The advent of the Cold War in the late 1940s substantially changed the position of the United States toward Taiwan. After a short interlude of indifference and neglect, Taiwan was increasingly seen as essential to US strategic interests and security after the Korean War. Thenceforth, notwithstanding all the tongue-in-cheek statements about the US taking a nonchalant or even positive stance toward the “peaceful” reunification of Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, the actual policy of the US is always that of forestalling Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland by whatever means available unless the cost of doing so becomes unbearable.
For a long time, the Taiwan question to China pertains to the country’s reunification and the ultimate end of the Chinese civil war, preferably by peaceful means, and to prevent Taiwan’s unilateral declaration of independence. Meanwhile, the willingness of Taiwan to recognize and stick by the “one China” principle is the prerequisite for cross-Straits peace. However, the rise of China and the labeling of rising China as a strategic rival and an existential threat by the US has led the latter to incorporate Taiwan into its grand strategy to contain, isolate and weaken China in both the military and nonmilitary senses. Consequently, in the eyes of China, Taiwan is not just an issue of national reunification but has also fast become a strategic threat to national security and stability. This perceived threat from Taiwan has over the years altered fundamentally Beijing’s strategy toward both the US and Taiwan.
Hong Kong will unavoidably be seriously affected by the fallout from the US-China clash over Taiwan, especially in the sense that the US will use all means available to “destroy” Hong Kong and weaken China
In his book titled The Long Peace, John L Gaddis, a prominent scholar of the Cold War, documents the position of the US toward Taiwan in the 1940s. In his words: “There was never any question, whether in the Pentagon, the State Department, or the Far East Command, as to the strategic importance of Taiwan once it became apparent that Chiang Kai-shek could not retain control of the mainland. The prospect of a Taiwan dominated by ‘Kremlin-directed Communists,’ the Joint Chiefs (of Staff) concluded late in 1948, would be ‘very seriously detrimental to our national security’, since it would give the Communists the capability of dominating sea lanes of communication between Japan and Malaya, and of threatening the Philippines, the Ryukyus, and ultimately Japan itself. A State Department draft report to the National Security Council early in 1949 argued that ‘the basic aim of the US should be to deny Formosa and the Pescadores to the Communists.’ (US General Douglas) MacArthur was particularly adamant on this point. He told Max W Bishop, chief of the State Department’s Division of Northeast Asian Affairs, that ‘if Formosa went to the Chinese Communists our whole defensive position in the Far East (would be) definitely lost; that it could only result eventually in putting our defensive line back to the west coast of the continental United States’.” McArthur even characterized Taiwan as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier and submarine tender” that should never be allowed to fall under the control of the enemies of the US.
Over time, the strategic value of Taiwan to the US has not only not diminished but has instead vastly increased as a result of the dramatic rise of China, particularly its growing military power. China is also considered a “revanchist” power challenging the global hegemony of the US. In the words of two American strategists, Richard Haass and David Sacks: “One thing, however, has not changed over these four decades: an imposed Chinese takeover of Taiwan remains antithetical to US interests. If the United States fails to respond to such a Chinese use of force, regional US allies, such as Japan and South Korea, will conclude that the United States cannot be relied upon and that it is pulling back from the region. These Asian allies would then either accommodate China, leading to the dissolution of US alliances and the crumbling of the balance of power, or they would seek nuclear weapons in a bid to become strategically self-reliant. Either scenario would greatly increase the chance of war in a region that is central to the world’s economy and home to most of its people.” Moreover, “China’s military would no longer be bottled up within the first island chain: Its navy would instead have the ability to project Chinese power throughout the Western Pacific.” Undeniably, these views concerning Taiwan represent the dominant position in the political and intellectual circles of the US.
Given the crucial importance of Taiwan to the US strategic interests as well as to its credibility among its allies and partners, it stretches the belief that the US will accept with equanimity the reunification of the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, even if the reunification comes about peacefully, a majority of the Taiwan residents support reunification with the mainland, and China is no longer demonized as an “authoritarian” nation.
In order to permanently prevent Taiwan from reunifying with the Chinese mainland and tether Taiwan to the US chariot, the US has in the last couple of decades ratcheted up its support for the forces advocating the independence of Taiwan, pressurized those forces backing rapprochement with the Chinese mainland, treated Taiwan as “an independent political entity,” strengthened Taiwan’s defense capabilities through arms sales, increased high-level official contacts between the US and Taiwan, brought Taiwan firmly into the “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy” purported to contain China, enhanced Taiwan’s role in the “first island chain,” changed the US stance on Taiwan from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity”, assured Taiwan separatists that they would be militarily protected against “invasion” from the mainland, provided training to the armed forces of Taiwan, promoted opportunities for Taiwan to take part in international affairs, threatened countries still recognizing Taiwan as an independent country not to cut diplomatic ties with it, widened the US-Japanese alliance to cover cross-Straits conflict, drew the European Union, the Quad and AUKUS into the Taiwan scene, and developed closer economic ties with Taiwan. From China’s point of view, all these are provocative actions on the part of the US to widen the political and psychological chasm between the people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, heighten Taiwan’s dependence on the US and its allies, and make the reunification of China more difficult.
Taken together, these provocative actions are also serious efforts to make Taiwan a threat to China’s security, particularly in trying to bottle up the Chinese naval forces forever inside the “first island chain”, thus undermining China’s capability to protect its overseas interests. All these measures will also put the US in an advantageous strategic position in case any military conflict erupted between the two countries, during which Taiwan will become the forward base to attack the Chinese mainland by the US.
From Beijing’s strategic point of view, the Taiwan question has rapidly transformed into an issue of national security that dictates primary attention. An “independent” Taiwan allied with the US will be an existential security threat to China. Insofar as the Taiwan question remains an issue of national reunification, China can afford to adopt strategic patience as long as Taiwan does not declare de jure independence. Peaceful reunification will continue to be the preferred strategic goal. However, once Taiwan mutates into a national security threat that is getting increasingly alarming and immediate because of US machinations, China’s strategic calculus will change drastically. Trying to reunify the country by forging closer economic ties with Taiwan and patiently winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwan residents over the long run will become secondary and hard-to-achieve strategic goals, and the primary imperative will instead be to obliterate permanently Taiwan as a national security threat by whatever means is necessary.
Beijing’s sense of threat coming from the increasingly bellicose and irresponsible Taiwan policy of the US is amply reflected lately in the harsh words of President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials. China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan held their third meeting in Luxembourg on June 13, 2022. Yang warned Sullivan that there would be “cataclysmic effects” if the Taiwan problem was not handled properly. “This risk will increase if the US continues its approach of ‘using Taiwan to contain China’ and Taiwan’s adoption of ‘relying on the US for independence’,” Yang said. The warning by Yang came just a day after Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that Beijing would fight “at all costs” against any effort to make Taiwan independent.
Most importantly, in a phone call on July 28, 2022, President Xi declared forcefully that China would not provide any room for the “Taiwan independence forces” and pointedly warned President Joe Biden that “those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this”. This warning was issued as tensions mounted over the possible trip of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August. China believes that the US is adopting a “salami-slice” approach to abandon the “one-China principle” and push for Taiwan into de facto if not de jure independence. More ominously, China now firmly believes that the US is determined to maintain the status quo of a divided China.
As both China and the US see Taiwan as essential to their security and the US is increasingly using Taiwan as a “forward base” against China, the Taiwan Straits has become a tinderbox where military conflict between the two superpowers might flare up with disastrous consequences for the world. A US-China war over Taiwan would see the island completely devastated. To avoid this catastrophe, the Taiwan residents must force the pro-independence Taiwan authorities to stop allowing Taiwan to be used by the US against China, seek rapprochement with the mainland via re-recognizing the “one China” principle, and tell the US to stop meddling in cross-Straits affairs.
Hong Kong, for its part, will unavoidably be seriously affected by the fallout from the US-China clash over Taiwan, especially in the sense that the US will use all means available to “destroy” Hong Kong and weaken China. Even though Hong Kong has no means to change the course of events concerning Taiwan, both the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government and the residents of Hong Kong have to closely monitor the Taiwan situation and take proactive steps to minimize the adverse impact on Hong Kong stemming from cross-Straits crises. It goes without saying that concerted planning and action of the HKSAR government and the central government are indispensable.
Lau Siu-kai is a professor emeritus of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.