Charles Glaser’s article, “Will China’s Rise Lead To War?“ in Foreign Affairs brings to light many interesting points that reflect the complex debate on whether China’s rise will be peaceful or whether it will lead to military confrontation as a consequence of the clash between Chinese government expansionism and United States interests and commitments in the Asia-Pacific—a clash that would ultimately trigger the use of nuclear weapons in a war between Beijing and Washington.
Glaser convincingly argues that, given the nuclear deterrent that both countries possess and the virtual impossibility of an invasion conducted by either of the rivals, war is unlikely because under current circumstances both countries are able to protect their vital interests without posing a major threat to each other. Thus, if both countries can manage mutual relations without resorting to military action then the danger of conflict taking place stems from security alliances maintained by the United States in Asia.
The crucial point in Glaser’s analysis is that backing away from U.S. ties to Taiwan would remove potentially the most dangerous issue between Washington and Beijing and pave the way for better relations. It is the purpose of this essay to critically assess Glaser’s arguments in regards to U.S. policy toward both Taiwan and China.
Glaser voices the fear that if the United States decides to comply with the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that ambiguously imply U.S. support in case of an unprovoked Chinese government attack on Taiwan, such a crisis may very well escalate to full-scale nuclear war between China and United States. This is indeed a point that has been discussed on many occasions by an extensive number of scholars who provide step-by-step scenarios leading to use of nuclear weapons. Glaser’s thesis is that since Taiwan is a less-than-vital U.S. interest, the risk of conflict over Taiwan is simply not worth it. However, one should carefully assess such scenarios. First, as capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) increase (which Glaser acknowledges on several occasions) Chinese leadership would be less tempted to resort to the use of nuclear weapons since its conventional forces will eventually be capable of countering those deployed by the United States. Second, if a crisis escalates the United States may opt for extending its support for Taiwanese forces by direct attacks deep inside Chinese territory. Under such circumstances, hawks in the PLA and Politburo may indeed push for nuclear retaliation. But in this case they would knowingly opt for massive reaction at the hands of U.S. strategic forces. A senior Chinese general once pointed out that, in the end, the United States cares more about Los Angeles than Taipei, implying that a Chinese government attack on the U.S. homeland would not be ruled out. Yet, any Chinese strategist should follow up with the question “do we care about Taipei more than we do about Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, or Chengdu?”
This point relates closely to the previous one. Glaser is correct when pointing out this issue, but is this necessarily a bad situation? In the end, states can commit as many resources to an arms race as are available to them. The Chinese government may be worried about Japan (as Glaser argues) but it is more worried about social unrest, and tackling this issue will inevitably require the commitment of considerable resources. Moreover, an arms race does not necessarily produce instability. Lessons from the Cold War can serve as an example. The extensive nuclear arms race in the 1950s and 1960s between the United States and the Soviet Union eventually reached a state of mutually assured destruction (MAD), a situation that effectively prevented conflict between the two superpowers. A second round of the arms race appeared to undermine Soviet economic performance and eventually led to the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Undoubtedly, this is a lesson that Chinese government policy makers have to bear in mind.
A Military Solution
It is clear that due to advanced weaponry on the PLA side Taiwan no longer enjoys air superiority, as was the case from the 1950s to the early 1990s. China also has the advantage of geographic depth, whereas the whole of Taiwan’s territory is exposed to Chinese air and missile attack. Development of the PLA Navy (PLAN) increases the China government’s capability to impose a naval blockade of the island. Yet, it should not be forgotten that invasion from sea is not an easy undertaking for any power, and it is hard to imagine effective Chinese government control of Taiwan without putting boots on the ground. Any other military option may succeed in forcing Taiwan to make concessions but without the effective direct occupation of the island any such achievement will have limited impact and may be reversed at any time in the future. Furthermore, carefully crafted defense strategy on the part of Taiwan may discourage Beijing from the temptation of a military solution. Taiwan can and should adopt Chinese A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) strategy, designed to keep U.S. forces out of Chinese waters, to China’s disadvantage. Development and deployment of Taiwanese-made ballistic or cruise missiles on land or sea-borne platforms (particularly efficient could be stealth-capability high-speed boats) may turn the Taiwan Strait into a “no-go” zone for Chinese vessels. Development of more efficient missile defense systems, either domestically built or imported from the United States, may reduce the impact of a saturation missile attack on Taiwan (though defense will never be 100 percent efficient). In any case, U.S. technological assistance will be needed but it does not necessarily have to be more than that. Despite numerous disadvantages, there is one issue favorable to Taiwan and its U.S. security partner: If the Chinese government resorts to the use of force, it will face the burden that anything but Taiwan’s full compliance with Beijing’s demands will be considered a failure. Taiwan and the United States on the other hand do not have to defeat the PLA; they need only prevent a Chinese government victory. In regards to the previous point, it is the presence of a means to defend Taiwan that would prevent Beijing from opting for war because the likelihood of failure may be too high to be risked.
Glaser argues that “not all adversaries are Hitler, and when they are not, accommodation can be an effective tool,” adding, “When an adversary has limited territorial goals, granting them can lead not to further demands but rather to satisfaction with the new status quo and a reduction of tension.” Yet, he fails to provide any support for his argument, especially in regards to the issue of limited territorial goals. Moreover, his argument about Hitler is based on knowledge of the consequences of Nazi Germany expansionist policy. In fact, when France and the United Kingdom agreed with the annexation of Austria and forced France’s ally Czechoslovakia to concede to German territorial demands (the case that Glaser obviously has in mind here) there was a widely shared belief that Germany’s territorial demands were limited to those territories inhabited by Germans, which resulted in the policy of appeasement. Glaser argues that backing away from commitments to Taiwan would prevent war between the United States and China, but it by no means excludes war between China and Taiwan. States simply do not feel particularly enthusiastic about conceding to territorial demands and tend to choose to defend themselves instead. The United Kingdom opposed limited territorial demands raised by Argentina in 1982 (despite facing an immense strategic disadvantage), just as Bosnians and Croats opposed Serbian limited territorial demands in the early 1990s. War might have been prevented if those demands were appeased; however, it was not acceptable for the other side in the conflict. Glaser simply does not acknowledge the possibility that Taiwan could decide to oppose Chinese government demands even if it finds itself abandoned by the United States. And Taiwan may very well make such a decision after taking into consideration the burdens that China may face if Taiwan adopts elements of an A2/AD strategy. In such a case, the United States may face a situational dilemma when its (former) ally is attacked by China and U.S. forces are simply standing by and watching.
Glaser’s argument that a United States concession of Taiwan to the China government would not result in serious damage to its credibility is similarly dubious. Further in his article Glaser argues that the United States may prevent such a situation by reassuring its allies through strengthening particular elements of military cooperation (joint drills, deployment of more troops, and increases in technology cooperation). However, this may mean little either for Japan or Korea, or nations in Southeast Asia when they are confronted with a U.S. retreat from Taiwan or, in a worst-case scenario, the United States standing by as China’s government actually attacks Taiwan. Glaser acknowledges that U.S. influence over Taiwan’s behavior is limited (implying that Taiwan may be tempted to declare independence while still hoping for U.S. support) but is not the United States equally limited in the case of other allies? What would prevent Japan and Korea from increasing military spending, which would contribute to the arms races Glaser appears to be so worried about? Joint drills and reinforcement may work for a time, but is this a sustainable strategy? Glaser also downplays Chinese government territorial demands in the East China Sea that directly concern Japan. His argument that China’s government would be satisfied with gaining only Taiwan sounds more like wishful thinking. What if China’s government moves even more assertively on the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands or other claims in the East China Sea? Would the United States oppose China, or would it push Japan to make concessions because war needs to be avoided at any cost? To argue that the impact of concessions on the Taiwan issue will have no impact on the perceptions of U.S. allies is not convincingly supported.
It is certainly legitimate to argue that U.S. commitments to Taiwan are not worth the possibility of war with China, and it is reasonable that American scholars question such commitments. However, Glaser does not offer convincing arguments that making concessions on Taiwan would produce desirable results: accommodating China’s government and reassured credibilityvis-à-vis its allies, notably Japan and Korea. A policy of appeasement may work … and it may not. Glaser chooses the former but fails to support his arguments.
The author of this essay strongly opposes the idea that current U.S. commitments may easily lead to full-scale nuclear war. A combination of nuclear and conventional deterrence (developing Taiwan’s A2/AD and missile defense capabilities with U.S. technological assistance), and strategic restraint in the case of a breakout of war (i.e. limiting U.S. response purely to Taiwan’s defense) may keep a potential conflict limited to conventional warfare. Moreover, enhancing Taiwan’s defensive advantages and limiting disadvantages should be enough to make Chinese leaders think twice about choosing a military solution.
As for U.S. objectives, abandoning Taiwan may serve a purpose in the short-term perspective. China’s government may appear to be temporarily satisfied and Washington may succeed in tackling concerns of other regional players. However, short-term benefits could easily turn into long-term losses. It is difficult to assume that Japan, Korea, or the Philippines would not reflect on such fundamental change in the regional security environment and there is a little reason to believe that strengthening alliance with U.S. is the most likely result. Loss of confidence in sincerity of U.S. pledges and rebalancing towards Beijing seems to be the rather likely option.
Moreover, even if Taiwan subsequently concedes to Chinese government pressure, undesirable war with China is avoided, and yet other states proceed to tighten relations with U.S., Taiwan under Chinese control would irreversibly change regional geopolitics further into Washington’s disadvantage.
At the end of the day Taipei may reach an agreement with Beijing that would prevent war once and for all. Moreover, such an arrangement is foreseen as a desirable outcome within the current framework of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Taiwan. However, abandoning Taiwan in the hopes that it will concede its territory to China’s government without resistance does not seem to be a viable strategy. Nor it is a good policy to let Beijing take over Taiwan and pretend that it is actually a good outcome for the U.S.