Taiwan Troubles.

            Is Zi Jinping a conventional/traditional “Marxist” leader, bent upon using China’s immense power to advance the world revolution?  Or is Zi Jinping a conventional/traditional Chinese emperor, bent upon using China’s immense power to shatter the American-created international system?  Does it matter?  It is an axiom that you plan for the capabilities of other players, not for their intentions. 

            Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has been the most powerful and most influential nation in Asia.  That power and influence has rested on military superiority, economic dynamism, the sheer appeal of America’s values in comparison to those of its rivals, and strategic alliance-building.  Chief among these allies have been Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan. 

            The murkiest of these alliances has been the alliance with Taiwan.  When the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, many of the defeated Kuomintang (KMT or “Nationalist”) supporters retreated to the island of Taiwan.  Long a Chinese possession, it had been conquered by Japan in one that country’s early forays into imperialism.  Still, at first it seemed that the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) would soon complete the reconquest of territory lost to imperialist during the dark hours of China’s impotence.  After the Korean War began, the United States recognized Taiwan as an independent state.  The KMT created a separate Chinese state, then build a prosperous industrial economy, and eventually moved toward democracy.  In sum, Taiwan is far more of a legitimate state than it was in 1949.  Richard Nixon’s “opening” to China pushed the US-Taiwan relationship into “strategic ambiguity.”  China has always intended to retake Taiwan, just as it intended to retake Hong Kong.  The United States had an interest in Taiwan remaining independent.  The US and China had a big stake in not coming to blows over Taiwan.  So all sides let things sit.  See what shook out. 

            What shook out was Zi Jinping.  China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative, military build-up, and the forced change in status of Hong Kong illustrate his determination to reshape the Asian order to China’s advantage.  Now alarm bells are ringing over Taiwan.[1] 

            By what means might China seek to establish control over Taiwan?  Would it begin by fomenting some kind of low-intensity conflict?  Would it just cut to the chase by staging an out-right invasion with overwhelming force?  Would the Taiwanese fight?  Do they have the means to mount an effective resistance?  How would the United States respond?  Would it huff and puff, then accept Chinese conquest as happened with Hong Kong?  Would it adapt the same policy as it has done with Ukraine: supplying arms, money, and intelligence while avoiding direct involvement?  Would it decide that Taiwan is the Czechoslovakia “of our time”?[2]  If the United States did fight, what would be the outcome?  Could it win a “conventional” (i.e. non-nuclear) war in the Western Pacific and Far East?  How great is the danger that a conventional war could slide into a nuclear war—of uncertain magnitude? 

            Is there an alternative?  Perhaps, but anything that looks like or amounts to backing down would most likely have a devastating impact on America’s other alliances in Asia.       

[1] See, for example, Elbridge Colby, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict (2021).  On Colby, see: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elbridge-colby-7484a0168/details/experience/ 

[2] That analogy has gotten us into trouble before.  See: Vietnam. 

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