Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

War Over Taiwan?

| Dec. 02, 2022

For five decades, both China and the US benefited from the time they had bought on the question of the island’s status. To prevent what is currently a managed competition from spiraling out of control, the United States should take careful but clear steps to strengthen its longstanding policy of "double deterrence."

Could the United States and China go to war over Taiwan? China regards the island 90 miles (145 kilometers) off its coast as a renegade province, and President Xi Jinping raised the issue at the recent 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Though Xi said he prefers reunification by peaceful means, his objective was clear, and he did not rule out the use of force. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, the share of the population identifying as solely Taiwanese continues to exceed the share that identifies as both Chinese and Taiwanese.

The US has long tried both to dissuade Taiwan from officially declaring independence, and to deter China from using force against the island. But Chinese military capabilities have been increasing, and US President Joe Biden has now said on four separate occasions that the US would defend Taiwan. Each time, the White House has issued "clarifications" stressing that America's "one China" policy has not changed.

But China counters that recent high-level US visits to Taiwan are hollowing out that policy. China responded to US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's  there in August by firing missiles near the coast of Taiwan. What will happen if Representative Kevin McCarthy becomes speaker of the new Republican-controlled House and carries out his threat to lead an official delegation to the island?

When US President Richard Nixon went to China and met with Mao Zedong in 1972, both countries shared an interest in balancing Soviet power, because both saw the USSR as their largest problem. But now, China has an alignment of convenience with Russia, because both countries see the US as their largest problem.

Still, Nixon and Mao could not agree on the Taiwan issue, so they adopted a formula designed to postpone the matter. The US would accept the claim that people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait were Chinese, and it would recognize only "one China": the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, not the Republic of China on Taiwan....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Nye, Joseph S. Jr. "War Over Taiwan?" Project Syndicate, December 2, 2022.