve problems has been replaced by the impulse to fight.

Yet the above may pale in comparison to the almighty rupture that would be caused by an increasingly militaristic China (official name: the People’s Republic of China) if it invades and seeks to occupy Taiwan (official name: the Republic of China).

China has made no secret of its views: it sees Taiwan not as an independent, democratic, sovereign state (as it and the West does), but as a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland.

There have long been fears that the world’s two most powerful militaries—the United States and China—could clash over this island of the coast of Fujian province. It would clearly be a major threat to regional and global stability.

Ballots and battleships

Taiwan’s independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), led by Lai Ching-te, gained significant support at the ballot box in January. This has set the stage for a deeper confrontation between the governments in Taipei and Beijing.

China has explicitly expressed its concerns over the DPP’s presidential victory, and Lai Ching-te is having to navigate heightened tensions, as well as a Taiwanese parliament that is dominated by pro-China parties.

In his inauguration speech, Lai said Taiwan was a de facto sovereign nation and called on China “to cease their political and military intimidation, share the global responsibility of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait as well as the greater region, and ensure the world is free from the fear of war”.

Sam Yeh / AFP
While President Lai Ching-te considers Taiwan to be independent of China, he was sought not to deliberately provoke Beijing

By way of response, Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a three-day military exercise named Operation Joint Sword, in which the army and coast guard simulated an amphibious attack on—and siege of—Taiwan, cutting off all means of communication with the island.

Commander Shi Yi, of the PLA’s Eastern Theatre Command, said the exercise was to test its ability to “control the battlefield, launch joint strikes, and control vital areas”. Yet while this may be an escalatory atmosphere, it is not merely a reaction to the DPP securing a third term. For a better understanding, it helps to consider the context.

Colonialism then nationalism

Taiwan’s 20th century was marked by two distinct cycles of political development. The first half-century was marked by Japanese colonial rule, which lasted from 1895-1945, while the latter half-century saw the dominance of nationalists who emigrated from mainland China.

Initially, both the colonial and nationalist systems operated independently, with little integration into local society. Both regimes succeeded in fostering loyalty, compliance, control of society, mobilisation, and political organisation.

This social and political modernisation provided a crucial source of legitimacy for the regimes that governed Taiwan for a century. Under the rule of the nationalists, Taiwan’s national political system was solidified.

China makes no secret of its views: it sees Taiwan not as an independent, democratic, sovereign state, but as a breakaway province to be reunited

The nationalists were represented by the Kuomintang Party, which had governed mainland China before being overthrown by the Chinese Communist Party following civil war in 1949, reestablished itself in Taiwan.

The Taiwanese people gradually integrated, with citizenship redefined according to the country's de facto constitution. The US helped the Kuomintang by pressing Beijing, which was busy dealing with the aftermath of civil war and an economic crisis. This helped ensure Taiwan's survival.

For much of the island's history, even after the Japanese left, support for sovereignty and independence was unenthusiastic, because the idea of a distinct political entity with a unique identity was still under-developed. It was only after the Kuomintang firmly entrenched itself within Taiwan's power structure that sentiment changed.

The US and China

Relations between China and the US over Taiwan have reflected wider world ideological currents, especially with America's traditional opposition to communism.

The rise of the People's Republic of China, born from the victory of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War, led to the US-backed nationalists being driven to Taiwan, at which point the PLA laid siege to the island.

In 1953, however, US President Dwight Eisenhower got it lifted, and in 1955, he signed a mutual defence treaty with the nationalists under a government led by Chiang Kai-shek. The US even threatened a nuclear strike on China if it continued its blockade.

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US President Dwight Eisenhower addresses the nation regarding US intervention in Taiwan in 1958

As a fellow Communist state, it made sense for Beijing to align itself with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and China relied heavily on Soviet support to modernise its economy and industry. Hundreds of Soviet experts were sent to help.

As China's ruling Communist Party stabilised and the Cold War's East-West global division deepened, the strategic relationship between Moscow and Beijing posed a unique challenge for Washington, adding strategic weight to the US-Taiwan alliance.

Geopolitical reality and US industrial support helped turn Taiwan into the world's most important player in the semiconductor industry, a role it reserves today.

Finding new friends

The initial unity between Soviet and Chinese communists was short-lived. Tensions escalated over their differing interpretations of Marxism, their approach to the West (the Soviets wanted peaceful relations, China was more belligerent), the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Moscow's friendly relations with India, with whom China had a border dispute.

Finally, in a Sino-Soviet border dispute in March 1969, ideological and national differences led to a clash on Zhenbao/Damansky Island, which brought the pair to the brink of war. Dozens were killed, possibly hundreds. Accounts differed hugely.

US policymakers spotted an opportunity to dismantle the alliance and sent signals to Beijing, which reciprocated. This began an era of rapprochement between China and America. In 1971, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a secret visit to China.

Soon after, the United Nations recognised the People's Republic of China, giving Beijing the permanent seat on the Security Council that had been occupied by the Republic of China (Taiwan) under Chiang Kai-shek since 1945.

A series of further secret visits to Beijing by Kissinger culminated in an historic meeting between US President Richard Nixon and Chinese President Mao Zedong, who signed the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972, officially normalising US-China relations.

Strategically, this let China distance itself from the Soviet Union (a Chinese priority), while it also served to weaken Moscow (a US priority). By setting aside their ideological differences, they fostered an improvement in relations.

Shifting dynamics

In 2000, US President Bill Clinton signed the US-China Relations Act, granting Beijing normal trade relations and paving the way for China to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Bilateral trade surged from $5bn in 1980 to $231bn in 2004.

US-China economic and political relations flourished, based on a solid trade partnership. By 2022, their trade exchange was $758bn, the largest in the world, with the balance favouring China.

Washington maintained an openness towards Beijing, hoping to keep China within its orbit, while confining China's economy to low-tech industries using cheap labour and high production volumes, exporting affordable goods to global markets experiencing declining consumer purchasing power.

This way, Chinese products would serve as a vital boost for Western price-conscious consumers. It was assumed that China's growing middle class would replicate the Western model, embrace democratic values, and embrace free market economics.

But the assumption proved misguided. China's aspirations were far grander. It wanted to transform its economy from low-tech manufacturing to high-tech dominance, producing high-value products. Its priorities have most recently been expressed under current President Xi Jinping.

An employee works on a production line at a car wheel rim factory in Qingzhou, in eastern China's Shandong province on June 17, 2024.

Today, China's grievance is against the existing international system, which it sees as having an in-built and unfair bias towards the West. In response, Beijing is urging the Global South to unite, reform the system, and rebalance the world's power dynamics.

Just a matter of time

This growing assertiveness has raised fears of a potential sudden flashpoint over Taiwan between China and the US. The area is now on high alert and the overall level of tension has left some comparing it to the lead-up to World War I and World War II.

During testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2021, Adm. Philip Davidson, former commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, expressed concern about China's accelerated timeline for annexing Taiwan through an amphibious invasion. He felt this would occur within 6-10 years, what is now known as the 'Davidson Window'.

The US has encouraged Taiwan to take more assertive measures against China, such as by establishing buffer zones, enhancing communications infrastructure, accelerating foreign direct investment, and building more resilient economic ties.

In 2021, the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command felt China's timeline for annexing Taiwan through an amphibious invasion was 6-10 years

A report by Foreign Policy magazine highlighting the military risks facing Taiwan concluded that Washington's policy was symbolic, failed to provide substantial and necessary support, and was based on outdated military and political understanding.

While the US would once have been able repel a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the military balance has now shifted dramatically. These days, it is Chinese military power, not US diplomacy, that deters Taiwanese adventurism, something Washington has been slow to grasp, according to the report's authors.

For them, Taiwan's military needs to adopt an asymmetric defensive posture, actively train its reserve ground units, seriously develop civil defence preparations, and increase its defence spending to more than 2.6% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Simulating the battle

The US still boasts an unmatched military capability, but the gap between it and China has shrunk over the past decade, as Beijing's has modernised its armed forces and incorporated advanced technology, such as radar-evading stealth materials.

Pentagon policy has long been to deter a Chinse attack on Taiwan (hence its policy of deliberate ambiguity regarding its defence of the island), but the situation has changed if the PLA feels it can now go toe-to-toe with the Americans in China's backyard.

The likelihood is that China's military plans are to launch a swift and overwhelming attack to seize control of Taiwan before the US military can deploy sufficient assets to influence proceedings.

Sam Yeh / AFP
Taiwan President Lai Ching-te (2nd L) inspects an honour guard at Taiwan's military academy during its 100th anniversary ceremony in Kaohsiung on 16 June 2024.

Although war is the ultimate test of an army's performance, the US Department of Defence has developed a tool to predict war outcomes (the War Games Index, also known as course of action analysis).

This is a systematic process that simulates the operation's progression, considering allies' and enemies' capabilities, plans, and potential actions. According to reports, the Pentagon's war games simulator ran a Taiwan conflict 18 times. China won every time.

Attack and response

Despite having less military capabilities, a rekindled alliance between China and Russia possesses enough power together to challenge the US, the West, and the international alliances that have dominated the world since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

A fear of losing status might push the US to take risks, such as by encouraging Taiwan to take firmer actions towards independence from China, potentially provoking China into military action without fully calculating the costs and consequences.

For China, old wounds may open. It still remembers with deep anguish the periods of Japanese and British colonialism in what the Chinese call "the century of humiliation".

Reuters/Ann Wang
Cadets from various military schools participate in the 100th anniversary celebrations of Taiwan's Military Academy on 16 June 2024.

Today, its power is growing, both militarily and economically. Most analysts feel that this is China's century. It may therefore increasingly feel entitled to higher status and more privileges within the global system.

For Beijing, no nation—regardless of position or power—should obstruct its ambitions or undermine its dignity, national security, or territorial integrity. It has always seen Taiwan as part of its territory, so its view is that no nation should obstruct its reunification.

While very few want a military clash between China and the US, fears of escalating the conflict dramatically and suddenly remain well grounded.

Still, China may soon feel that the time is right. One wonders what its own war games simulator has shown…

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