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How to Avoid War Over Taiwan

Mar 04, 2022
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member, Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS), Tsinghua University

Since Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party came to power in 2016, she has refused to explicitly recognize the 1992 Consensus and has followed a path of “gradual Taiwan independence,” “cultural Taiwan independence” and de-Sinicization — all of which resulted in the suspension of institutional dialogue between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and a severe regression in cross-Strait relations. The peaceful development trend of the previous eight years was disrupted.

From the moment Donald Trump assumed office as U.S. president in 2017, his administration regarded China as a major strategic rival and began to play the Taiwan card. The authorities on the island took this opportunity to ally themselves with the U.S. against China and accelerated their pace toward independence.

The U.S. and Taiwan seriously deviated from the “one China” principle, forcing Beijing to use military deterrence against the separatists. The U.S. has been crying about potential Chinese military attacks, and some American officials and experts have called upon their government to change the U.S. strategy from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity about defending Taiwan. The situation only became more tense.

At present, and in the foreseeable future, there are three main risks of a military conflict over Taiwan:

First, as both China and the U.S. continue strengthening their military presence in the region, and as Taiwan carries out various military activities, accidents or misjudgments may arise between military aircraft and warships that frequently encounter one another. 

Second, U.S. salami-slicing tactics continue to press China, and may touch the red line drawn by China. If these extremely dangerous and provocative acts are one day considered to have crossed the line defined in the national anti-secession law, China will be forced to use non-peaceful means to counter pro-independence and secessionist activity. If the U.S. and Taiwan do not pull back from the precipice at that time, military conflict will be inevitable. 

Third, the U.S. has been exaggerating China’s intent to attack Taiwan by force and has called for all-out efforts to strengthen the island’s defense capabilities, together with the support capacity of the U.S. and its allies. Some officials have even proposed attacking PLA naval and air forces, blocking key ports and suppressing the C3I system to prevent a Chinese “invasion.” Once this extremely wrongheaded view is adopted, it will certainly lead to a military conflict, probably a very serious one.

At present, there is a voice in the U.S. advocating a showdown with China in the Taiwan Strait — and the sooner the better, since China’s military will only become stronger. This is no less than a request to initiate war. China is on high alert in this regard. 

Then how will a military conflict be prevented and peace be safeguarded? Before this question can be answered, it is necessary to note that the Taiwan question — and the existence of separate jurisdictions in the strait — is a leftover from the Chinese civil war, which is China’s internal affair. No other country may interfere without severe consequences. Even less is Taiwan allowed to separate itself. It is Chinese territory. Only under this premise can meaningful discussion be conducted about how to prevent a military conflict and safeguard peace.  

I believe efforts should be made in the following four aspects to prevent a military conflict over Taiwan:

First, we should all adhere to the one-China principle. Taiwan has been Chinese territory since ancient times. It was once illegally occupied by Japan. After World War II, it was returned to China in accordance with the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation. In 1971, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted Resolution 2758, restoring all rights of the People’s Republic of China in the UN. Representatives of the Taiwan authorities were expelled from all UN organs.

To date, most countries in the world including Japan and the United States have diplomatic relations with the PRC on the basis of the one-China principle. But in recent years, the situation has become increasingly tense primarily because the Taiwan authorities and the U.S. government have seriously violated the one-China principle. Adherence to that principle is necessary if military conflict is to be avoided and peace maintained. 

Second, countries must never send the wrong signals to pro-independence elements in Taiwan. Beyond the DPP’s pursuit of independence, increasing tensions were also created by the Trump administration and pro-Taiwan voices in the U.S. Congress, which have increasingly hollowed out the one-China policy implemented by the previous six U.S. presidents. This sends the wrong message to the secessionists.

Little has changed since the advent of the Biden administration. Pro-Taiwan elements in Japan have acted similarly. At present, if these countries wish to avoid a military conflict, they should put the one-China policy into practice, not send errant signals to the secessionists to avoid being used by them. Otherwise, the only result in the end will be damage to these countries’ own interests.

Third, the Chinese government has an unswerving policy whose goal is peaceful reunification with Taiwan. Since the start of China’s reform and opening-up, Beijing has promoted a policy of “one country, two systems” and “peaceful reunification.” Over the past several decades, this policy has developed continuously in light of the evolving international situation, with positive progress achieved. However, in recent years, the process of peaceful reunification has been severely challenged by pro-independence elements in Taiwan, as well as by international interference.

The Chinese government has declared repeatedly and with utmost sincerity that it is willing to do its utmost to achieve peaceful reunification. This is a major effort to safeguard peace and stability. It must be noted, however, that even though China wants peaceful reunification, it does not renounce the use of force, as Deng Xiaoping pointed out early on. This is also explicit in the Anti-Secession Law promulgated by the National People's Congress in 2005. Taiwan secession means war, and military force is a necessary deterrent. China hopes that its desire for peaceful reunification will be understood and supported by the international community.

Fourth, relevant countries should conduct necessary political, security and crisis management dialogues. The Taiwan question has always been highly sensitive and lies at the center of China-U.S. relations. It is also a sensitive issue for Japan. Between China and the U.S., and between China and Japan, efforts should be made to resume and strengthen political and security dialogues between leaders and governments. These should include topics such as adherence to the one-China principle, opposition to Taiwan independence and management of differences on the Taiwan question.

The Chinese and American militaries should also engage in dialogue to strengthen crisis management. And, while striving to implement the code of conduct for military-to-military encounters at sea or in the air, they should discuss the establishment of stronger communication mechanisms aimed at crisis avoidance and control.

Finally, it is important for Beijing and Taipei to resume dialogues and contacts and improve relations with a view toward preventing a military conflict. These must be based on the 1992 Consensus, which at its core means that both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one and the same China.

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