Although Washington has not openly placed nuclear-capable weapons close to Chinese territory, it has sent aircraft carriers and guided-missile vessels there to state that it is prepared to attack
China’s mainland if conflict strikes.
Taiwan is located directly in the centre of that gap.
The potential of unintentional violence is equivalent to every time an American Navy vessel transits the Taiwan Strait, which currently happens roughly once a month.
Unfortunately, there are no signs that Beijing or Washington will cease their aggressive military exercises around Taiwan.
Sadly, there are currently no US-China conversations underway to settle the Taiwan issue, avoid unforeseen conflicts in the Taiwan Strait, or lower the possibility of a nuclear escalation.
The dangers of the Russo-Ukrainian confrontation have again gained attention due to Vladimir Putin’s recent implied threat to use nuclear weapons if the United States and its NATO allies continue to arm Ukraine. “This is not a bluff,” he maintained on September 21. And it’s also possible that the Russian president would believe that the time for threats is over and that only the detonation of a nuclear weapon can persuade the Western countries to back off as even more potent US weaponry floods into Ukraine and Russian forces suffer yet more setbacks. If so, the conflict in Ukraine could go down in history as the first war since World War II to result in nuclear destruction.
Hold on, though! There are other places on the earth where nuclear war could break out shortly besides Ukraine. It’s unfortunate to warn that there is a growing possibility that provocative military manoeuvres by the US and Chinese forces near the island of Taiwan might escalate into a nuclear exchange.
Both Chinese and American officials have raised the possibility of severe results there, although neither side publicly threatens to deploy such weapons. When Joe Biden and Xi Jinping last spoke on the phone on July 29, the Chinese leader cautioned him against permitting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit the island (which she did four days later), as well as against giving the island’s “Taiwan independence forces” any more support. He told the American president, in an ambiguous warning that left the possibility of using nuclear weapons openly, “Those who play with fire will perish by it.”
To further emphasise this point, China launched 11 Dongfeng-15 (DF-15) ballistic missiles into the waters around Taiwan on September 4, the day after Pelosi met with top Taiwanese officials in Taipei. In the opinion of many Western observers, the barrage was intended to show Beijing’s capability to destroy any US naval ships that may support Taiwan in the event of a Chinese blockade or invasion of the island. Additionally, the DF-15, which has a 600-mile range, is thought to be able to deliver both a conventional payload and a nuclear payload.
The Taiwan Strait median line, a hitherto accepted informal border between China and that island, was crossed by nuclear-capable H-6 heavy bombers by China in the days that followed. Even worse, state-run media showed footage of Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) hypersonic ballistic missiles transported off Taiwan. These missiles are also thought to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Although Washington has not openly placed nuclear-capable weapons close to Chinese territory, it has sent aircraft carriers and guided-missile vessels there to state that it is prepared to attack China’s mainland if conflict strikes. For instance, the Navy stationed the carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its flotilla of escort vessels in the neighbouring waters while Pelosi was in Taiwan. Military authorities in both nations are well aware that should one of these ships ever enter Chinese soil, the DF-15 and DF-17 would be launched at them. They would elicit a nuclear retaliation from the United States if they were armed with nuclear weapons.
The underlying message from both sides is that a nuclear conflict may be possible. And while the American media hasn’t explicitly mentioned how Taiwan may set off such a conflagration, the possibility is real, unlike Putin’s remarks.
The possibility of a nuclear conflict over Taiwan is nothing new. In the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954–1955 and 1958, the US threatened to use such weapons against a then-non-nuclear China if it continued to shell the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), which are situated off its coast. Washington did not officially recognise the communist government on the Chinese mainland at the time, but Taiwan’s government, known as the Republic of China (ROC), was. US officials ultimately preferred the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the Republic of China (ROC). As a result, the chance of a nuclear exchange sharply decreased—until recently.
Consider Washington’s shifting perceptions of Taiwan’s strategic importance to America’s leading position in the Pacific as it confronts the challenge of China’s development as a great power as the cause of the new, riskier situation. When the US cut off its formal diplomatic and military ties with the ROC in 1978 to recognise the PRC, it did so while “acknowledging the Chinese view that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China.” Since then, the “One China” policy, which was based on the belief that the island would eventually join the mainland, has supported harmonious relations between the two nations (as well as Taiwan’s autonomy).
Another crucial aspect of US strategy, “strategic ambiguity,” has helped keep Taiwan safe and independent. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, a law enacted after the US decided to recognise the PRC as the legitimate government of all of China, is where it all began. The legislation, which is still in force, gives the US the authority to provide Taiwan with “defensive” weapons while only maintaining loose diplomatic connections with its leadership. It also states that any violent attempt by China to change Taiwan’s status would be viewed as “of considerable concern” in Washington. Still, it does not explicitly state that Taiwan would receive American assistance if that happened. Such official ambiguity contributed to maintaining peace by giving neither the leaders of the People’s Republic of China nor Taiwan any assurances that Washington would support them if they both declared their independence and China invaded.
Since 1980, both Democratic and Republican administrations have used the One China policy and this strategic ambiguity to steer their relations with the PRC in a friendly manner. Taiwan’s status has been constant friction between Washington and Beijing over the years, but there has never been a fundamental breakdown in relations. And because of that, Taiwan has grown into a modern, successful quasi-state while avoiding being involved in a major-power confrontation (partly because it simply didn’t appear prominently enough in US strategic thinking). Consider the irony of that.
Top American diplomats spent most of their time between 1980 and 2001 dealing with the Cold War’s end, defeating the Soviet Union, and promoting international trade. Then, from September 11, 2001, to 2018, they were preoccupied with the War on Terror. On the other hand, senior military officials started to shift their attention away from the War on Terror to what they called “great-power competition” in the early years of the Trump administration. They claimed that combating “near-peer” adversaries like China and Russia should be the main focus of military planning. Taiwan only took on a new significance after that.
The National Defense Strategy from February 2018 was the first document to state the Pentagon’s new strategic outlook explicitly: “The key challenge to US prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with China and Russia (And sure, the original had emphasis.) Particularly China was singled out as posing a severe danger to Washington’s sustained global hegemony. According to the memo, “while China continues its economic and military ascendance, it will continue to undertake a military modernization programme that intends to dethrone the United States in the short term and replace it in the long term to attain global preeminence.”
A frightening “new Cold War” era had started.
Growing Strategic Importance of Taiwan
Pentagon leaders developed a multipronged plan, combining an increased US military presence in the region with beefed-up, ever more militarised connections with America’s friends there, to prevent China from gaining that most feared of all results, “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony.” “We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, sustaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains,” the 2018 National Defense Strategy stated. Initially, only enduring friends like Australia and Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines were to be a part of that “networked security architecture.” But eventually, Taiwan was seen as an integral part of such architecture.
Imagine the Western Pacific on a map to understand what this means. Washington was counting on a network of the island and peninsular allies, extending from South Korea and Japan to create the Philippines and Australia, in its effort to “contain” China. The southernmost islands of Japan extend into the Philippine Sea, including Okinawa, home to significant American military installations and a solid local anti-base movement. But there is still a great distance between them and Luzon, the northernmost island in the Philippines. Taiwan is located directly in the centre of that gap.
The top military and foreign policy figures in the United States believed that to successfully stop China from becoming a significant regional power successfully, the United States would need to contain its naval forces within what they began to refer to as “the first island chain”—the collection of countries that stretches from Japan to the Philippines and Indonesia. They believed that China’s navy needed to be able to deploy its ships past that chain of islands and reach far into the Pacific if it was to prosper. You won’t be surprised to find that Taiwan has, frighteningly enough, become a critical piece in the strategic puzzle due to the Pentagon’s primary objective of strengthening US defences along that very chain.
When he spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December last year, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner encapsulated the Pentagon’s new perspective on the island’s geopolitical significance. “Taiwan is placed at a strategic node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of US allies and partners that is critical to the security of the area and the defence of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific,” he said added.
Senior policymakers in Washington have started to rethink the fundamentals, particularly their commitment to a One China policy and strategic ambiguity, due to this new understanding of Taiwan’s “vital” relevance. President Biden has repeatedly maintained, all too explicitly, that the United States must have a duty to defend Taiwan if attacked, although continuing to insist that One China is White House policy. Recently on 60 Minutes, Biden was asked if “U.S. forces…would defend Taiwan in the case of a Chinese attack.” He said emphatically, “Yes.” The government has also strengthened diplomatic ties with the island and pledged to provide it with billions of dollars worth of military aid, including the delivery of arms. Such actions essentially amount to abandoning the “One China” policy in favour of the “One China, One Taiwan” policy.
It should be no surprise that the Chinese government has responded to these statements and the actions that have followed them with growing alarm and rage. From Beijing’s perspective, they constitute a complete rejection of numerous comments that acknowledged Taiwan’s unbreakable connections to the mainland and a severe military danger should that island become a formal ally of the United States. This is intolerable for President Xi and his supporters.
President Xi expressed his grave concern to Vice President Biden during their phone call in November 2021: “The repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for US backing for their independence programme, as well as the goal of some Americans to use Taiwan to restrict China.” Such actions are exceedingly risky, similar to playing with fire. Anyone who tampers with fire will end up burned.
Since then, Chinese leaders have gradually stepped up their rhetoric, expressing their threats of war in ever-clearer words. Qin Gang, China’s US ambassador, told NPR in January 2022: “If the Taiwanese authorities keep down the road toward independence, emboldened by the United States, it most likely will entangle China and the United States, the two main countries, in military conflict.”
China has started conducting routine air and naval drills in the air and seaspace surrounding Taiwan to show how concerned it is about the situation. To intimidate the Taiwanese government, such operations often entail the deployment of five or six warships, a dozen or more warplanes, and ever-increasing firepower displays. For instance, the Chinese stationed 13 warships and 68 aeroplanes in the vicinity of Taiwan on August 5, then 14 ships and 66 aircraft two days later.
The Taiwanese respond by mobilising their aircraft and deploying coastal defence vessels each time. Accordingly, the possibility of an unintentional or unplanned collision increases as China’s manoeuvres increase in scale and regularity. This explosive combination is only made worse by the US warships’ increased frequency of deployment in the neighbourhood. The potential of unintentional violence is equivalent to every time an American Navy vessel transits the Taiwan Strait, which currently happens roughly once a month. China scrambles its air and sea defences in response.
For instance, this was true on August 28th as the guided-missile cruisers USS Antietam, and USS Chancellorsville passed through the strait. The Chinese military “conducted security tracking and monitoring of the U.S. warships’ passage during their whole course and had all movements of the U.S. warships under control,” according to Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry.
No Obstacles to the Escalation?
The dangers of all this may be much more apparent and judged much more newsworthy if it weren’t for the seemingly endless war in Ukraine. Unfortunately, there are no signs that Beijing or Washington will cease their aggressive military exercises around Taiwan. That implies that any time could bring about an unintentional or accidental collision resulting in a significant conflict.
Imagine what it would entail if Taiwan decided to declare its independence formally or if the Biden administration decided to renounce the One China policy. China would surely react violently, possibly by encircling the island with ships or launching an invasion on a large scale. A violent resolution seems more plausible, given the apparent lack of interest in compromise among the essential parties.
Whatever the cause of the dispute, keeping the combat at a “conventional” level could be challenging. After all, both sides have prepared their military forces for swift, firepower-intensive warfare aimed at fast gaining a decisive victory because they are scared of another war of attrition like the one currently raging in Ukraine. To prevent the US from being able to strike its territory, Beijing may decide to launch hundreds of ballistic missiles against nearby US ships and air bases. It might entail missile launches by Washington at China’s essential ports, air bases, radar installations, and command centres. Results could be disastrous in any scenario. Loss of carriers and other vessels for the United States; loss of China’s ability to wage war. Would the losing side’s leaders consent to such a scenario without nuclear weapons? Although no one can be certain, there would surely be a strong temptation to escalate.
Sadly, there are currently no US-China conversations underway to settle the Taiwan issue, avoid unforeseen conflicts in the Taiwan Strait, or lower the possibility of a nuclear escalation. In fact, after Pelosi’s journey to Taiwan, China abruptly ended all dialogue on bilateral issues, including anything from military matters to climate change. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand that preventing war over Taiwan is just as critical as avoiding an escalation risk in Ukraine, especially given the chance that such a battle could prove to be considerably more damaging. To start talks aimed at averting such a calamity, Washington and Beijing must put their disagreements aside for a sufficient amount of time.
Analysis by: Advocacy Unified Network