ETZIONI: Taiwan Is Not Worth Risking A War With China

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Amitai Etzioni Contributor
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Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the U.S. should not risk an all-out war with China over Taiwan. You can find a counterpoint here, where Dean Cheng argues that the U.S. should protect Taiwan in the event of an invasion from China.

China considers Taiwan to be one of its provinces, similar to the way we consider Texas to be part the U.S. We are not about to return it to Mexico, come what may. China’s claims of control over the island, which go back to 239 AD, are complicated and contested, but they are by no means without historical foundations.

For decades, the US and China have had an implicit understanding that the U.S. will not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, and China will not use force to reincorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. This arrangement stems from Henry Kissinger’s secret 1971 visit to Beijing. As he and his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, worked to reestablish diplomacy between China and the US, Kissinger raised a variety of demands. Zhou had only one concern — Taiwan. Kissinger agreed that the US would “recognize the government in Beijing, not Taipei, as the only legitimate China” and promised that the United Nations would oust Taiwan, paving the way for President Nixon’s historic visit to China.

When American politicians want to show that they are tough on China, they move closer to treating Taiwan as a nation, approving arms sales to Taiwan and sending officials to visit Taiwan. President Joe Biden, who finally found a theme that is truly bipartisan, bashing China, invited a Taiwanese representative to his inauguration. A delegation consisting of a former US senator and two former deputy secretaries of state headed to Taiwan last week, as “a personal signal” of support from Biden, and the State Department has announced that it is “issuing new guidelines to enable U.S. officials to meet more freely with officials from Taiwan.”

Furthermore, officials from the Biden administration and other international relations mavens have been sounding the alarm that China will attack Taiwan in the near future.

The US military commander for the Indo-Pacific region, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, stated, “I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years” without citing evidence, especially about that mystifying date.  Meanwhile, China has not even grabbed the Kinmen or Matsu Islands, archipelagos under Taiwanese control that are practically  in its  parking lot, only about three miles from the mainland.

China is a vicious, authoritarian regime, one that is committing atrocities against its minorities and that oppresses its own people, but it belongs to the class of authoritarian regimes that have no messianic or expansionist ambitions — like Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Burma. Western sources keep calling China aggressive, but aggression is defined by the UN as “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State.”

By this definition, China has been aggressive — but only toward some unoccupied piles of rocks. It has claimed rights to much of the South China Sea. But that is about it. Minor clashes with India were quickly defused. Differences with the Philippines have been worked out. Nations on its border have not been subjected to the kind of landgrab that Russia did in Crimea, nor have they been attacked by “volunteers,” as eastern parts of Ukraine have been.

China, despite its military buildup, is no match for the US. It must note that the US has refused to commit itself to not be the first to use nukes in a war and that published reports about US war plans for dealing with China call for striking the mainland in full force. China has worked for decades to rebuild itself after three centuries of humiliation by the West. Why would it now risk all in order to take Taiwan, an act which is likely to lead to severe repercussions?

The only reason China would go to war by seeking to incorporate Taiwan is if the US and its allies decide to push its buttons some more and treat Taiwan as an independent nation. This is a red line which, if crossed, no Chinse leader could ignore. Bonnie Glaser, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, stated, “Maybe then [Chinese President] Xi is backed into a corner. This could really cause China to make the decision to invade.”

Another perspective: “Is it time for the United States to rethink its Taiwan policy and walk away from Taiwan? Prominent Americans in influential publications insist that it is.” Taiwan has no raw material, major military bases or armed forces, or any other strategic significance for the US (though it is a major producer of semiconductors). These mavens argue that we could gain many concessions from China if we let it regain Taiwan.

I do not believe that we should throw Taiwan under the bus, whatever the goodies the bus driver promises. However, the fact that respected Western international relations experts even raise that thought helps us remember that Taiwan has no particular strategic value for the US. Surely not enough to start World War III. If the Biden administration needs to show that it can be tough, there are many much less risky places to do so, for instance, by standing up to Iran or even Russia, two nations that are truly aggressive and expansionist.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. He is the author of Avoiding War with China, among other books.