The growing peril of war with China over Taiwan

Resposible Statecraft
Date: December 22, 2020
By: Chas Freeman

US President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai toast, February 25, 1972.

This article has been adapted from a lecture delivered to the Committee for the Republic.

Taiwan is an established American foreign policy success story that appears to be nearing the end of its shelf life. Management of the Taiwan question has long been the key to peace or war – possibly nuclear war – between the United States and China. Now, the door may be closing to peace. 

The essence of the Taiwan question is what political relationship should and can the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have with each other? This question is a legacy of the Chinese civil war, the Cold War, the strategically dictated rapprochement between Washington and Beijing, the U.S. habit of substituting military deterrence for diplomacy, and the American attraction to strategy-free, values-based foreign policy. Given the stakes for Americans, the question of how best to balance relations with Taiwan and the China mainland demands informed judgments and adroit statecraft. 

But the issue’s history is widely forgotten or misunderstood, and the dilemmas it presents get almost no attention. Americans seem to have achieved herd immunity to both situational awareness and strategic reasoning. The United States risks sleepwalking into a war with China it does not want and cannot now win. Such a war would likely end U.S. primacy in East Asia. It certainly would poison prospects for great power cooperation on planetwide problems.

Taiwan is an island a bit larger than Maryland but with four times the inhabitants. When it was seized by Japan in 1895, it was a province of Qing China. Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China recovered it from Japan in 1945. When Chiang lost the civil war in the rest of the country in 1949, he fled to Taiwan and moved the capital of his Chinese government from Nanjing to Taipei.     [FULL  STORY]

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