Preventing a War Over Taiwan
Kenneth Lieberthal is Professor of Political Science and William Davidson Professor of International Business at the University of Michigan. In 1998-2000, he served as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Asia on the staff of the National Security Council.See more by this author
One of the greatest dangers to international security today is the possibility of a military confrontation between China and Taiwan that leads to a war between China and the United States. Such a war would be not only tragic but also unnecessary, since it would result from a failure of imagination and diplomacy--fought because a place that has long declared itself independent was attacked for doing so again.
Neither Beijing nor Taipei wants a war, but both sides have adopted policies that run an unacceptably high risk of bloodshed over the next several years. The Bush administration should therefore take steps now to reduce the prospect of conflict across the Taiwan Strait. Understanding what those steps should be, however, requires getting past the rhetorical constructs that have dominated discussion to date.
China says that it wants stability across the Taiwan Strait, that it can postpone final resolution of the cross-strait issue for a long time, that it is developing its regional military capabilities solely to deter Taiwanese independence, and that it will use force if necessary to prevent or reverse a declaration of independence. But these positions have not served China's interests well, because it has failed to make clear exactly what "declaring independence" involves.
By not doing so, Beijing has risked miscalculation by a Taiwanese leadership that does not want to provoke a military response but continues to push the envelope just short of one. The fact that for more than a decade Taiwan's leaders have declared Taiwan to be "an independent, sovereign country" without dramatic consequences adds to the confusion. Beijing's stance now runs the risk that Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian will consider China's threats a bluff. (Chen's pro-independence predecessor Lee Teng-hui, for example, has said that Beijing is nothing more than a "paper tiger.") Ironically, Beijing's position also enhances the stature and leverage of the pro-independence elements in Taiwan. Since China says war and peace will be determined by what these individuals say and do, they attract enormous domestic and international attention.