How to prevent a war over Taiwan

Much has changed since the 1970s, when Nixon and Mao devised the "one China" formula. If combined with other measures to strengthen deterrence against any sudden act of aggression, this 50-year-old policy can still help keep the peace

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Mao and Nixon, Photo: Screenshot/Youtube
Mao and Nixon, Photo: Screenshot/Youtube
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

Could China try to invade Taiwan by 2027? That's what the outgoing head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Philip Davidson, thought in 2021, and recently he made this assessment again. But whether the United States and China are facing a war over this island is another question entirely. Although the danger is real, such a scenario is not inevitable.

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province, a relic of the Chinese Civil War of the 1940s. Although US-China relations normalized in the 1970s, Taiwan remained a stumbling block. And then a diplomatic formula was found to cover up the differences: the Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed that there was only "one China". America's refusal to recognize any de jure declaration of Taiwan's independence was meant to ensure that the island's relations with the mainland would be resolved through negotiation rather than force. China, however, has never ruled out the use of force.

This US policy, pursued for many years, has been called "strategic duality", although a more accurate name would be "dual deterrence". The US wanted to dissuade China from using force and prevent Taiwan from provoking Beijing by formally declaring independence. To do this, Taiwan had to supply weapons for self-defense, but without giving official security guarantees, as they could force Taipei to declare independence.

When I visited Beijing in 1995, as a Clinton administration official, I was asked whether the US would really risk going to war to defend Taiwan. I replied that it was possible, although no one could be sure of it. I remembered that in 1950 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson declared that Korea was outside our defense perimeter. However, less than a year later, the Chinese and Americans were already killing each other on the Korean Peninsula. The lesson of history is that China should not take such a risk on itself.

A year later, after leaving the government, I was invited to visit Taiwan as part of a bipartisan group of former officials. We met with President Chen Shuibian, whose "unofficial" visit to the US earlier sparked a crisis in which China launched missiles into the sea and America sent aircraft carriers to the shores of Taiwan. We warned Chen that if he declared independence, he would not be able to count on US support. It was the policy of "strategic duality".

Despite differences in interpretation, the "one China" formula and the American doctrine of "strategic duality" have ensured peace for half a century. However, now some analysts are calling for strategic clarity in Taiwan's defense. They point out that China is much stronger than it was in 1971 or 1995 and is now much more strongly opposed to moves such as then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in 2022. Potential instability is heightened as Taiwan's second consecutive presidency is held by representative of the Democratic Progressive Party, which officially advocates for the country's independence. At the same time, public opinion polls show that most Taiwanese do not consider themselves Chinese. Could the old "dual deterrence" strategy still work in such a situation?

American President Joe Biden, for his part, has already made four statements from which it can be concluded that he is ready to defend Taiwan if China uses force. But the White House "clarified" every time that American policy has not changed. At the same time, the administration is strengthening military deterrence, trying to prevent China from attacking, but without questioning the "one China" policy, so as not to provoke Beijing into riskier actions. The goal is to maintain the status quo indefinitely.

Will this approach work? According to Henry Kissinger, who helped normalize relations in the 1970s, Mao Zedong told Richard Nixon that China could wait a hundred years for Taiwan to return. However, China's current leader, Xi Jinping, appears to be far less patient. He is focused on maintaining control over the Chinese Communist Party and party control over China. Failure to invade Taiwan could threaten both, but if Taiwan declares independence, Xi may also feel threatened within China, increasing his willingness to take more risks.

Statements by officials could affect this delicate balance. But in diplomacy, actions speak louder than words. There are several steps the United States can take to strengthen its deterrence policy. An island of 24 million people will never be able to achieve a military victory over a country of over a billion people, so Taiwan would have to be able to mount a resistance strong enough to change Xi's calculations. Siu would have to be made aware that a quick and painless capture of the island was absolutely impossible. For this, Taiwan needs not only advanced aircraft and submarines, but also coast guard missile systems that, in order to survive the first Chinese attack, can hide in caves. Taiwan must become a "prickly pig" that no power can quickly swallow.

Since the island of Taiwan is about 160 km from the coast of China, it has the advantage of a huge "water moat" that makes invasion difficult. Since the island is surrounded by sea, China, on the other hand, could organize a naval blockade to force the Taiwanese into submission. Accordingly, Taiwan should increase its food and fuel supplies, and the US and its allies should make it clear that they will not respect the Chinese blockade. This means that an American military system that can reach Taiwan within a week should be positioned in Japan, Australia and the Philippines. Such a move would reduce ambiguity in America's deterrence policy.

At the same time, the US should not abandon the basic elements of dual deterrence. To prevent war, it is necessary to show China that the US and its allies have the potential to defend Taiwan, and the authorities on the island should be reminded that declaring de jure independence is a provocative and unacceptable step. Much has changed since Nixon and Mao devised the "one China" formula. It, however, combined with the above measures, can still help to avoid a war over Taiwan.

The author is a professor emeritus at Harvard University

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024. (translation: NR)

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