Taiwan, a Spark Plug for War

Taiwan has been an ally and friend of the U.S. for more than five decades. But with the emergence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the world stage, the so-called Republic of China (ROC) has become a possible flashpoint for war.

If America and the PRC come to blows, it likely will be over the status of the small island state. In a sense, Taiwan is the last unfinished business of more than a century of foreign intervention and civil war in China.

Beijing long was the center of East Asian civilization and culture. Other countries paid tribute to the great Chinese empire.

But internal decay and external enemies combined to break China’s power, much as they did to undermine Rome. Although China did not fragment in the same way, it found itself increasingly vulnerable to foreign incursions.

Great Britain and Portugal grabbed Hong Kong and Macau, respectively. Several Western powers and Japan created special “concessions,” most famously in Shanghai. The rising power of Japan defeated the fading empire of China, annexing the island of Taiwan in 1895. As the 20th century dawned, the U.S. joined other nations in suppressing the so-called Boxer Rebellion, which targeted Western missionaries and diplomats.

In 1911 a nationalist revolution established a fragile republic. Real power belonged to a variety of “warlords” who held sway in their own regions. Chiang Kai-shek eventually established a tenuous national unity, which was destroyed by communist revolution and Japanese invasion. Japan’s defeat in 1945 led to full-scale civil war and Chiang’s ouster. In 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the creation of the PRC as Chiang fled across the Taiwan Strait to Taipei.

Washington fought a bloody but unofficial war with China in Korea, and for two decades would not even talk with Beijing. The U.S. Navy created a barrier behind which Chiang could shelter as he unsuccessfully plotted a return to the mainland.

However, Cold War competition with the Soviet Union prompted Richard Nixon to fly to Beijing, playing the “China Card”; Jimmy Carter switched formal diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC. The U.S. maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan through an “institute” in Taipei (Taiwan has an “office” in Washington). Over the last quarter century the three nations have conducted a complicated dance: the PRC claims sovereignty over Taiwan while accepting Taiwanese autonomy; Washington recognizes that there is only one China while providing military and political support to Taipei; the ROC asserts a separate identity while avoiding a formal declaration of independence.

Alas, the choreography keeps getting more complicated. Beijing has become more impatient, demanding that Taiwan recognize its authority. But with the one-time banned Democratic Progressive Party in power, the ROC is emphasizing its separate identity, seeking independence in everything but name.

Washington is stuck in the middle. It simultaneously affirms Chinese authority over the island while implicitly guaranteeing Taipei’s autonomy. It doesn’t take a genius to see how increasing Taiwanese and Chinese assertiveness could lead to conflict – and ultimately war between the U.S. and PRC.

One nightmare scenario: Taipei declares independence, relying on American military support in an emergency. China responds with force, convinced that Washington won’t risk war over Taiwan. The U.S. intervenes, believing its international credibility to be at stake. Potential outcomes range from awful to catastrophic.

So far the three parties have avoided disaster. But a political crisis in Taipei may be pushing Taiwan, and perhaps the U.S., closer to crisis.

The victor in two close elections, President Chen Shui-bian has sagged in public opinion polls, and his wife is charged with corruption. Maneuvering has started for the next presidential contest, and his party’s strongest suit is nationalism. Although Chen originally muted his party’s traditional call for independence, he appears to be stoking nationalist fires to bolster his party against the KMT, Chiang’s old party, which long ruled the island.

For instance, new textbooks are hitting classrooms this month. They detail “Taiwanese” history and call Japan’s half century of rule an “administrative period” instead of an “occupation.” The books downplay the role of the 1911 revolution and its leader, Sun Yat Sen.

Such changes might seem esoteric, but they have raised the political temperature both in Taipei and Beijing. Different words have different implications for Taiwan’s international status – renegade province or independent country. Indeed, the textbook issue is merely part of a larger whole. Abigail Lavin of The Weekly Standard reports that “The DPP has undertaken an aggressive campaign to emphasize Taiwan’s national identity as distinct from the People’s Republic of China in public museums, parks, and schools.”

The Taiwanese government is extending its history rewrite to the National Palace Museum, which features items taken by Chiang’s government from the Forbidden City, or palace complex, in Beijing. Moreover, Chen’s administration plans on dismantling many of the Chiang monuments that populate the island, including the centrally located mausoleum and museum in Taipei. Explained President Chen:

"The government will deal with products of feudalism which don’t fit into the democratic era at all, such as the [mausoleum] and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, which symbolizes the party state, step by step with a view on insisting on democracy and human rights."

Moreover, the government plans to rename Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, and state enterprises will replace references to China with Taiwan.

So far Chen is avoiding the dynamite issues: adopting a new constitution, renaming the nation the Republic of Taiwan, and formally declaring independence. But he has made his preference clear: “Taiwan wants independence, Taiwan wants to change its name, Taiwan wants a new constitution, Taiwan wants development.” And as the upcoming election campaign heats up, he will feel greater pressure to do whatever is necessary to help his party win. The desire for victory will be even greater because of the island’s bitter political division and his fear of future prosecution for corruption.

Ultimately, the resolution of the struggle between China and Taiwan should be resolved by them, not the U.S. There’s much reason for America to be sympathetic to Taipei, a democratic and capitalist friend that has created a national model for China to follow. However, there may be no more important bilateral relationship this century than that between Washington and the PRC.

Confrontation between the two would have unpredictable ramifications for years and decades in the future. War would be catastrophic. Although Beijing remains far behind the U.S. militarily, it is a nuclear power. Conflict with China would be quite different than with Grenada, Panama, Serbia, or Iraq. In the worst case, America could end up sacrificing Los Angeles to protect Taipei, a bad bargain by any measure for the U.S.

Even the Bush administration is aware of the risks, and has been pressing the Chen administration to avoid provoking Beijing. But Taiwan might find the implicit threat to stand aside in a crisis sparked by Taipei no more credible than the PRC finds Washington’s threat to intervene in a crisis initiated by Beijing.

After all, Washington has put its reputation on the line. In 2001 President George W. Bush essentially promised that America would defend Taiwan if necessary. The U.S. government has routinely provided implicit security guarantees to Taipei and warned the PRC away from aggressive action. To cite juridical niceties as an excuse for inaction in the event of Chinese threats or attacks on Taiwan would wreck American credibility. President Chen knows this and is counting on it as he ratchets up cross-strait pressures.

The U.S. needs to extricate itself from what may be the most explosive situation in East Asia, even more dangerous than the Korean peninsula. The time to do so is before a crisis breaks.

Washington must expressly step back from any military commitment to Taipei. America should maintain a strong relationship with Taiwan, supporting its independent identity in international forums. The U.S. also should sell Taiwan whatever weapons it desires to purchase for its own defense. But Washington must make clear that it does not plan to inaugurate war to keep Taipei independent.

Even so, American officials should make clear to China the high price that it would pay if it attempted to coerce Taiwan. Beijing is deeply embedded in the international economic system; China’s investment and trade ties would inevitably suffer.

Equally important, the PRC’s desire to play an increasing regional and global leadership role would take a huge hit. Fear would supplant respect, and its neighbors, most especially Japan, would emphasize deterrence of rather than cooperation with China. Beijing must understand that it is likely to be more successful over the long term by accepting a separate Taiwan than by attempting to force a reunion.

Time may be short. Washington must have an honest talk with Taipei. Taiwan’s future is its own, to be decided by the Taiwanese people. But they should not count on America to risk all in their defense. The U.S. must clearly state that it does not intend to back Taiwan’s independence aspirations with the American military.

For too long Washington has acted as if intervention and war were essentially costless. Sept. 11 and the Iraq conflict have exploded the myth that the U.S. can do whatever it pleases without consequence. War with China would visit even greater horror upon America, and do so in a conflict involving no vital U.S. interests. It would be foolish, even reckless, in the extreme.

Washington should begin erecting firebreaks to war, starting with Taiwan.