With China ascendant, the era of the United States as the world’s lone superpower may be ending. Where is a flashpoint that could draw the two nations into a military conflict that might escalate into a global conflagration? Some analysts believe the answer is Taiwan.
Let’s think about the unthinkable: If a third world war were to last more than an hour and somehow not leave all the world’s capitals as heaps of radioactive, smoking ash, the flashpoint would likely be relatively small – and it would grow slowly at first, like the opening gambits of a chess game. Pawns, or proxies, would initially be involved, while the most powerful pieces, or geopolitical players, would hold back until strategic interests – or miscalculation – dictated a potentially rapid escalation in the game.
But where could such a war begin? There is no shortage of potential flashpoints around the world – the Korean peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and Kashmir, among others – but some analysts have zeroed in on a less-discussed location where a relatively small spark could light a major power conflagration: the island of Taiwan.
How might the ongoing game of chess played by China on one side and Taiwan (and the United States) on the other flash into a third world war? Consider this scenario:
In the not-very-distant future, Taiwan elects an explicitly pro-independence government. The new regime formally recognizes Beijing’s control of mainland China, while at the same time asserting its legitimacy as the sole government of Taiwan. This blows up the “two governments, one nation” arrangement that had been in place for decades.
The leadership of an increasingly powerful China is in no mood to relinquish its claim to sovereignty over Taiwan, which it continues to view as a renegade province. It rattles its saber by deploying naval and air forces around the island and making dark threats to bring Taiwan back into the fold by force, if necessary.
The U.S., for its part, is preoccupied by strategic challenges around the world, including its “denuclearization” negotiations with North Korea, attempts to contain Russian influence in Europe and the Middle East, ongoing military engagement in Afghanistan, and counterterrorism operations on multiple continents.
China demands that Taiwan return to the previous status quo; Taiwan refuses and declares a state of emergency. China announces a blockade of the island, including an air and sea closure of the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. moves elements of the Pacific Fleet toward the waters around Taiwan.
On a moonless night, a U.S. Navy frigate escorting a freighter carrying advanced weapons for Taiwan enters the Strait, where it collides with a Chinese naval vessel. Shots are fired . . .
To understand how this scenario (or other equally dangerous scenarios) might arise, it’s important to understand the basics of China-Taiwan history of the past century or so.
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The roots of the conflict between mainland China and Taiwan date back to the late 1920s, when Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong, launched a civil war against the Nationalists, who defended the government of the Republic of China (ROC). During the Japanese occupation of China, from 1937 to 1945, the two sides formed an uneasy alliance, but fighting between them resumed at the end of World War II.
Taiwan’s modern era as a strategic hotspot began when the Nationalists were defeated by the Communists, in 1949, and fled to the island of Taiwan (known then in the West by its Portuguese name, Formosa), which lies 110 miles offshore. The Nationalists, led by General Chiang Kai-shek, refused to accept defeat and established the ROC government in the “temporary” capital of Taipei. Despite controlling just a small, offshore territory, Chiang declared that the ROC was the legitimate government of all China, including the mainland.
Some two million people were relocated to Taiwan from mainland China in 1949. Most were soldiers, members of the elite Kuomintang, and intellectuals and business leaders.
To Mao, whose army had driven the Nationalists off the mainland, the ROC’s claim was absurd. He and the Chinese Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with its capital in Beijing. The PRC considers Taiwan to be a rebellious province that must ultimately submit to Beijing’s will, however long that might take. Although military hostilities ceased in 1949, the sides have never officially signed a peace treaty – which, by definition, would imply recognition of their independence from each other.
This fragile – though long-standing – peace has been maintained for the past seven decades. However, Beijing has warned the ROC that it will invade militarily should the nationalists declare Taiwan an independent state.  Any diplomatic misstep could threaten to unravel the multigenerational standoff that has come to define the governments’ relations.
It is for this reason that the region is so fraught, so important – and a possible flashpoint for a third world war.
Although the ROC was established as an authoritarian, one-party power, The United States recognized its importance as an ally in the U.S. policy of containing the spread of international communism. Accordingly, in 1954, the U.S. and Taiwan signed the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, effectively granting diplomatic recognition to Taiwan (while withholding normal relations from Mao’s Red China) when the treaty was formally implemented the next year.
As Taiwan gradually evolved into a multi-party democracy, it appeared to ensure the development of a special relationship with the U.S. and to solidify is standing as a crucial military and intelligence partner in the West Pacific region. However, its nominal independence and claim to legitimacy as the government of all of China have smoldered as potentially explosive strategic issues between the PRC and the U.S.
With more than 23 million people, Taiwan is the most populous country not formally recognized by the United Nations. In fact, the U.S. does not officially recognize the government of Taiwan, either, although it maintains informal relations through the American Institute in Taiwan, which is largely staffed by State Department officers and is the de facto embassy in Taipei.
Some analysts of China and the East Asian region argue that the PRC, for reasons of historical identity and national pride, wants China to be a unified country, including the island of Taiwan. They also note that China would be strategically challenged should Taiwan fall into less manageable hands, say, by the election of a separatist party.
Other experts on the region hold that Taiwan represents a strategic block to mainland China’s dreams of establishing a coastal hegemony, building upon the links from Beijing in the north through Shanghai to the island of Hong Kong in the south – and beyond into the South China Sea, where it is extending its territorial claims. Bringing Taiwan into the fold would help China project its power further into the Pacific.
Should the PRC launch an invasion of Taiwan, the outcome cannot be predicted with confidence. Over the years of tenuous standoff, the island fortress has prepared for such a tactical assault from the mainland. It has developed specialized ground forces that are well trained for a lengthy fight, and U.S.-supplied warplanes have (at least until recently) provided a formidable defensive advantage.
But the balance of power is changing. China’s missile forces and navy have been significantly modernized. In addition, its air force has deployed next-generation aircraft that are arguably superior to Taiwan’s. And it obviously has a decided advantage in the vast numbers of Chinese who can be called up for military service.
For Taiwan, its “ace in the hole” might be its special relationship with the United States, despite the fact that President Jimmy Carter, in 1980, unilaterally annulled the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty. But even without a formal treaty, Taiwan has reason to believe that, in the event of an invasion, its relationship with the United States and the island’s strategic importance to the West would virtually obligate the U.S. to deploy aircraft carriers and other military assets, particularly if Taiwan were to put up a good fight and keep the mainland forces at bay during the initial stages of engagement.
Almost 40 years have passed since President Carter’s decision without war breaking out, giving some credence to Taiwan’s confidence in U.S. support. But recent Chinese moves on the chess board of the West Pacific region may give cause for concern.
China-watchers have highlighted the importance of China’s increasing military strength and signals from Beijing of a more expansionist foreign policy, especially in the South China Sea. Many believe that these developments are in service of a long-term strategy to overtake the U.S. advantage in the West Pacific region.
Currently, the U.S. overmatches China by far in military capabilities, but this status quo is by no means guaranteed to be permanent. As China ascends on the world stage (not only militarily but also economically and politically), and the U.S. retreats from international commitments critical to the region (e.g., withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and finds its military stretched thin around the globe, the potential for a local conflict that rapidly escalates into World War III might increase.
Could a collision between warships on a moonless night in the midst of an international crisis spiral out of control into a full-scale World War III? Or would cooler heads prevail – and if so, what chess pieces would be sacrificed to regain the peace? We can hope that wise leaders would find a path back from the precipice, for otherwise, in this game, there will be no clear winner: It’s checkmate for everyone as all the pieces are swept from the board.
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