Op-Ed

China’s Rise and the Taiwan Challenge

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Richard C. Bush

As China has continued its impressive entry on the world stage, a number of American commentators have raised alarmist warnings. They warn of a challenge to America’s Pacific hegemony, of betrayal by American companies and officials that help China’s military buildup, and of a coming military conflict.

Prominent political science theorists point to the pattern of world history, when a fast-growing state has upset the existing balance of power. They predict China’s ascendance will come at the expense of the established superpower, the United States. Certain developments, such as China’s recent test of a weapon that destroyed one of its own satellites in low-Earth orbit, as well as Beijing’s general unwillingness to help the United States and its allies get tough with problem countries such as Sudan, add further grounds for anxiety.

For the most part, we disagree. To be sure, China with its 9 percent growth in gross domestic product and double-digit increases in military spending already plays a more robust role in Asia. And its political system, while much more moderate than in Mao Tse-tung’s time, still causes us great concern as it suppresses many of its people’s political rights. In addition, China’s need for oil and other natural resources has sometimes led it to turn far too blind an eye toward the excesses of its suppliers.

But most of the issues and frictions that accompany China’s rise can be managed. The good news is that China and the United States, not to mention other key regional players like Japan, now have politicians and bureaucracies that are relatively good at preventing serious problems from becoming grounds for war.

China will want to flex military muscle more in the future, but it also wants economic prosperity for the political stability that comes with it. In addition, the United States and its regional partners know how to maintain open dialogue with Beijing while sustaining vigorous defense alliances. China has enough reason to worry about nuclear weapons and global instability that it will not be totally oblivious to our concerns about proliferating countries such as Iran and North Korea. Conflict with the littoral nations of Japan, the Philippines or Vietnam over disputed seabed resources (like oil in the East China Sea or small islets in the South China Sea) is highly unlikely.

Does this happy prognosis mean the United States can turn its attention even more completely away from Asia, trusting in the basic stability of the U.S.-China relationship, and focus just on the war on terror and relations with the Islamic world? Hardly. It would be a mistake of historic proportions to be so preoccupied with the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims that we forget the world’s 1.3 billion Chinese. There are two related reasons to avoid any such tunnel vision, and ensure we find a way to keep dealing with both of these hugely important groups.

First, when we ignore Asia, China eats our lunch. Leaders in Beijing have gotten so much better at deploying their political and economic power in skillful and effective ways that they are successfully wooing many Asia-Pacific countries. Even longstanding American allies like Korea and Australia are courted in this way, and some bonds with Washington are weakening.

Second, there is one place where war really could pit the United States against China—the island of Taiwan. Many of Taiwan’s 23 million people see themselves as separate from China now, yet Beijing cannot accept that. For Beijing, Taiwan is Chinese territory and its incorporation is unfinished business from the civil war of the late 1940s. The permanent loss of Taiwan would be a severe blow to Communist Party legitimacy and risk sparking other secessionist movements.

For the United States, which issued nuclear threats to defend Taiwan in the 1950s and moved forces closest to its shores as recently as the mid-1990s to counter Chinese missile launches, ensuring the survival of a young democracy is not only a matter of principle, but a necessary demonstration to the world that America does not abandon its friends and that its word and commitment need be taken seriously.

The chances of imminent war over Taiwan are not high. But after a calm couple of years, current events between China and Taiwan are developing in a way that makes us worry the potential for conflict remains.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, in order to keep his party in power after the presidential election next March, is playing up sovereignty themes. China is getting pretty paranoid. It worries that when Mr. Chen says he wants to promote Taiwan’s “sovereignty” through a new constitution and greater stature in the world community, he really wants full independence. Although the objective odds of Mr. Chen actually changing Taiwan’s legal identity in a way that challenges China’s fundamental interests are pretty low, Beijing is imagining all the ways Mr. Chen can pull an independence rabbit out of his hat. China is trying to convince Washington of the danger, but the Bush administration has apparently not responded as robustly as Beijing would like it to restrain Mr. Chen. Ingredients for miscalculation exist.

Even if the odds are fairly low of miscalculation leading to war, and war then bringing in the United States, this scenario is scary. It could result in the first major war between nuclear weapons states in history, with no guarantee it would be successfully concluded prior to a major escalation.

While there may not be “fire in the Far East” or a looming conflict against China, there are ample grounds for American policymakers to grapple with the rise of China every bit as much as they focus on the long war. They can succeed, but avoiding conflict over Taiwan will be their most daunting challenge.

Richard Bush and Michael O’Hanlon recently co-authored A War Like No Other: The Truth About China’s Challenge to America. Brookings held a book launch event on April 26, 2007.

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