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In the political-military context, when an international dispute creates problems for decades, it can seem like a chronic condition that will never become terminal.
Thus, when the USA and China face each other on the subject of Taiwan since the 50s.
At present, it is tempting to regard the threatening military exercises undertaken by China off the coast of Taiwan as merely a new chapter in an old epic.
But this time the situation feels different. Until now a US-China war over Taiwan seemed a real possibility – but nothing more. Now more and more experts believe that war is not only possible, but probable, according to an article by Gideon Rachman for ft.com
In his view, James Crabtree, Asia director at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said: “On our current trajectory, some form of US-China military confrontation within the next decade now looks more likely than unlikely.”
But Western dignitaries are far too cautious to say so publicly – but privately many of them share Crabtree’s pessimism. US thinking can be gleaned from a 2021 statement by Admiral Phil Davidson, the former head of US Indo-Pacific Command, who told a congressional hearing that he saw a “clear” risk of Chinese invasion in Taiwan over the “next six years”.
And Beijing’s rhetoric is definitely nationalist and bellicose. Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the US, responded to Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan by tweeting a Top Gun-style video clip of Chinese military exercises — complete with rockets, explosions, sirens and chanting troops. The message was clear and not at all subtle.
Ever since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, Beijing’s foreign policy has become noticeably more aggressive. China has built military bases all over the South China Sea, and for a while Chinese soldiers have been killing Indian soldiers in skirmishes in the Himalayas. In particular, the continuous build-up of the military has meant that China now has more ships than the US.
In his view, unlike his predecessors, who seemed to expect a “reunification” with Taiwan in the uncertain future, Xi described the matter as a historic mission that “cannot be passed from one generation to another.” And the expectations of the Chinese population have been stoked to such an extent that some Chinese nationalists seem disappointed that their military did not shoot down Pelosi’s plane.
But attitudes have also changed in the US. About the only thing on which there seems to be a cross-party consensus in Washington is that China is an increasingly dangerous adversary that must be confronted. Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods have also been maintained by the Biden administration. In both Trump and Biden administrations, they have expanded relations with Taiwan.
President Biden has already said three times that the US will go to war to defend Taiwan if it is invaded by China – a break from the official US policy of “strategic ambiguity”. The insistence of his subordinates that he had misspoken becomes even less convincing with each new occasion.
Related to Biden’s repeated claims that the US would go to war over Taiwan are in stark contrast to his clear statement, before Russia invaded Ukraine, that America would not engage in direct military action. The fact reflects a widespread belief in Washington that, for strategic and ideological reasons, Taiwan’s fate will define the balance of power this century.
In the political context, however, tensions would not have boiled over if changes had not occurred even in Taiwan. The island elected in 2016, and again in 2020, President Tsai Ing-wen, head of the traditionally “pro-independence” Democratic Progressive Party.
Even though Tsai has avoided any formal steps towards independence, it is clear that the younger generation of Taiwanese increasingly see their future as separate from that of mainland China.
The “one country, two systems” formula proclaimed by Beijing regarding Hong Kong was also circulated by it as a model for Taiwan. But Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong makes the territory’s fate more of a chilling warning than a role model.
By now, Taiwanese are aware that Xi’s honeyed talk of a “peaceful reunification” is actually code terms for annexation and incorporation into a dictatorship. They won’t accept that – and they shouldn’t. Which means that if Xi is sincere in his insistence that the Taiwan issue must be resolved satisfactorily for Beijing by the current generation, the use of force is his only option.
And in the case of the use of force, on the part of Beijing, it would be a tragedy not only for Taiwan, but even for mainland China. It would lead to massive human losses on both sides, the permanent alienation of the Taiwanese from the Chinese on the mainland, and a rupture in the global economy that would jeopardize China’s decades of economic growth. Above all, it would risk a direct war with the US and a third world war.
But just because invading Taiwan would be reckless and immoral doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. As Russia’s attack on Ukraine demonstrates, the combination of nationalism, authoritarianism, and resentment of American power can have powerful and dangerous effects.
As they contemplate a conflict over Taiwan, Beijing and Washington feel compelled to take a hard line in words and deeds. Each camp hopes the other is bluffing. Let’s hope both are right.