Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

How to Prevent a War Over Taiwan

| Apr. 08, 2024

Much has changed since the 1970s, when Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong devised the "one China" formula to paper over their differences on Taiwan's status. But, if combined with other measures to bolster deterrence against any sudden acts of aggression, this 50-year-old policy can still help to keep the peace.

Might China try to attack Taiwan by 2027? The outgoing chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Philip Davidson, thought so in 2021, and he recently reaffirmed his assessment. But whether the United States and China are destined for war over the island is another question. While the danger is real, such an outcome is not inevitable.

China considers Taiwan a renegade province and a remnant of the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. Although US-China relations were normalized in the 1970s, Taiwan remained a point of contention. Nonetheless, a diplomatic formula to paper over disagreement was found: Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait agreed that there was just "one China." For the Americans, refusing to recognize any de jure declaration of independence by Taiwan would ensure that the island's relationship with the mainland would be settled by negotiation, not force. China, however, never ruled out the use of force.

For years, the US policy was known as "strategic ambiguity," but it could be better described as "double deterrence." The US wanted to deter China from using force, but also to deter Taiwan from provoking Beijing by declaring formal independence. That meant providing Taiwan with weapons for its self-defense, but not issuing a formal security guarantee, since that might tempt Taipei into declaring independence.

Thus, when I visited Beijing in 1995 as an official in the Clinton administration and was asked whether the US would really risk war to defend Taiwan, I replied that it was possible, though no one could be sure. I pointed out that in 1950, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson had declared Korea to be outside our defense perimeter; yet within the year, Chinese and Americans were killing each other on the Korean Peninsula. The lesson of history was that China should not take the risk.

The next year, after I had left government, I was asked to join a bipartisan group of former officials to visit Taiwan. We met with President Chen Shui-bian, whose previous "unofficial" visit to the US had caused a crisis in which China fired missiles into the sea and the US deployed carriers off the coast of Taiwan. We warned Chen that if he declared independence, he could not count on American support. Such was "strategic ambiguity."...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Nye, Joseph S. Jr.“How to Prevent a War Over Taiwan.” Project Syndicate, April 8, 2024.