Would America go to war over Taiwan? That question has seemed fairly abstract for decades. Now it is increasingly urgent.
The Chinese air force sent around 150 jets into Taiwan’s air-defence identification zone in the space of just four days this month — a record number that caused the Taiwanese air force to scramble repeatedly. Over the same period, the US and five other nations, including Japan and the UK, conducted one of the biggest naval exercises in the western Pacific in decades.
This flexing of military muscle was accompanied by confrontational rhetoric on both sides. Over the weekend, President Xi Jinping pledged in a speech that the “historical task of the complete reunification of the motherland . . . will definitely be fulfilled”. The Chinese leader stressed that his preference is to take over Taiwan by peaceful means. But, since voluntary surrender by Taiwan is close to inconceivable, that leaves military force.
The CIA has also just announced its formation of a new China Mission Center, describing China as “the most important geopolitical threat we face in the 21st century”. Its most urgent issue will be assessing Beijing’s intentions over Taiwan. Chiu Kuo-cheng, the island’s defence minister, warned last week that China would be able to invade by 2025 and described the current situation as the most dangerous in 40 years.
The public mood in both China and the US, which will influence the choices that the two countries’ leaders make, seems increasingly bellicose. The nationalist sentiment in China and its increasing focus on America is reflected in the current blockbuster film, The Battle at Lake Changjin — the story of a Chinese defeat of America in the Korean war.
In the US, 67 per cent of people polled now have negative views of China, up from 46 per cent in 2018. Another poll, taken in August, showed that for the first time more than half of Americans (52 per cent) favour using US troops to defend Taiwan if China invades, a striking result, given the non-negligible risk this would lead to world war three.
The Biden team believe that China is determined to displace the US as the world’s pre-eminent economic and military power, and they are determined to push back. They understand that much of the struggle will be about trade and technology. But they also know that a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan would signal the end of US dominance of the Indo-Pacific.
Would the US go to war to prevent that happening? The short answer is that no one really knows. Not the military planners in Washington and Beijing, whose job it is to draw up elaborate plans for conflict over Taiwan. Nor, possibly, even America’s commander-in-chief, Joe Biden. So much would depend on the nature of the attack — and the domestic and international political situation at the time.
As the Cuba missile crisis of 1962 and the 1914 July crisis in Europe both demonstrated, world-shaking decisions about war and peace, are often made in a surprisingly haphazard fashion under the pressure of fast-changing events.
Maintaining a state of uncertainty is, in fact, a deliberate US policy — known as “strategic ambiguity”. The idea is to deter China from attacking Taiwan by suggesting that the US would defend the island, without issuing an explicit security guarantee that might, in itself, trigger a military showdown. Strategic ambiguity has helped America maintain the status quo over Taiwan for two generations.
But there is concern in Washington that Beijing’s calculations are shifting. Senior US officials believe the Chinese leadership has convinced itself that the US is in terminal decline — with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan taken as the latest evidence.
Last week, Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, warned that it would be a “grave mistake” for countries to draw broader lessons about US resolve from Afghanistan. Sullivan’s comments reflect a US concern that an increasingly confident China could dismiss the possibility that America will go to war over Taiwan — or has decided that it would swiftly win a limited conflict. Leaked reports of US war-games suggesting that China would prevail in a fight over Taiwan will certainly have been noted in Beijing.
To make it harder to rally US domestic support for intervention, China might choose to use “grey zone” methods that stop short of a full-scale invasion across the 100 miles of the Taiwan Strait. These could include a naval blockade, or the deployment of special forces charged with crippling Taiwanese infrastructure or capturing the country’s leadership.
China, in other words, is deploying its own form of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan — constantly reiterating its willingness to go to war, while leaving Washington and Taipei guessing over how and when that might happen. The fact that China has so far rejected America’s overtures to set up a military hotline that could be used to de-escalate conflicts, suggests the Xi government is content to keep the US guessing.
Both China and the US increasingly feel as if they are engaged in a potentially deadly poker game over Taiwan, as they attempt to bluff each other into backing down. Strategic ambiguity has kept the peace for decades. But a dangerous moment of clarity may be approaching.
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