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Sowing Dragon’s Teeth: Chinese and American Tensions Over Taiwan

Ilan Hulkower

On August 2nd, a plane carrying Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the United States’ House of Representatives, touched down in Taiwan (more formally known as the Republic of China). Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan comes amid the backdrop of deteriorating relations between mainland China (more formally known as the People’s Republic of China) and the United States. The visit itself was seen as provocative by mainland China, which regards Taiwan as rightfully belonging to the mainland for historical and strategic reasons, and sees this as potentially opening the door to American recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign entity separate from China. Such a recognition would be in breach of the current formulation of American-Chinese ties, which was built on a One China policy, where the United States acknowledged that “ that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” This policy and its (somewhat ambiguous) wording was first established by the 1972 Shanghai Communique and was reinforced by subsequent agreements. China reacted to this visit by holding military exercises near Taiwan and severing various agreements with the United States. 

The Biden administration for its part downplayed the significance of the visit to Taiwan by Pelosi and insisted that nothing has changed regarding US policy toward Taiwan. However, Biden himself had previously and repeatedly stated that the United States would militarily defend Taiwan if mainland China invaded. His administration sought to walk back from such pronouncements each time. This back and forth between China and the Biden administration has led The Global Times, a Chinese newspaper with strong ties to the ruling Communist party, to proclaim that “ China’s deeds match its words, while the US [Biden in particular] says one thing but does another.” In effect, they are complaining that at best Biden is not in charge of his own administration or that Biden lies about his intentions. 

The only binding commitment that the United States has undertaken to Taiwan, which does have some strategic value for the United States, is governed by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. This act did not create a defensive alliance with Taiwan where the US was obligated to go to war for the survival of Taiwan but only guaranteed that the US would provide Taiwan with defensive weaponry. Nevertheless, previously when China threatened to use military force to alter the status quo regarding Taiwan, the United States has deployed various military assets to deter such a move. While previously the United States, due to its immense military and technological superiority, could get away with a show of force against China’s saber rattling toward Taiwan. The balance of power between China and the US has changed significantly, since the 1996 Third Taiwan Straits Crisis and the 1997 Taiwan visit by the-then Speaker of the House. This article will discuss some of those military changes between the United States and China and how Taiwan can strengthen its chances of survival. 

Given the current military balance between China and the United States, can the United States military prevent the forceable takeover of Taiwan by China or if Taiwan is already taken can the United States easily regain that militarily? When China and the United States faced off against each other in the Korean War, the quantity of Chinese forces proved to be more than enough to repel the American advances into North Korea and establish a stalemate. In the 1990s, the Chinese military, despite being still vast in numbers, was in a poor state. In 1999 only about 20 percent of its ground forces were even equipped to be able to move about their own country. The military also suffered from corruption, poor morale, old equipment, and had limited professionalism and capabilities. In effect, it was, when compared to a country like the United States, at a great qualitative disadvantage. While China has not fully caught up with the United States, it has progressed much since the 1990s. Michele Flournoy, an undersecretary of defense policy under Obama, affirmed that much has changed since the 1990s and noted that compared to then the United States would operate in “a much more contested and much more lethal environment.” 

The Chinese military is modernizing and already possesses greater quantities of warships and air defense systems than the United States. The Chinese military is estimated by one top defense official at the Pentagon to acquire new weapons at a pace that is five to six times faster than the United States. As American naval strategy still rests upon its carriers, some argue that technological advances may be making such carriers fleets limited in their effectiveness if not outmoded. The development of Chinese carrier killing missiles, which now have a range of 1,500 nautical miles, have spurred such concern and debate. The Chinese have also developed hypersonic missile technology to which the United States has no effective defense against so far. As of the writing of this article, the United States has also been unable to successfully produce its own hypersonic missiles. While the US still has a general technological edge on China, this edge is narrowing compared to what it was in the 1990s. This present but eroding edge has worrying implications for America’s ability to defend Taiwan militarily. 

In terms of logistics, it is also more difficult for the US to defend Taiwan than it is for China to assault it. After all, China has a greater concentration of forces in the region than the United States whose military assets are diffused across the globe and China has the advantage of a much shorter supply line across what realists refer to as “the stopping power of water")”. An analysis by the RAND Corporation notes that military invasion is not the only option for China to change the status quo over Taiwan and an imposed naval quarantine on Taiwan by China could also accomplish such a goal and that “a counterblockade by the United States…is unlikely to be successful.” This is not to write that the United States can do nothing against China on a number of these points or that a limited conventional war is inevitably doomed to lead to an American defeat. Indeed, there is some commentary on things that the United States could do to deter China from taking Taiwan, including measures ranging from putting military assets on the ground in Taiwan to other alternatives that are being flouted around. I will note that there must be recognition that China has managed to translate its economic gains into a much more formidable military power wherein seeking an active shooting war with China, especially when we are merely obligated to supply Taiwan with defensive arms, would not be wise. In effect, such a direct military undertaking by the United States promises to be costly and is far from certain to succeed. 

What strategy then could be taken to improve Taiwan’s chances at continued political survival within the perimeters allowed by past agreements between the United States and China? The United States ought to make it plain that Taiwan must repair the lackluster state of affairs within its military and ensure that Taiwan has the means to defend itself. While Taiwan enjoys defensive advantages like their mountainous islands, urban density, and a popular sentiment of resistance that promise to make a mainland Chinese invasion materially costly, it must also have a strong defense force capable of being a powerful deterrent in its own right. To do so Taiwan must dramatically improve the quality of its military training as well as extending the period of conscription beyond 4 months. It must do so in the model of an Israel or Singapore in having a good quality conscript army. Taiwan already possesses a native defense industry which should further aid Taiwan’s quest to produce suitable weaponry and ensure that the military is adequately provisioned. Diplomatic means should also be employed with equivalent if not greater zeal to assuage mainland China. The gist of such diplomatic talks must be that the United States and Taiwan are committed to what they have previously agreed to with the mainland and that the United States will not recognize Taiwan as an independent state since it only recognizes one state as China and that Taiwan agrees to never formally proclaim itself independent. China in turn would repledge itself to forswear a militarily achieved reunification with Taiwan and to respect the status quo. Such a maneuver if successful would also assuage the Taiwanese public who do not by and large want a declaration of independence from China and are broadly comfortable with the status quo. This strategy thus promises to be broadly supported by Taiwanese public opinion while being acceptable to mainland China.

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