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Biden Xi China Taiwan

The serving as Vice President during the Obama administration, Joe Bidenseen here in a 2013 photo with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. (Photo: Getty Images)

Taiwan: A War That Must Never Be Fought

First Donald Trump and now Joe Biden have been playing with fire when it comes to policy with China.

Joseph Gerson

Taiwan has become the most dangerous flashpoint of the emerging new Cold War between the U.S. and China. Neither side wants war, but accidents and miscalculations—like those that triggered the First World War—can happen.

Miscalculations being what they are, we now know with greater detail how in 1958 the Pentagon and President Dwight Eisenhower prepared for the possibility of nuclear attacks against China in response to its shelling of offshore islands, despite the fact that Mao Zedong had no intention of seizing Taiwan.  Today, amidst the Pentagon's exaggerated claims that within five to six years Beijing will have the military capacity to reconquer its "renegade province," Daniel Ellsberg, who recently released a long-secret report on the 1958 nuclear crisis, has joined others in warning Taiwan cannot be militarily defended. Ellsberg stresses that, as in 1958, the received wisdom in Washington is that U.S. threats of a first strike nuclear attack remain the greatest disincentive for militarily enforced Chinese reunification.

Despite right-wing and Pentagon exaggeration of an impending Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the reality is that unless Taiwan crosses the red line of declaring de jure independence, China is unlikely to embrace the danger of a devastating—potentially nuclear—great power war. In addition to the immediate, unpredictable, and devastating costs of such a war, Beijing is not about to embrace the massive disruptions to its economy and armed resistance by Taiwanese that would inevitably follow an invasion of Taiwan.

"Preventing accidents or miscalculations (political as well as military) that could trigger armed conflict that could easily escalate to nuclear war is now an urgent priority."

But there is that red line, and Taiwanese support for independence is growing, especially among younger generations. First Donald Trump and now Joe Biden have been playing with fire. At the close of his disastrous reign, Donald Trump exacerbated U.S-Chinese tensions over Taiwan by approving more than $3 billion in new arms sales and sending high level administration officials to the quasi-independent Chinese entity which China sees as a last vestige of its century and a half of colonial humiliations. 

Joe Biden and Anthony Blinken have made matters much worse. In January, for the first time since the renewal of U.S.-Chinese relations in 1979 based on the One China policy, Taiwan's functional ambassador to the U.S. was invited to participate in a presidential inauguration. Contrary to the decades-old "strategic ambiguity" policy regarding possible U.S. military intervention to defend Taiwan, Blinken has repeated Washington's "rock solid" commitment to Taiwan's defense. Biden has repeatedly dispatched warships to the Taiwan Strait, and in April they dispatched an "unofficial" delegation of former top officials to meet with senior Taiwanese officials, sending what a White House official termed a "personal signal" to Taiwan, not to mention Beijing.  Guidelines that long restricted U.S. diplomats from meeting their Taiwanese counterparts are being revised to encourage such meetings, and some have already begun. Discussions are proceeding for the likely deployment of a permanent U.S. naval presence in waters near Taiwan and for possible negotiation of a U.S.-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.

Refusing to be intimidated, the People's Liberation Army has engaged in repeated shows of force, sending warplanes into Taiwan's Air Defense Identification Zone and its warships into Taiwanese waters, increasing the opportunities for accidents and miscalculations. In marking the Chinese Communist Party's 100th anniversary, Chairman Xi stressed the importance of "peaceful reunification" with Taiwan under the one-China principle to China's "national rejuvenation." Pressure toward that end has included preventing shipments of Covid-19 vaccines to the isolated island.

It is a truism that we ignore history at our peril, and like most border lands Taiwan's history is tortured and complex. Its indigenous population, Formosans, whose ancestors first settled the island five thousand years ago are now only 2% of its population. In the 17th century Taiwan was colonized by the Dutch, soon followed by significant immigration from the Chinese mainland and then the island's integration into the Chinese Qing empire. With China's defeat by Japan in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan became a Japanese colony and was modernized to serve Japanese imperial interests. With Japan's defeat in 1945, the Kuomintang (KMT) Chinese "nationalist" government assumed control over Taiwan, and it was to Taiwan and its associated offshore islands that Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated nationalist forces retreated in 1949. With murderous brutality they established a dictatorship which was committed to reestablishing KMT rule over all of China. 

With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, President Truman dispatched the 7th Fleet to prevent a possible Chinese Communist invasion of Taiwan. One-sided nuclear crises followed in 1954 and 1958 in response to Chinese shelling of offshore islands. Another crisis ensued in 1996, when Taiwan held its first direct presidential election. Warning Taiwanese voters against opting for the independence oriented Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), China bracketed Taiwan by launching rockets into the seas north and south of the main island.  The Clinton Administration responded by sending two nuclear-capable aircraft carrier fleets through the Taiwan Strait, panicking Chinese leaders, triggering Beijing' military modernization which now includes potent area denial capabilities, including the possibility of sinking U.S. aircraft carriers and their supporting fleets. Today the DPP, with support from younger generations is the dominant party in Taiwan, while the KMT has reversed course by having encouraged massive investments in China and is more closely associated with support for mainland reunification.

In addition to the still open wound of foreign conquest and after more than a century of division and Western support for democratic values, two geostrategic realities lie at the heart of tensions over Taiwan. Like long-colonized Cuba, just 90 miles from Florida where the 1962 introduction of Soviet missiles sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis, Taiwan is just 100 miles from the Chinese mainland and is seen as a source of Chinese military vulnerability. Secondly, Taiwan has become the world's leading source of advanced semiconductors, on which both the U.S. and Chinese economies depend, transforming the island into one of the world's most coveted strategic prizes.

Returning to history, since the renewal of U.S.-Chinese relations in the 1970s, Taiwan has remained a dangling thread by which the nuclear sword of Damocles continues to hang. Pulling at that long-stressed thread—calling the one-China policy into question—carries the potential of catastrophically unraveling the diplomatic fabric that has served as the foundation of U.S.-Chinese ties. In the run up to President Nixon's historic and strategically calculated 1972 visit to China, after a two-decade hiatus in relations, the president withdrew the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait and began the gradual withdrawal U.S. military forces from Taiwan. U.S. commitment to "One China"–i.e., that Taiwan is Chinese and to Taiwan's eventual reunification with China—was established with Nixon's visit in the 1972 U.S.-PRC Shanghai Communique, and reaffirmed in the 1979 agreement to resume formal diplomatic relations. Deng Xiaoping reluctantly tolerated U.S. insistence on retaining the right to continue supplying Taiwan with defensive weaponry as the cost of securing the tacit U.S. alliance targeted against the Soviet Union. 

The establishment of U.S.-PRC relations required ending those with Taiwan. The island's Congressional allies in Washington responded by legislating the Taiwan Relations Act which remains in force. It requires the U.S. to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons and to maintain U.S. capabilities to prevent reunificiation by force of arms or coercion. The American Taiwan Institute has since served as the functional U.S. embassy in Taipei, with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office serving the reciprocal function in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. is not alone in acting in support of Taiwan. In June, for the first time, members of the G7 expressed concern for Taiwanese as well as Hong Kong human rights. Japan, long the United States' lead Asian ally followed up with Yasuhide Nakayama, Defense Minister of a country that has had one-party rule since 1955, stated "we have to protect Taiwan as a democratic country." Foreign Minister Kishi, grandson of Nobusuke Kishi who was charged as a Class A war criminal before being promoted to prime minister with CIA assistance in 1957, followed by saying that "the peace and stability of Taiwan is directly connected to Japan." And Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Aso declared that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would trigger a "survival-threatening situation" for Japan.

Part of the U.S. imperial calculus is that if China exerts more control over the Taiwan Strait it will have significant impact on Japan and other nations. In addition to its impacts on Taiwan's 24 million people and the world's supply of advanced semiconductors, Chinese dominance would impact the Luzon Straight which is critical to the shipping lanes that carry oil for Japan's and South Korea's economies.  

To prevent this and other threats to U.S. regional hegemony, the Biden Administration is increasing the Pentagon budget, including billions for its "Pacific Deterrence Initiative." In the face of debilitating domestic political polarization, it is also seeking to build national unity with the anti-Chinese rhetoric and dimensions of the Senate's Strategic Initiative and Competition Act and its House EAGLE Act equivalent. And, as Daniel Ellsberg predicts, lest Biden be charged with issuing Beijing an invitation to invade Taiwan, we should expect that powerful forces will be at play to prevent the Biden Administration from adopting a risk reduction No First (nuclear) Use doctrine during its nuclear posture review which is just beginning.

Preventing accidents or miscalculations (political as well as military) that could trigger armed conflict that could easily escalate to nuclear war is now an urgent priority. Taiwan has become the most dangerous flashpoint for great power and potentially nuclear war, followed by the South China/West Philippine and Baltic Seas. With the contradictory forces of popular Chinese support for Taiwan's reunification with China and growing support for Taiwanese national independence and the inevitable tensions between the U.S and China as declining and rising powers an undisciplined sailor who pulls a trigger or Taiwanese political leaders making reckless statements believing that they are fully backed by the U.S. Pacific Command could serve as the spark that ignites a World War.

The Philippine anti-imperialist scholar/activist Walden Bello has written that "while Hong Kong and Taiwan are indisputably part of China—a fact not disputed by the international community… it must be cognizant of the right of the peoples of these areas to have a say in the way they are governed, especially given the unavoidable issues of national identity created by their long separation from the rest of the country by colonialism." How then to proceed?

  • The one-China formula must be honored and preserved.
  • All sides must halt provocative and dangerous military shows of force.
  • Arms sales with offensive capabilities to Taiwan must be ended.

In the end, the U.S., China, and the regions nations must commit to pursuit of Common Security diplomacy and encourage Chinese-Taiwanese negotiations. It is the safest path to maintaining peace in the region.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Joseph Gerson

Joseph Gerson

Joseph Gerson is President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, Co-founder of the Committee for a SANE U.S. China Policy and Vice President of the International Peace Bureau. His books include Empire and the Bomb, and With Hiroshima Eyes.

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