The odds of China using nuclear war to resolve the Taiwan issue

Feb 20, 2024
Taiwan flag in tug of war. Describe the concept of U.S.-China competition and the importance of Taiwan

Recently the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a thinktank in Washington, DC, did a survey asking U.S. and Taiwan Experts if China might use nuclear weapons in a conflict with or over Taiwan. The results were astonishing to most who read the study. Almost half of U.S. experts reported they thought China would. Only one quarter that number of Taiwan experts, 11 percent, so opined.

Different histories and variances in views of the world order explain this.

The US view

The United States was born out of war in the late 1700s. Americans call it a revolutionary war or a war of independence. It was the latter. (Social classes did not change.)

Growing from a small country on the East Coast to a two-ocean nation in a century was built on wars with the indigenous people (American Indians) that were reduced from 100 percent of the population to 2 percent today. The wars were vicious, including the use of germ weapons and deliberately starving the enemy. Essentially wars of annihilation.

In the late 1800s the Indians were defeated marked by a victory (some called a massacre) in the Battle of Wounded Knee. Thenceforth the U.S. became an external expansionist power: incorporating Hawaii, defeating Spain to colonise the Philippines, and taking some other Pacific Islands.

World War I and II enhanced America’s world power status: from being an important nation to being a preeminent world power (superpower). In 1991, the U.S. defeated the Soviet Union, the only other superpower, with an arms race that America won—to become the world’s sole superpower.

Four years ago, former President Jimmy Carter noted America had been at peace only 16 of the last 242 years and concluded the U.S. was the most warlike nation in history. By contrast, China had not been at war in the last 40 years.

Meanwhile, after World War II the U.S. built a new world order employing its superior national power and its view of what the world should be –a world of global trade and economic growth and dragooned democracy. It worked well for a while.

But America became overstretched from its role as a military giant, and in some ways soft or at least tired of its global responsibilities. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it was not ready to lead a unipolar world.

More important, it faced a growing challenge. Mao, China’s great leader, died in 1976 and two years later Deng Xiaoping reconstructed China, getting rid of Mao’s radical communism and replacing it with free-market capitalism, trade and a system that built on China’s education tradition. China boomed economically.

It even grew during the world recession of 2008 and the subsequent almost slowest U.S. recovery in recent history. China became the number one nation in the world economically based on purchasing power. It led the word in steel production and other measures of big power status. In made the UN’s poverty eradication project work by helping developing countries grow with its formidable Belt and Road Initiative that was heading toward spending a trillion dollars compared to America’s biggest, the Marshall Plan (costing a bit over 100 billion in today’s dollars). Meanwhile, China passed the U.S. in registering patents and publishing academic articles while building modern airports and fast trains (more than the rest of the world combined while American had none).

President Trump met the China challenge with a make America great again policy. He sought to bring important industries back and restore U.S. capitalism. However, he faced virtually impossible hurdles to do this: an inflated and powerful government bureaucracy, too many lawyers that impeded business, horribly expensive penal and welfare systems, high taxes and a burdensome debt. Plus, the intelligence agencies and the federal police (FBI), the mainstream media, and American academe all opposed him while the Democratic Party that was bigger than his party had more money.

President Biden sought to destroy Trump’s America. As a globalist he advocated the idea of the US as an exceptional country and a superpower. America was to be a nation organising a bloc of democracies facing off against the China-led authoritarian nations. But this failed. America’s democracy appeared to many to have evolved into partisan rule by the deep state. Europeans did not want to be led by the U.S. Europe and Japan did not wish to end important economic ties with China. The Biden administration engaged in a financial and technology war with China, which hurt the U.S. more than China. The developing countries of the world continued to admire China for its aid and investments.

Good luck competing with China…

Meanwhile, pundits were taken by an idea expressed in the ancient book by Thucydides, The Peloponnesian Wars, that competition and eventually war between a status quo power (Sparta) and a rising power (Athens) was the model for most major wars after that. The relationship between America and China fit the model well. Thus, war was coming.

Provoking a war by demonising China as an expansionist power and an abuser of human rights meant that the U.S. should to go to war soon—before China, experiencing a renaissance and rising in national power, might defeat the U.S. that was experiencing decline.

The Taiwanese view

Taiwan has a very different history and view of the world from America. It early on grew up in isolation. Then it was exposed to the world outside via trade handled by its merchants, pirates, and outsiders. Chinese migrated to Taiwan and subdued the indigenous population reducing it to 2 percent of residents as happened in America; but this did not make Taiwan a world power.

Instead, Taiwan was ruled by Westerners (the Netherlands) for a brief time that improved its economy and more. For two centuries it was then ruled by China that did not have much interest in Taiwan and eventually abandoned it. Forthwith, Taiwan became a colony of Japan, during which time it saw economic modernisation without political choice or democracy.

Then the United States defeated Japan in war and returned Taiwan to China according to wartime agreements made at Potsdam and Tehran. Taiwan was not given any choice in the matter.

But China was at war with itself–a civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Tse-tung’s Communists. Four years later Chiang lost and retreated to Taiwan to regroup. Again, Taiwan had no voice.

Owing to the Korean War the United States viewed Mao as a confederate of the Soviet Union and therefore an enemy. America gave aid and protection to Chiang’s Republic of China based on Taiwan. But the U.S. did not want a war with China allied with the Soviet Union and the result was a stalemate.

Chiang shifted his attention to Taiwan’s economic development and succeeded beyond almost anyone’s expectations. Its gross national product grew at a pace that far exceeded Western countries or Japan at their halcyon growth days.

Peace made this possible. Economic growth produced prosperity. Prosperity begat a middle class. A middle class serve to create political change and democracy.

Taiwan became a model for economic development and political change. Something similar happened in China under Deng: a booming economy and some political liberalisation. China and Taiwan linked up with trade and investments such that it made for mutual understanding and the avoidance of war, the same conditions that made the European Community work.

Strategically, Taiwan aligned with the United States against China in the Cold War. Like before it had no choice. But it avoided developing a nuclear weapon believing Chinese leaders when they said they would not use its nukes against Taiwan as they would not consider killing their own people.

Taiwan believed this because China did not engage in a nuclear arms race with America even though in the last two or three decades it could afford to do so. China sought to deal with Taiwan with its economic prowess, though it pulled its punches in using pressure and Taiwan knew it.

Taiwan’s residents’ national identity made it favour its sovereignty and separation from China or independence. Yet they knew this was contingent on America’s protection, regarding which they had some doubts.

Washington’s policy was that there was one China and Taiwan was part of China. President Biden restated this in the presence of world leaders at an APEC meeting in San Francisco. Feelings grew in Taiwan that America regarded it a pawn. The Biden administration forced Taiwan to invest in producing top-of-the line computer chips in Arizona, thus disabling what President Tsai called Taiwan’s “silicon shield.” She and Taiwan’s population could also see that China was on the rise; the U.S. was not.

Opinion polls in Taiwan reflected this. While residents’ identity favoured Taiwan and they picked independence over unification, they fancied the status quo more, and perceived Taiwan would reunify with China in the long run. Most of all they wanted peace. War, even if the U.S. kept its promises and fought for Taiwan, would still mean Taiwan would suffer grievously.

Finally, they preferred China’s world order that was founded on financial and technological power, not America’s system which relied on military might that Henry Kissinger, among others, opined was in quick decay.

Hence, it is understandable why U.S. pundits see China attacking Taiwan even with nuclear weapons much more likely than Taiwan scholars.

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