From the facts set out in Parts 1 and 2, one reasonably, albeit reluctantly, concludes that a war in the Taiwan Strait might escalate and spread, with harmful effects on societies, commercial activities, economies and the entire global structure that has existed since 1945. How did this happen?
How we got here
The West and other nations wasted decades expecting that if they accommodated Beijing, the PRC would liberalize and adjust its behavior to the US-led world system. Yet, it was clear at least 20 years ago that this was not going to happen – that China was a military, political, and economic threat. In effect, the US created and funded its principal enemy.
It is as maddening as it was avoidable. And throughout, Taiwan was given the bare minimum of support in hopes the PRC would appreciate the favor. Beijing did not. It smiled smugly, pocketed the concessions – and screamed for more while turning up the heat on Taiwan.
Such is life. But studying what happened is useful. Not least, it shows what works and what doesn’t when dealing with the PRC. Of course, any study of history going back 2,500 years tells one plenty about dealing with powerful, aggressive, covetous nations.
Avoiding a fight
One option is to give the PRC what it wants. This theoretically would avoid the carnage from a shooting war. The same thing was said in 1938-1939 when the Western powers allowed Hitler to seize Czechoslovakia piece by piece. To adopt the “Czechoslovakia solution” is also called appeasement. The outcome is well known.
Also, hand over Taiwan to an expansionist, totalitarian Beijing and Japan’s turn will be next. Further, China will be encouraged to assert dominance farther afield once – or even as – Japan is brought to heel.
Additionally, without Taiwan the US position in Asia will collapse by virtue of losing Formosa’s strategic location. And nobody anywhere will value US promises of protection – actual or implicit. Instead, they’ll decide to cut the best deal possible with Beijing.
Yet there are actions to take now that might reduce the prospects of a future fight. Paradoxically, they depend on the demonstrated willingness to defend Taiwan.
First, admit that a war in the Taiwan Strait is possible – and even likely – on the current trajectory, even if a PRC assault on Taiwan is irrational from our perspective.
Unfortunately, authoritarian regimes don’t always behave rationally. It’s all about power and keeping it. Playing to historic resentments and lashing outward unifies and distracts from domestic problems. It’s easy to believe a short, sharp war will stun other countries and present them with a fait accompli they will have to live with.
Second, don’t fret so much over provoking Beijing. Beijing makes its own decisions. To help Xi get the calculation right, the strategy should be: No appeasement. Help Taiwan defend itself. Make it clear that the freedoms Taiwan represents are core interests of the US and the free world – and are worth fighting for – just as Beijing declares it has “red lines” and “core interests.”
Toward this end: Provide clear-cut political and economic support for democratic Taiwan, beyond the hesitant, token support provided to date. Immediately end 40 years of military isolation and conduct joint training exercises with Taiwan’s military. Treat Taiwan as a friend and ally.
Third, urgently accelerate the overdue effort to refocus the US military to fight a serious opponent like the PLA – and bring in as many allies and partners as possible, even if it’s just political support for Taiwan. And Washington had better think about its response when Beijing makes nuclear threats – as it will.
Besides the big stick, make it clear to Beijing that the first shot will be the end of US-PRC relations: it will trigger the end of all trade and the bountiful supply of convertible currency US companies and bankers have been providing China over the last four decades. Beijing can then figure out how to employ and feed it’s 1.4 billion people.
And credibly threaten the wealth of CCP elites. For years, these elites have been frantically moving their wealth (and ideally a family member or two) into the nation (the USA) against which war is contemplated – and/or its allies.
Is all this enough to dissuade Beijing? Perhaps not. But it is worth a try, given the alternatives.
To get through the next decade (or for as long as Beijing still has regional or even global domination as its objective) will be difficult. But with considerable effort, single-mindedness, nerve and good fortune, we (the US, Taiwan, and partners) just might be able to deter conflict over Taiwan. And if not, we can ensure that we are the side that loses a little less.
Time will tell. The United States has never faced an enemy like the People’s Republic of China.
Indeed, America has allowed the PRC and the Chinese military to develop into such an adversary that, if the US and its friends “win” a war over Taiwan it will be so close as to warrant repeating the words of the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo: “The nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”
Read Part 1: War in the Taiwan Strait is not unthinkable
Read Part 2: Taiwan war: global economic, psychological damage
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer. He was the first USMC liaison officer to the Japan Self Defense Force and has spent many years in Asia. He is conducting research in Taipei in 2019 as a Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs fellow. His research topic covers improving Taiwan’s defense by helping the Taiwan armed forces break out of 40 years of isolation. He originally wrote this article for the Journal of Political Risk, where it appeared on November 1, 2019. It is reused with permission.