Preventing a War Over Taiwan

March 1, 2005


Although neither China nor Taiwan wants war, both pursue policies that raise the risk of bloodshed: the first by issuing vague warnings, the second by testing their limits. To stabilize the situation, the Bush administration should help broker a temporary agreement under which Taipei would put off independence and Beijing would stop threatening to attack.

Strait Talk

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.

China may be able to continue on its current course, expanding trade and investment ties with Taiwan while insisting that the island’s leaders accept the “one-China principle” as a precondition for any political talks and threatening the use of force in response to a declaration of independence. But if it does, it will be tying both its credibility and the chances of a confrontation to forces beyond its control.


Over the past two decades, Taiwan has moved from dictatorship to democracy. It has achieved this transition with remarkably little political disruption, a fact that is rightfully a source of pride for the island’s people and leaders. But Taiwan’s democracy is still very young, and it is experiencing growing pains. Political parties remain weak and faction-ridden, the notion of cross-party compromise to produce legislation is not well established, and leaders have been moving toward the use of referendums as a way to get around obstreperous opposition in the legislature.

Cross-strait relations, meanwhile, have become deeply intertwined in intensive partisan maneuvering for …

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