Thanks to Vladimir Putin’s recent implicit threat to employ nuclear weapons if the U.S. and its NATO allies continue to arm Ukraine — “This is not a bluff,” he insisted on September 21st — the perils in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict once again hit the headlines. And it’s entirely possible, as ever more powerful U.S. weapons pour into Ukraine and Russian forces suffer yet more defeats, that the Russian president might indeed believe that the season for threats is ending and only the detonation of a nuclear weapon will convince the Western powers to back off. If so, the war in Ukraine could prove historic in the worst sense imaginable — the first conflict since World War II to lead to nuclear devastation.
But hold on! As it happens, Ukraine isn’t the only place on the planet where a nuclear conflagration could erupt in the near future. Sad to say, around the island of Taiwan — where U.S. and Chinese forces are engaging in ever more provocative military maneuvers — there is also an increasing risk that such moves by both sides could lead to nuclear escalation.
While neither American nor Chinese officials have explicitly threatened to use such weaponry, both sides have highlighted possible extreme outcomes there. When Joe Biden last spoke with Xi Jinping by telephone on July 29th, the Chinese president warned him against allowing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit the island (which she nonetheless did, four days later) or offering any further encouragement to “Taiwan independence forces” there. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” he assured the American president, an ambiguous warning to be sure, but one that nevertheless left open the possible use of nuclear weapons.
As if to underscore that point, on September 4th, the day after Pelosi met with senior Taiwanese officials in Taipei, China fired 11 Dongfeng-15 (DF-15) ballistic missiles into the waters around that island. Many Western observers believe that the barrage was meant as a demonstration of Beijing’s ability to attack any U.S. naval vessels that might come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese blockade or invasion of the island. And the DF-15, with a range of 600 miles, is believed capable of delivering not only a conventional payload, but also a nuclear one.
In the days that followed, China also sent nuclear-capable H-6 heavy bombers across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, a previously respected informal boundary between China and that island. Worse yet, state-owned media displayed images of Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) hypersonic ballistic missiles, also believed capable of carrying nuclear weapons, being moved into positions off Taiwan.
Washington has not overtly deployed nuclear-capable weaponry in such a brazen fashion near Chinese territory, but it certainly has sent aircraft carriers and guided-missile warships into the area, signaling its ability to launch attacks on the mainland should a war break out. While Pelosi was in Taiwan, for example, the Navy deployed the carrier USS Ronald Reagan with its flotilla of escort vessels in nearby waters. Military officials in both countries are all too aware that should such ships ever attack Chinese territory, those DF-15s and DF-17s would be let loose against them — and, if armed with nuclear warheads, would likely provoke a U.S. nuclear response.
The implicit message on both sides: a nuclear war might be possible. And although — unlike with Putin’s comments — the American media hasn’t highlighted the way Taiwan might trigger such a conflagration, the potential is all too ominously there.
“One China” and “Strategic Ambiguity”
In reality, there’s nothing new about the risk of nuclear war over Taiwan. In both the Taiwan Strait crises of 1954-1955 and 1958, the United States threatened to attack a then-nonnuclear China with such weaponry if it didn’t stop shelling the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), located off that country’s coast. At the time, Washington had no formal relations with the communist regime on the mainland and recognized the Republic of China (ROC) — as Taiwan calls itself — as the government of all China. In the end, however, U.S. leaders found it advantageous to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in place of the ROC and the risk of a nuclear conflict declined precipitously — until recently.
Credit the new, increasingly perilous situation to Washington’s changing views of Taiwan’s strategic value to America’s dominant position in the Pacific as it faces the challenge of China’s emergence as a great power. When the U.S. officially recognized the PRC in 1978, it severed its formal diplomatic and military relationship with the ROC, while “acknowledg[ing] the Chinese position that there is but one China and [that] Taiwan is part of China.” That stance — what came to be known as the “One China” policy — has, in fact, underwritten peaceful relations between the two countries (and Taiwan’s autonomy) ever since, by allowing Chinese leaders to believe that the island would, in time, join the mainland.
Taiwan’s safety and autonomy has also been preserved over the years by another key feature of U.S. policy, known as “strategic ambiguity.” It originated with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, a measure passed in the wake of the U.S. decision to recognize the PRC as the legal government of all China. Under the act, still in effect, the U.S. is empowered to supply Taiwan with “defensive” arms, while maintaining only semi-official ties with its leadership. It also says that Washington would view any Chinese attempt to alter Taiwan’s status through violent means as a matter “of grave concern,” but without explicitly stating that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid if that were to occur. Such official ambiguity helped keep the peace, in part by offering Taiwan’s leadership no guarantee that Washington would back them if they declared independence and China invaded, while giving the leaders of the People’s Republic no assurance that Washington would remain on the sidelines if they did.
Since 1980, both Democratic and Republican administrations have relied on such strategic ambiguity and the One China policy to guide their peaceful relations with the PRC. Over the years, there have been periods of spiking tensions between Washington and Beijing, with Taiwan’s status a persistent irritant, but never a fundamental breach in relations. And that — consider the irony, if you will — has allowed Taiwan to develop into a modern, prosperous quasi-state, while escaping involvement in a major-power confrontation (in part because it just didn’t figure prominently enough in U.S. strategic thinking).
From 1980 to 2001, America’s top foreign-policy officials were largely focused on defeating the Soviet Union, dealing with the end of the Cold War, and expanding global trade opportunities. Then, from September 11, 2001, to 2018, their attention was diverted to the Global War on Terror. In the early years of the Trump administration, however, senior military officials began switching their focus from the War on Terror to what they termed “great-power competition,” arguing that facing off against “near-peer” adversaries, namely China and Russia, should be the dominant theme in military planning. And only then did Taiwan acquire a different significance.
The Pentagon’s new strategic outlook was first spelled out in the National Defense Strategy of February 2018 in this way: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with China and Russia. (And yes, the emphasis was in the original.) China, in particular, was identified as a vital threat to Washington’s continued global dominance. “As China continues its economic and military ascendance,” the document asserted, “it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”
An ominous “new Cold War” era had begun.
Taiwan’s Strategic Significance Rises
To prevent China from achieving that most feared of all results, “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony,” Pentagon leaders devised a multipronged strategy, combining an enhanced U.S. military presence in the region with beefed-up, ever more militarized ties with America’s allies there. As that 2018 National Defense Strategy put it, “We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.” Initially, that “networked security architecture” was only to involve long-term allies like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Soon enough, however, Taiwan came to be viewed as a crucial part of such an architecture.
To grasp what this meant, imagine a map of the Western Pacific. In seeking to “contain” China, Washington was relying on a chain of island and peninsular allies stretching from South Korea and Japan to the Philippines and Australia. Japan’s southernmost islands, including Okinawa — the site of major American military bases (and a vigorous local anti-base movement) — do reach all the way into the Philippine Sea. Still, there remains a wide gap between them and Luzon, the northernmost Philippine island. Smack in the middle of that gap lies… yep, you guessed it, Taiwan.
In the view of the top American military and foreign policy officials, for the United States to successfully prevent China from becoming a major regional power, it would have to bottle up that country’s naval forces within what they began calling “the first island chain” — the string of nations stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Indonesia. For China to thrive, as they saw it, that nation’s navy would have to be able to send its ships past that line of islands and reach deep into the Pacific. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that solidifying U.S. defenses along that very chain became a top Pentagon priority — and, in that context, Taiwan has, ominously enough, come to be viewed as a crucial piece in the strategic puzzle.
Last December, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner summed up the Pentagon’s new way of thinking about the island’s geopolitical role when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December. “Taiwan,” he said, “is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”
This new perception of Taiwan’s “critical” significance has led senior policymakers in Washington to reconsider the basics, including their commitment to a One China policy and to strategic ambiguity. While still claiming that One China remains White House policy, President Biden has repeatedly insisted all too unambiguously that the U.S. has an obligation to defend Taiwan if attacked. When asked recently on Sixty Minutes whether “U.S. forces…would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion,” Biden said, without hesitation, “Yes.” The administration has also upgraded its diplomatic ties with the island and promised it billions of dollars’ worth of arms transfers and other forms of military assistance. In essence, such moves constitute a de facto abandonment of “One China” and its replacement with a “one China, one Taiwan” policy.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese authorities have reacted to such comments and the moves accompanying them with increasing apprehension and anger. As seen from Beijing, they represent the full-scale repudiation of multiple statements acknowledging Taiwan’s indivisible ties to the mainland, as well as a potential military threat of the first order should that island become a formal U.S. ally. For President Xi and his associates, this is simply intolerable.
“The repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for U.S. support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China” are deeply troubling, President Xi told Biden during their telephone call in November 2021. “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burned.”
Since then, Chinese officials have steadily escalated their rhetoric, threatening war in ever more explicit terms. “If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence,” Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., typically told NPR in January 2022, “it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in military conflict.”
To demonstrate its seriousness, China has begun conducting regular air and naval exercises in the air- and sea-space surrounding Taiwan. Such maneuvers usually involve the deployment of five or six warships and a dozen or more warplanes, as well as ever greater displays of firepower, clearly with the intention of intimidating the Taiwanese leadership. On August 5th, for example, the Chinese deployed 13 warships and 68 warplanes in areas around Taiwan and two days later, 14 ships and 66 planes.
Each time, the Taiwanese scramble their own aircraft and deploy coastal defense vessels in response. Accordingly, as China’s maneuvers grow in size and frequency, the risk of an accidental or unintended clash becomes ever more likely. The increasingly frequent deployment of U.S. warships to nearby waters only adds to this explosive mix. Every time an American naval vessel is sent through the Taiwan Strait — something that occurs almost once a month now — China scrambles its own air and sea defenses, producing a comparable risk of unintended violence.
This was true, for example, when the guided-missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville sailed through that strait on August 28th. According to Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, China’s military “conducted security tracking and monitoring of the U.S. warships’ passage during their whole course and had all movements of the U.S. warships under control.”
No Barriers to Escalation?
If it weren’t for the seemingly never-ending war in Ukraine, the dangers of all of this might be far more apparent and deemed far more newsworthy. Unfortunately, at this point, there are no indications that either Beijing or Washington is prepared to scale back its provocative military maneuvers around Taiwan. That means an accidental or unintended clash could occur at any time, possibly triggering a full-scale conflict.
Imagine, then, what a decision by Taiwan to declare full independence or by the Biden administration to abandon the One China policy could mean. China would undoubtedly respond aggressively, perhaps with a naval blockade of the island or even a full-scale invasion. Given the increasingly evident lack of interest among the key parties in compromise, a violent outcome appears ever more likely.
However such a conflict erupts, it may prove difficult to contain the fighting at a “conventional” level. After all, both sides are wary of another war of attrition like the one unfolding in Ukraine and have instead shaped their military forces for rapid, firepower-intensive combat aimed at securing a decisive victory quickly. For Beijing, this could mean firing hundreds of ballistic missiles at U.S. ships and air bases in the region with the aim of eliminating any American capacity to attack its territory. For Washington, it might mean launching missiles at China’s key ports, air bases, radar stations, and command centers. In either case, the results could prove catastrophic. For the U.S., the loss of its carriers and other warships; for China, the loss of its very capacity to make war. Would leaders of the losing side accept such a situation without resorting to nuclear weapons? No one can say for sure, but the temptation to escalate would undoubtedly be great.
Unfortunately, at the moment, there are no U.S.-China negotiations under way to resolve the Taiwan question, to prevent unintended clashes in the Taiwan Strait, or to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation. In fact, China quite publicly cut off all discussion of bilateral issues, ranging from military affairs to climate change, in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. So, it’s essential, despite the present focus on escalation risks in Ukraine, to recognize that avoiding a war over Taiwan is no less important — especially given the danger that such a conflict could prove of even greater destructiveness. That’s why it’s so critical that Washington and Beijing put aside their differences long enough to initiate talks focused on preventing such a catastrophe.