Heading Off the Next War

David M. Lampton and Kenneth Lieberthal contend that war between the PRC and Taiwan is likely if not headed off:

The recent unsettled election in Taiwan highlights a disturbing fact: The framework that has buttressed peace in the Taiwan Strait for decades is disintegrating. Changes in Taiwan, as well as some of Beijing’s counterproductive behavior, are undermining its foundations. Unless an improved framework is adopted soon, war across the strait will become increasingly probable, with the United States likely to be drawn into it. No matter who should “win” such a conflict, the consequences for China, Taiwan, America and Northeast Asia would be dire.

There has been rapid expansion in “Taiwan consciousness” on the island in recent years, strongly promoted by the current government in Taipei. And Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian is pledging to hold a referendum in 2006 to authorize a new constitution, and then to adopt the new document in May 2008 — acts that some in Beijing say could mean war. Moreover, Chen apparently believes that China’s threat to use force is a bluff and that the U.S. commitment to back Taiwan militarily is unrestricted — the logic being that a democratic America and a supportive U.S. Congress would back Taipei no matter what sparked a conflict.

Chen and his predecessor Lee Teng-hui have been so sure of U.S. support that defense spending on the island has continually declined over the past 12 years. But Chen’s two assumptions are flawed, and they could well lead him to take actions that precipitate war.

Their policy prescription is a bit odd, in that they call it a “new framework” but it certainly appears to be a continuation of current policy:

Taiwan can continue to assert during the decades-long period covered by the agreement that it is an “independent, sovereign country,” but it must abjure additional steps to turn this island-wide sensibility into a juridical fact. Beijing can continue to assert that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, but it must give up its threat to use military force to change Taiwan’s status.

Aside from what would be a merely rhetorical promise not to escalate, that’s the de facto reality that’s existed for a generation.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Art Keon says:

    My best bet is that China will simply take Taiwan when they are ready. How much blood will be shed will be a function of the strength of Taiwanese resistance. The US can no longer fight for Taiwan given its close ties to China, the massive amounts of US debt held by China, the lack of a manfacturing base to fight a conventional war and the substantial US investment in China itself. Does anything think the we will threaten the Chinese with Nuclear war over Taiwan? The Chinese have boxed the US in, thanks no small part to GWB. Clinton, though oversaw the beginning of the this checkmate. Bush by running ever larger trade, current account and budgetary deficits has played right into China’s hand.

    Art