The world is experiencing a shift in the balance of power due to the weakening of the United States (US) led unipolar order, impacting the dynamic triangular relationship between the US, Taiwan and China. Since the beginning of 2023, there has been a significant uptick in attention to the extremely sensitive subject of cross-strait relations in the international political scene. Top US military officials, academia, and leading policy think tanks are warning of the increased risk of conflict between the US and China in the Taiwan Strait.
Thanks to the proliferation of high-tech and cutting-edge weapons systems, it is assumed that if this conflict broke out, it would wreak a level of havoc unseen from warfare in the entire history of humanity. Thousands of civilians will die in Taiwan, thousands of military service members will die on both sides of the conflict, and the world’s economy will change profoundly. These represent only the best-case scenario in a conflict over the Taiwan Strait. In reality, the consequences could be far worse. Essentially, a conflict over Taiwan between the US and China would potentially change the world in magnitude, similar to World War 2. It is a great tragedy that the remnants of cold war policy and law-making have left the US trapped in a complex situation that is cross-strait relations, with little possibility to withdraw themselves from the subject and little willingness to alter the trajectory of their involvement. In this sense, the US finds itself in a quagmire, with nowhere to retreat and only painful options ahead.
There is an argument to be made that the Taiwan quagmire was created in 1979 when the US congress passed the Taiwan relations act (TRA). The TRA is a piece of legislation that stipulates that the US must maintain the capacity to resist any coercion to forcefully reunify Taiwan with the governing structures on the Chinese mainland. The act also outlines the fundamental principles of the relationship between the US and Taiwan. The TRA was complemented by the 2018 Taiwan travel act passed by congress during President Donald Trump’s time in the white house. The Taiwan travel act reinforces the US perception that any attempt to change Taiwan’s status through non-peaceful means is highly detrimental to peace and stability in the region. It is also essential to consider the “6 assurances,” which are six commitments made by the US to Taiwan in 1982. The assurances guarantee that the US will support Taiwan militarily and will not change its position on the Taiwan question. The six assurances and the Taiwan relations act have been adhered to consistently by US presidential administrations for around 40 years, and it is doubtful that the coming administrations will invoke a radical shift in US-Taiwan policy.
Together policy positions and legislative acts place the US in a position where if they did not come to the aid of Taiwan in the event of an attempt by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to unite Taiwan with the governance structures on mainland China by force or coercive means, where they must come to Taiwan’s aid. This would undoubtedly place the US in a direct conflict with China and perpetuate the devastating consequences above. The Financial Review reported that US General Mike Minihan, head of US Air Mobility Command, warned last week that such a scenario could occur in 2025. General Minihan’s prediction is one of the more drastic ones. Many experts believe that if a conflict is to break out, it will occur at the end of the decade or in the early 2030s. Regardless of the timeline, the prospects should still send a shudder down the spine of people who seek to live their everyday lives without the threat of experiencing a world-altering conflict.
However, despite the gloomy prospects surrounding the situation regarding the status of Taiwan and the prospects of a conflict in the Taiwan strait, several factors could assist the US in escaping the challenging position. China’s long-term strategy regarding Taiwan is that China and Taiwan will reunify before the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party coming to power. This is something that will not change. However, the CCP seeks to complete this reunification via peaceful means, as the party’s national congress endorsed in 2012. It is also important to note that in the white paper on Taiwan released by the CCP in 2022, the CCP explicitly states they will not condemn the use of violence if Taiwan takes steps toward declaring independence or reunification hampered by external factors.
The CCP points to the fact that the situation in the Taiwan Strait can be diffused if the appropriate steps are taken to assure China of the lack of external interference from other nations. However, any change to the tense situation in the Taiwan Strait is unlikely. US policymakers and the Biden administration are unwilling to reverse their current position. This is highlighted by the statements in the Biden administration Indo Pacific policy action plan released in 2021, which stated,
“The United States will defend our interests, deter military aggression against our own country and our allies and partners—including across the Taiwan Strait—and promote regional security by developing new capabilities, concepts of operation, military activities, defence industrial initiatives, and a more resilient force posture.”
Undoubtedly, this policy position by the US will alienate Chinese leadership and contribute to a tenser situation in the Taiwan Strait. It is vital that policy makers on both sides thoroughly consider the consequences of a conflict over Taiwan and take the appropriate steps to put in place guardrails that ensure the prevention of such a situation. These guardrails can be put in place via diplomatic means by high-level contacts between PRC and US leadership, such as the meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Joe Biden at the G20 summit in Indonesia last year.