An ugly but strategically important debate recently erupted between China and the United States over Taiwan.
The truth is, it is really of no concern as long as the debate is placed in the category of a war of abusive language between hawkish dragon slayers in Washington and equally hawkish anti-American ideologues in Beijing.
This, unfortunately, is hardly the case. The intellectual debate, or chain reaction, seems to have started with a Sept. 2 Foreign Affairs article titled “American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous” by Richard Haas and David Sacks. Haas, president of the Council of Foreign relations, is no hawkish dragon slayer by any means.
This was a political argument mentioned two weeks ago. The debate, however, is now accelerated by a military article titled “Deterring the Dragon: Returning U.S. Forces to Taiwan” by Capt. Walker D. Mills of the U.S. Marine Corps, claiming “The United States needs to consider basing ground forces in Taiwan” if it is committed to defending Taiwan.
On Sept. 21, Taiwan's Defense Ministry issued a statement warning China that Taipei would take “all necessary defensive steps” after Beijing conducted large-scale military drills and sent fighter jets over the Taiwan Strait. In mainland China, experts repeatedly warn the U.S. that “Washington is provoking Beijing to fire the first shot.”
On Sept. 24, the debate further escalated. Hu Xijin, the editor of China’s Global Times, tweeted, “I must warn people in the US and Taiwan who hold this kind of thinking. Once they take the step of returning US forces to Taiwan, the PLA will definitely start a just war to safeguard China’s territorial integrity.”
Are they serious about what they are talking about? Do they really mean it? What if the United States returned its forces to Taiwan where they were deployed before 1979? How would China react? Would they go to war against the United States? If so, how ready are both the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command? Let’s have a look:
‘One Bed, Two Dreams’ of 1979
On Sept. 24, the Global Times carried an article by Liu Xuanzun criticizing Capt. Walker D. Mills. The Chinese writer rebutted that returning U.S. forces to Taiwan is “a move that would break the Three Joint Communiques between China and the US that stipulated all US forces and military installations withdrawn from the Chinese island.”
Liu’s views, however, are not perfect. The U.S. acknowledged Beijing’s “one China” policy and reaffirmed its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question as it pertains to the 1972 U.S.-China joint communique. But Washington also declared that “With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces” from Taiwan.
Therefore, if Beijing officially revised its policy vis-a-vis Taiwan by warning that “the PLA will definitely start a just war to safeguard China’s territorial integrity,” it will also break the aforementioned U.S. “prospect in mind,” if not the entire Three Joint Communiques, which comprises agreements signed by the U.S. and China in 1972, 1979, and 1982.
Is Anti-Secession Law a tiger?
China's Anti-Secession Law states, as Liu stipulated in his article, that “in the event that ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause Taiwan's secession from China, or major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China should occur, or possibilities for a peaceful reunification be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
While it may take those with the proper knowledge to properly interpret China’s domestic laws, it seems questionable, from the eyes of many in the foreign community, to justify a war against Taiwan and the United States when and if the latter begins returning military personnel to the island for the purpose of “a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question.” as was written in the 1972 accord.
Will the U.S. return to Taiwan?
As noted earlier, Capt. Mills wrote “The United States needs to consider basing ground forces in Taiwan if it is committed to defending Taiwanese sovereignty.” But he added, “The regional balance of power in East Asia continues to tilt away from the United States and Taiwan toward mainland China. More specifically, the contours of the power balance make the possibility of a surprise, or fait accompli, attack on Taiwan more likely.”
He went on to say, “U.S. ground forces in Taiwan, particularly combat credible, heavy forces could not only go far in repelling a PLA cross-strait operation but also serve as a tripwire that would inevitably trigger a wider conflict not acceptable to China. Most importantly, the presence of ground forces sends a clear message that the United States will support Taiwan militarily in a conflict with mainland China.”
In a nutshell, Mills seems to assert that unless the United States reactivates its presence in Taiwan, U.S. deterrence will decline and paradoxically the risk of conflict will increase. The bad news is that he may be right, while the good news is that the U.S. government has no intention to run such a huge risk in the foreseeable future.
What if U.S. forces re-deploy?
Chinese analysts were quoted as saying, “If the US does deploy troops to Taiwan, it not only breaks the Three Joint Communiques fundamental to China-US diplomatic relations, but also triggers articles in China's Anti-Secession Law and enables the state to employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures” against Taiwan.
This would be like a game of chicken for Beijing. If it started a war and took resolute military action to liberate Taiwan by force where only small U.S. military units were deployed, China, contrary to its own views, could be deemed as a peace breaker, if not an aggressor, in the region. Will such a policy pay for Beijing? That is not likely the case.
By the same token, if China failed to wage a war against Taiwan and the United States, it could represent the beginning of the end of the Chinese Communist Party. It is highly unlikely Beijing wishes to start a war. Liu downplays the significance of Mills’ article by highlighting that he is “not a high-ranking officer” who represents the U.S. government.
The world should keep its fingers crossed.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.