Tensions over the Taiwan Strait are palpable after China did its best to intimidate Taiwanese voters in the runup to last weekend’s election. First, the Cabinet released a white paper that drew an unmistakable line — thickened with a new condition — regarding the limits of acceptable Taiwanese behavior and when the mainland would use force against the island. Then the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress provided the backdrop for a series of speeches and media commentary warning Taipei about the consequences of declaring independence. And finally Premier Zhu Rongji, usually considered a moderate pragmatist, last week bluntly told Taiwanese voters to reject any candidate who supports independence.

Although the rhetoric is as harsh as any Beijing has used in recent years, there is near universal agreement that there is no immediate threat of military action. The consensus is that Beijing was doing its ham-fisted best to influence Taiwanese voters and sending a message to all the candidates in Saturday’s presidential ballot that discussions on reunification must resume. Of course, Chinese leaders are never hurt by talking tough when it comes to sovereignty and safeguarding the “territory of the motherland.”

All that is true, but there is growing awareness that the world cannot dismiss the threat of military action. There is more than political posturing at work.

David Shambaugh, director of the China program at George Washington University and a leading specialist on the People’s Liberation Army, believes the tough talk reflects “deep angst” in the armed forces. “The military’s views of the regional and international security environment reveal a considerable amount of ambivalence. While China enjoys an unprecedented period of peace and absence of direct external military pressure, Chinese military commentators nonetheless identify numerous uncertainties and latent security threats.”

Chief among them is the United States. Military analysts — and many in the civilian sector — have no doubts that the U.S. is doing its best to contain China and deny the mainland its rightful place in regional and global politics. One focus of U.S. activity is Taiwan. “PLA officers argue privately that the United States seeks the permanent separation of Taiwan from Chinese sovereignty,” Shambaugh explained.

Japan is also considered a threat. Shambaugh argues that “the anti-Japanese sentiment one encounters among the PLA at all levels is palpable. Distrust of Japan runs deep, transcends generations and is virulent among the generation of PLA officers in their 40s and 50s. Japan stimulates an emotional reaction not even evident in anti-American diatribes.” The strengthening of the Japan-U.S. military alliance, Tokyo’s participation in Washington’s theater-missile-defense plans and even the historical ties between Taipei and Tokyo feed Beijing’s antagonism toward Japan.

Such profound suspicions and ill-will invariably effect decisionmaking. All militaries are entrusted with national security planning, but the Chinese military is widely considered to have exceptional influence in Beijing. That won’t dictate the eventual course of events, but it could tip the scales in a crisis — especially when the military can also tap a deep vein of nationalist sentiment. An opinion poll taken last week shows 95 percent of Chinese support military action if Taiwan declares independence.

Still, that are no signs that military action is imminent or inevitable. Adm. Dennis Blair, the head of the U.S. Pacific forces, told Congress last week that “at the current time, the rhetoric is more heated than the military moves.”

Moreover, the conventional wisdom is that the Chinese armed forces are too weak, Taiwan’s defenses are too strong and the fallout from military action would be too severe for Beijing to proceed. Zhu dismissed those arguments in his press conference last week. “People making those calculations don’t know much about Chinese history. The Chinese people are ready to shed blood and sacrifice their lives to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the motherland.”

Take a look at Chinese history, and planning for the worst seems like a good idea. Mark Burles and Abram Shulsky, two Rand Corp. analysts, come down firmly on the side of caution in a new study.* They conclude that “relative weakness cannot necessarily be relied upon to deter China from using force.”

In fact, “the Chinese appear to believe that they possess tactics and methods that make it feasible for them to use force even when the overall military balances is very unfavorable to them, i.e., in situations in which their use of force might otherwise have been thought to be unlikely.”

In the Korean War, in India in 1962 and against Vietnam in 1979, China moved against a better-armed adversary — and in each case prevailed. Superior tactics and a better understanding of their enemy paid off. The two men write that “the PRC’s historical record shows that its leaders have been willing to take risks of this sort and have, in fact, been quite successful in assessing them.” Nor is the case of Taiwan necessarily different. U.S. forces are vastly superior to those of China, and using force would upset the regional balance of power. But the Rand study notes that “Chinese analysts identify a number of military and political vulnerabilities that China might be able to exploit in the event of a Sino-U.S. military conflict.”

The ultimate objective, they theorize, would be to quickly move against Taiwan to create a fait accomplis. Then the burden would be on the U.S. to acquiesce to the new situation or fight on to restore the status quo ante. In that case, the supposed constraints against Chinese action — world opinion, fear of a prolonged war and a desire to restore stability — would work against Washington, not Beijing.

Burles and Shulsky are blunt. “China, despite an awareness of its relative weakness, might nevertheless be willing to use force against the U.S. in a way that runs a major risk of U.S. involvement.”

Admittedly, that is the worst-case scenario. Even more worrisome is the fact that preparing for the worst could make conflict more likely by feeding Chinese suspicions. Nonetheless, to pretend such things could not happen is dangerous, as well.

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