[T]he greatest danger of a [real] Sino-American war is Taiwan. Taiwan is a former Chinese province that was recovered from its Japanese occupiers by Nationalist China at the end of World War II. In 1949, having been defeated everywhere else in China, Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces retreated to it.
The universal expectation at the time was that the People’s Liberation Army would cross the Taiwan Strait and unify China by finishing off Chiang and the Nationalists. But, when the Korean War broke out, the United States intervened to prevent its widening through a PLA invasion of Taiwan or a Nationalist attempt to retake the China mainland. We Americans thus suspended but did not end the Chinese civil war. To this day, we remain committed to preventing war in the Taiwan Strait. To this end, we continue to sell weapons to the island. China sees this as hostile interference in a quarrel among Chinese in which foreigners should not involve themselves.
Behind its U.S. shield, over the course of seventy years, Taiwan emerged as a prosperous democratic Chinese society with decidedly mixed feelings about whether it should be part of China. The island is now ruled by a political party that is deterred from declaring independence from China only by its realization that this would trigger a violent resumption of the Chinese civil war that would almost certainly destroy Taiwan and its democracy.
Chinese on the mainland see their country’s continued division as an artifact of U.S. policy. While they have pledged to try to resolve their differences with Taiwan peacefully, they remain determined to erase the humiliation that the continued foreign-supported separation of Taiwan from the rest of China represents. War is not imminent, but it is an ever-present danger, with the potential to produce a nuclear exchange between China and the United States.
Taiwan illustrates the dangers of managing disputes by relying exclusively on deterrence to the exclusion of diplomacy. Deterrence can inhibit the outbreak of war, but it does nothing to resolve its underlying causes. In the case of Taiwan, the United States lacks a diplomatic strategy to encourage the parties to the dispute to address and resolve their differences. In default of a strategy, we are now doubling down on our politico-military support of Taiwan. But if Beijing loses confidence in the possibility of a peaceful reconciliation with the Taiwan authorities, it will be increasingly tempted to use force. This is precisely the trend at present. We have no plan to deal with that trend other than to prepare ourselves for combat.
China enjoys widening military superiority over Taiwan. Many judge that it could already defeat an effort by us to defend Taiwan. The PLA need not invade Taiwan to devastate it. Taiwan would be the main loser in any conflict whether the U.S. supported it or not.
A Sino-American war over Taiwan could quickly escalate to the nuclear level. China has a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons but it could deliver a devastating counterstrike on the U.S. homeland if we attacked it. There is very little substantive contact between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, and there are no mechanisms for escalation control in place. It is not clear how either side could fend off domestic pressures for escalation if we come to blows, as we may. Instead of exploring means of establishing and managing a strategic balance with China, we are withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in part to enable us to deploy nuclear weapons closer to China.
For better or ill, the admirably liberal Chinese society on Taiwan cannot assure its security or prosperity without reaching some sort of accommodation with the much larger, authoritarian Chinese society on the other side of the Strait. Sooner or later, Taiwan will have to negotiate a durable modus vivendi with the mainland. Current U.S. policies help Taiwan avoid hard choices even as the balance of power shifts against it. We are inadvertently helping Taiwan set itself up for a Chinese offer it will be unable to refuse. Meanwhile, US-China relations are increasingly hostile politically, economically, and militarily.
What we face with China is not a new Cold War but a contest unlike any we have ever experienced in our 230 years as a constitutional democracy. China is fully integrated into the global economy. George Kennan’s grand strategy of containment was based on the correct judgment that, if isolated for long enough, the defects in the autarkic Soviet system would cause it to fail. China cannot be isolated, and its economy is currently outperforming ours.
The Soviet Union was an overly militarized state that collapsed under the burden of excessive defense spending. China has kept the proportion of its GDP devoted to its military at or below the level of our European “allies,” whom we accuse of spending too little on their defense. The Soviet Union controlled satellite countries and sought to impose its ideology on others, including us. The Chinese have no satellites and are notorious for not caring at all how foreigners govern ourselves.
Our competition with China is primarily economic. It will not be decided by who has the more appealing ideology, the most aircraft carriers, or the greatest stash of nuclear weapons, but by who delivers the best economic performance and by which country’s statecraft is soundest.
Are we ready for such a contest? Let’s look at the bright side. Maybe it will challenge us to get our act together. Let’s hope so.
It doesn’t seem to matter which political party controls the House or Senate. Congress still can’t pass a budget or otherwise set national priorities. When it’s not shut down, our government runs on credit rollovers. Our debt is out of control. So far this century, we’ve committed almost $6 trillion to wars we don’t know how to end. Meanwhile, we’ve deferred about $4 trillion in maintenance of our rapidly deteriorating physical infrastructure. We are disinvesting in our human endowment, cutting funding for our universities and scientific research. Our government is bleeding talent. This is not our finest hour.
And, if allies are assets rather than liabilities, the willingness of our security partners abroad to follow us is more uncertain than at any point since we became an active world power seven decades ago. We are withdrawing from international agreements and institutions, not seeking to shape them to our advantage or crafting new ones. Instead of asking our allies to do more to defend themselves, we are asking them to pay us to defend them. Our Senate can no longer bring itself to consider, let alone ratify treaties – even those we ourselves originally proposed. In short, we are not leading the world as we once did. We’re not part of the solution to transnational problems like global warming or arms control. Instead, we are becoming active obstructionists of solutions to pressing global problems.
The social mobility that once made equality of opportunity a reality in our country has ebbed away. Our wealthy are getting richer; those less fortunate are not. We have the highest percentage of our population imprisoned of any country in the world. That superlative aside, on many other measures of international excellence, we have complacently fallen to levels of mediocrity. Our students are thirty-eighth in math proficiency and twenty-fourth in science. We rank forty-second in life expectancy, forty-fifth in press freedoms, nineteenth in respect for the rule of law, and seventeenth in quality of life. Need I go on?
There’s a lot to fix at home before we can be sure we have what it takes to go abroad in search of dragons to destroy. There is a real danger that we have taken on more than we can handle. China is guilty of malpractice in several aspects of its trade policies. We are right to demand that it correct these. Experience strongly suggests that, if we work with others of like mind in organizations like the World Trade Organization to persuade China to do so, we can move China in desirable directions. An across-the-board assault on China of the sort we have just mounted is not only likely to fail, it entails risks we have not adequately considered. These risks include armed combat with a nuclear power. And China is getting relatively stronger, not weaker, even as our inept handling of foreign affairs increasingly marginalizes the United States in areas of human endeavor we have traditionally dominated.
We have given inadequate thought to how to leverage China’s rise to our advantage. Trying to tear China down will not succeed. Neither will it cure our self-induced debilitation as a nation.
We have launched a comprehensive competition with China for which we are not ready. We cannot afford to learn this the hard way. Whatever we do about China, we have to get our act together and do it now.
This is an extract of a speech to the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs St. Petersburg, Florida on 12 February 2019 given by Ambassador Chas W. Freeman Jr. The full speech can be viewed here.
Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (retired) is a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, USA.