Columnist Richard Fein: China and Taiwan: Will there be war?

Published: 5/23/2021 5:00:13 PM This column is about Taiwan, home to 23 million people and a democratically elected government. Chin...

Published: 5/23/2021 5:00:13 PM

This column is about Taiwan, home to 23 million people and a democratically elected government. China considers Taiwan “an inalienable part of Chinese territory,” a breakaway province that China is determined to “reunite” with the mainland.

The Economist magazine calls this situation “the most dangerous place on earth.” Will there be a war over Taiwan in the foreseeable future?

Some background is in order. During the 1930s and 1940s there was ongoing civil war between the Nationalists, the official government of China, and the Communists led by Mao Tse-tung. In 1949, Mao won. The Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai Shek, and the remnants of his army retreated from the Chinese mainland to the island of Taiwan.

The U.S. continued to recognize the Nationalist government as the legitimate government of all of China. However, on Jan. 1, 1979, the U.S. established full diplomatic relations with the Communist government, which in fact did govern the mainland. Taiwan was no longer the legitimate government of China in the eyes of the United States.

Taiwan has not openly declared itself to be an independent country, but that is how it sees itself in practice. The news media sometimes uses the terms “self-governing” to finesse the issue. Although its military is dwarfed by that of China, Taiwan has built a formidable military force to defend itself and it is separated from the mainland by the 110-mile-wide Taiwan Straits.

The U.S. relationship to Taiwan is a bit unusual. Since the U.S. opened full diplomatic relations with China in 1979, our country does not officially recognize Taiwan as an independent country. However, there is a de facto U.S. diplomatic presence there through the American Institute in Taiwan. Although not an embassy or consulate, the Institute offers American citizens in Taiwan consular services and helps Taiwanese obtain visas to visit the United States, just as a diplomatic mission would anywhere else in the world.

The U.S. is committed to supplying Taiwan with military equipment to defend itself based on the Taiwan Relations Act and The Defense of Taiwan Act. The act states that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capabilities.”

That said ,the United States has never explicitly committed actively to intervene with its own military in the defense of Taiwan.

There are at least two reasons for this “strategic ambiguity.” First, an explicit commitment to military intervention in defense of a country with which the U.S. does not have formal diplomatic relations would be highly unusual. Second, if the government of Taiwan is not certain of American military intervention on its behalf it is less likely to openly declare its independence. Such a declaration would almost certainly prompt China to attack Taiwan.

Opinions differ as to the probability of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the United States Indo-Pacific commander, recently called the threat of a Chinese assault on Taiwan as “manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.” Davidson also said that China is preparing to invade and unify Taiwan by force as soon as it gains the capabilities to do so.

Perhaps there will not be a shooting war over Taiwan. China must take into account that Taiwan will fight for its life in a battle that may be prolonged and costly. Also, China must consider the possibility that the U.S. would intervene directly with military force. In that case it is possible that China would lose the conflict. In addition, neither China nor the U.S. can forget that any military conflict between them might lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

Many observers believe that if China attacks Taiwan and wins, it will be the preeminent power in Asia. If the U.S. doe not come to Taiwan’s aid, none of our allies will trust that the U.S. would actually fight for them either. South Korea and Japan would have to seriously consider building their own nuclear weapons deterrent.

So what is likely to happen? As China grows stronger militarily and economically it may pursue its territorial aims more aggressively. No one knows where the tipping point might be, but tensions over Taiwan are going to be with us for a long time. It is my opinion that the U.S. must be prepared to intervene militarily in Taiwan’s defense if, God forbid, that becomes necessary.

Taiwan will fight in its own defense, but it should not have to fight alone. Our country should not abandon a democracy of 23 million people.

Richard Fein holds a master of arts degree in political science and an MBA in economics. He can be reached at

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Newsrust - US Top News: Columnist Richard Fein: China and Taiwan: Will there be war?
Columnist Richard Fein: China and Taiwan: Will there be war?
Newsrust - US Top News
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