Tuesday, July 19, 2005 at 10:45 AM

China v. Taiwan (and the United States): Nuclear Friction in the Taiwan Strait…

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

A few months ago, I published an article delineating why Taiwan was causing cold war tensions between the United States and China. I hypothesized that – just as the U.S. and former Soviet Union came perilously close to nuclear war over Cuba – the U.S. and China would take us to the brink of nuclear war once again over Taiwan. I concluded, however, that where the Soviet Union blinked and retreated from Cuba, this time the U.S. seems fated to blink and retreat from Taiwan – notwithstanding its 51-year old pledge to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression.

Taiwan Strait portends dire consequences for U.S. – China relations…

Well, since then, Taiwan has become even more of a bane to cordial ties between the U.S. and China. Yet both countries seemed committed to a level of diplomatic discourse that precluded any talk of war. But that commitment was broken last week in rather shocking and provocative fashion.

To put this current crisis into context, it would be helpful to know that for years the U.S. has relied on China to exert a moderating influence on North Korea’s unnerving propensity to threaten nuclear war to extract concessions from its adversaries. Now, the U.S. and Taiwan are accusing China of doing the same.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province. And, no country (including the U.S.) has ever denied China’s territorial claims over this self-governing island. However, successive Taiwanese governments have declared their preference for official independence from China. And, they have been emboldened in this pyrrhic quest by America’s Taiwan Relations Act 1979 – under which the U.S. has been arming Taiwan to help:

…maintain the capacity of the United States [pursuant to its 1954 pledge] to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion [by China] that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

But, significantly, the U.S. has stopped far short of supporting Taiwan’s drive for independence. In fact, it has actually endorsed China’s claims by terminating diplomatic relations with Taiwan in order to recognize only “one China and that Taiwan is part of China.” Therefore, for all these years, peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait have been predicated on China’s commitment to:

…firmly abide by the principles of peaceful re-unification of one country two systems.

In recent years, however, China’s meteoric rise as a global economic power has allowed it to finance a military build-up that threatens to destabilize the uneasy détente in this trilateral relationship. And last March, in a foreboding gesture, its legislature passed an Anti-Secession law that grants China’s leaders legal cover to order its military to use any means necessary (including preemptive strikes) to prevent Taiwan from becoming an independent nation.

For its part, Taiwan has voiced credible concerns that China is planning to call America’s bluff by seizing political control of the island by force. And, no one doubts that China is now capable of squashing Taiwan like a bug. Indeed, this is why last week’s remarks by a senior general in the Chinese Army, Major General Zhu Chenghu, were so shocking and provocative. At an international press conference, the general blithely declared that:

If the Americans draw their missiles and position-guided ammunition onto the target zone on China’s territory, I think we will have to respond with nuclear weapons.

Such words coming from a general in the North Korean army would be summarily dismissed as typical vacuous bluster. In this case, however, the U.S. felt constrained to condemn them as “unfortunate [and] irresponsible”. But even as China’s foreign ministry spokesman attempted to distance political leaders from the general’s remarks, he refused to say that the general’s views conflicted with official Chinese policy. In fact, in reaffirming China’s policy on Taiwan, the spokesman himself declared ominously that:

We will never tolerate Taiwan independence; neither will we allow anybody with any means to separate Taiwan from the motherland.

Clearly, such gratuitous declarations must lead the U.S. to infer that China is spoiling for a fight. After all, as indicated above, U.S. policy has been entirely consistent with China’s efforts to prevent Taiwan for separating from the motherland. And every Chinese general and politician is no doubt aware that the U.S. has pledged to defend Taiwan ONLY against attack by China.

Of course, if China is planning an attack, General Zhu’s remarks may be part of a psychological operation to test America’s resolve. And, given U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, China may see a strategic opportunity to strike with relative impunity.

Alas, China’s strategic calculation in this regard would be correct. The U.S. has expressed grave concerns about China’s military build-up and maintains that “peace and stability in the area [Taiwan Strait] are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States.” But if China invades, American security guarantees would probably prove as helpful to Taiwan as British and French guarantees proved to Poland when Germany seized it in a blitzkrieg invasion in 1939. Indeed, in that event, the United States would probably only issue a diplomatic reprimand and, perhaps, call for economic sanctions against China. What is certain, however, is that the U.S. will not engage China in a war over Taiwan; and, China knows it!

Therefore, Taiwan seems fated to fall under China’s direct control. The only question is whether China will remain patient enough to accomplish its objective by political proxy (using Taiwan’s Opposition Party – the Kuomintang); or whether China will finally exercise its military might and take the island by force.


Complicating prospects for resolving the Taiwan conflict peacefully is that fact that China is already engaged in a two-pronged battle for oil rights to fuel its economic and military expansion. On one front, just last Saturday, China declared that Japan’s decision to grant rights to a Japanese firm to drill for oil in the East China Sea impinges on its exclusive maritime rights and “makes conflict inevitable”. (This potential trigger for war comes amidst an ongoing schoolyard row between China and Japan over lingering hostilities stemming from World War II.)

Many geopolitical experts warn that China’s unprecedented and unquenchable thirst for oil will destabilize its already strained bilateral relations with Japan, the U.S. and other rich countries over supply and cause sustained increases in the price of oil which will impose severe economic hardships on poor countries.

Whilst, on the other front, China’s “unsolicited bid to take over a U.S. oil company” UNOCAL, has unnerved officials in Washington who have vowed to block the bid because they fear “that China could reduce U.S. energy supplies and threaten national security.” In response, China has promised to retaliate against U.S. companies in China if the U.S. blocks China’s bid for the oil company.

And, so it goes. But as Michael Wessel, director of the U.S.- China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional advisory body, conceded last Thursday:

The Chinese have Bush over a barrel now….This is happening at the same time as outstanding major trade issues, the currency, textiles, intellectual property rights, the six-party talks with North Korea, at a time when the Bush administration is trying to moderate those conflicts.

Something’s gotta to give! Stay tuned…


  1. Anonymous July 19, 2005 at 2:47 pm

    Given that the resources of the US are focused on the Middle East with limited success and no clear exit strategy, it seems the Bush administration will have little additional energies to manage the dynamics in Asia. These issues centered around the Taiwan Straight are arguably as significant for the economic and national security of the US than those of the Middle East, particularly in the long run. Perhaps this is why Bush was hosting the Indian PM Manmohan Singh this week.


  2. Anonymous July 19, 2005 at 3:14 pm

    This is a really scary situation. I think you are right that the Americans would never risk war with China over Taiwan. But I am not so sure that the Chinese are foolish enough to risk their economic development just to control Taiwan. Also, the Americans are not arming the Taiwenese just for show. They may give the Chinese more than they are bargaining for without the Americans.

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