To the surprise of some, Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on troops to "put all (their) minds and energy on preparing for war" in a visit to a military base in the southern province of Guangdong on Tuesday, according to state news agency Xinhua.
This came shortly after Beijing increased military drills around Taiwan. Almost 40 Chinese warplanes crossed the median line between the mainland and Taiwan on 18-19 September, one of several sorties the island's President Tsai Ing-wen called a "threat of force."
Thus there was no doubt what President Xi Jinping was referring to, and some analysts say China could move against Taiwan should the U.S. presidential election result in political chaos, Reuters reported on 16 Oct.
Since early September, China has been carrying out the most provocative and sustained show of force in the Taiwan Strait in nearly a quarter-century. Chinese military patrols, some involving more than 30 combat aircraft and a half-dozen naval ships, have roamed the strait roughly every other day. Many of them have breached the median line between Taiwan and China, a boundary that—until last year—both sides had respected for decades.
With cross-strait tensions rising, a growing number of American policymakers and pundits, mostly on the political right and center, are calling on the United States to guarantee Taiwan’s security—a firm commitment that the United States has avoided making for more than four decades. These calls build on a series of bipartisan laws passed over the past two years that strengthen America’s moral and diplomatic support for Taiwan in the face of Chinese pressure.
When the United States severed relations with Taiwan (more accurately, the Republic of China) in 1979 and discarded its mutual defense treaty with the island, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which made clear that the United States maintained special commitments to Taiwan. The TRA asserted that the United States would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” It also stated that the United States would both maintain the capacity to come to Taiwan’s defense and make available to the island the arms necessary for its security. Importantly, however, the TRA did not declare that the United States would in fact come to Taiwan’s defense.
American ambiguity worked to deter China from attacking Taiwan, as Beijing could never be sure what the U.S. response would be. China wanted above all to maintain a peaceful external environment so that it could focus on its economic development. Moreover, even if the United States chose not to engage directly, it had provided Taiwan’s military with enough sophisticated equipment that China’s military would be ill equipped to defeat it. A miscalculation would have imperiled China’s economic development and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.
Ambiguity had an equally important but often underappreciated effect on Taiwan, which could not be assured of U.S. assistance if it provoked a Chinese assault by declaring independence. When Taiwan tested the limits of what the United States would accept—as it did in the early 2000s, under the administration of Chen Shui-bian—the United States made clear that Taiwan did not enjoy a blank check and could not act with impunity. Ambiguity kept this powder keg from exploding.
Today however the U.S.-Chinese relationship is in free fall. Economic relations are on the rocks due to the Trump administration’s trade war, and U.S. technology policy aims to put Chinese firms such as Huawei out of business. It is easy to see how any number of flashpoints could trigger a war in the coming years. Events on the Korean Peninsula could draw in the United States and China, and both countries’ military maneuvers have raised tensions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Washington is also challenging long-established understandings about Taiwan’s status by edging closer to recognizing the island’s independence from China and openly acknowledging the United States’ military commitment to defend Taiwan. The United States has also reacted strongly to Beijing’s repression of China’s Uighur Muslim minority and to its imposition of a harsh new security law on Hong Kong. In both cases, a bipartisan array of U.S. officials have condemned China, and both Congress and the Trump administration have imposed retaliatory sanctions.
Despite such pushback, however, China is unlikely to abandon its goal of becoming a regional hegemon in East Asia. Beijing will also continue pressing the United States to accord it respect as a great-power equal. Avoiding war by accommodating China’s desires would require the United States to retract its security guarantee to Taiwan and recognize Beijing’s claims on the island. Washington would also need to accept the reality that its liberal values are not universal and thus stop interfering in China’s internal affairs by condemning Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and issuing thinly veiled calls for regime change.
There is little chance that the United States will take those steps. Doing so would mean acknowledging the end of U.S. primacy. This makes the prospect of a hot war ever more likely. Unlike during the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union generally accepted each other’s European spheres of influence, today, Washington and Beijing have starkly different views of who should enjoy preeminence in the East China and South China Seas and Taiwan.
U.S. public opinion is also unlikely to act as a check on this potential march to war. Historically, the country’s foreign policy establishment has not been particularly responsive to public opinion, and many American voters know little about U.S. overseas military commitments and their implications. In the event of a Chinese attack, especially on Taiwan, the “rally around the flag” effect and the U.S. government’s ability to manipulate public opinion would likely neuter public opposition to war. U.S. leaders would condemn Beijing as a ruthless, aggressive, and expansionist communist dictatorship aiming to suppress the freedom-loving people of a democratic territory. The U.S. public would be told that war was necessary to uphold the United States’ universal values. Of course, as was the case with World War I, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq war, public disillusionment would set in if the war went badly. By then, however, it would be too late.
Over the past few years, multiple observers—including leading China analysts in the United States, such as Robert Kagan and Evan Osnos—have suggested that the United States and China might be, like the United Kingdom and Germany in 1914, “sleepwalking” into war. Although the march toward conflict continues, everyone’s eyes are now wide open. The trouble is that although supporters of increased confrontation are making their case loudly and clearly, opposition to such policies has been surprisingly muted within the foreign policy establishment. One reason is that many who typically advocate policies of strategic self-discipline and restraint in U.S. foreign policy have, in recent years, become far more hawkish when it comes to China. Among scholars and analysts who generally agree that the United States should disengage from the Middle East (and, some say, even from Europe), few support similar strategic adjustments in East Asia. Instead, some in this camp—notably the realist scholar John Mearsheimer—now claim that the United States must oppose China’s drive for regional hegemony. But this argument is based on the geopolitical nightmare that obsessed the British strategic thinker Halford Mackinder at the beginning of the twentieth century: if a single power dominated the Eurasian heartland, it could attain global hegemony. Mackinder’s argument has many weaknesses. It is the product of an era that equated military power with population size and coal and steel production. The Eurasian threat was overhyped in Mackinder’s day, and it still is. Chinese regional hegemony is not something worth going to war over.
Whether the United States can, or will, peacefully cede its dominance in East Asia and acknowledge China’s standing as its great-power equal is an open question. If Washington does not do so, however, it is on the fast track to war—one that might make the military disasters of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq pale in comparison.
While China has continued its aggressive actions in Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese waters and air spaces, it has also done so with increasing frequency and intensity in Philippine, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Indonesian waters in the past few years. The growing presence of Chinese H-6K bombers and J-11 fighters on the Paracel Islands alone underscores how permanent the militarization of the South China Sea has become. While possibly deterring further Chinese assertiveness, the greater presence of U.S. and non-ASEAN member states’ warships increases the potential for conflict.