Go to war over Taiwan?

This isn’t the kind of question that usually gets posted on here, but it’s been a debate on another board I drop in on so I wanna see what people here think.

Should the US militarily defend Taiwan agianst China?

Some facts
–Taiwan is a democracy, and the vast majority of the people want Taiwan to be an “official” soveriegn state. It is a model country in terms of human rights, civil liberties and development assistance to poor nations. (US$300M to Kosovo)
–Taiwan is somewhere between the 10th and 20th biggest economy in the world.
–Taiwan is currently forbidden from the UN, WHO, ASEAN, APEC and other international organizations.
–Taiwan has not, de facto, been governed by Beijing since 1895.
–China regards regaining Taiwan as it’s number one priority.
–China has nukes.
–The UN would be highly unlikely to do anything significant were China to attack Taiwan; thus the US would be going it more-or-less alone.
Fair disclosure, I currently live in Taiwan so my opinions are probably a little obvious. But unless someone says something factually incorrect, I’m more interested in listening than arguing.

“It all started with marbles in school…”

Some facts

The Republic of China hasn’t been a democracy all that long. For most of my lifetime, it had been a totalitarian regime, aka dictatorship. Also, the government on the island does its utmost more often than not to maintain a certain degree of cooperation with Beijing. And Beijing does a lot to maintain a certain cooperation with Taipei. You might note that there is a certain economic consideration by both governments.

Completely irrelevant to the issue of sovereignty and treaty obligation.

The Republic of China was ejected from the China seat in the United Nations as the UN held that the Beijing government is the legitimate government of all of China. It was not “forbidden.” There are also “non-country” representatives (with varying degrees of membership) to the UN. Prior to that decision, the Taipei government was held to be the legitimate government. Both governments have certain claims to that legitimacy. It’s nowhere nearly as simple as you imply above. Also, the Republic of China does belong to, and participate, in some international organizations to which the People’s Republic of china also belongs.

Not surprising since that island was held by certain European powers during its not so long populated history.

No, the People’s Republic regards maintaining its sovereignty as a number one priority. This is merely one manifestation of it. An aside: “it’s” means “it is” and “its” means “belongs to it.”

So do India and Pakistan and a few other countries. What’s your point?

This assertion is quite dubious. Many countries have economic ties with the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of Chian and also are not too pleased to see a free people subjugated for no good reason.

Nah; I’d think the other treaty members of ANZUS at least would join the USA in that island’s defense, but that’s just an opinion. One, you may note, I’ve asserted to be an opinion and not a fact. Try it sometime.

As it happens, some observers believe that the U.S. has already agreed to defend Taiwan. As authority, they cite the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. From Section 2:

Numbers 4 and 6 are doozies, huh?

The should you asked about, IMO, is heck yes we should, if for no other reasons that we were a military ally of theirs up to 1979 and that we’ve been hinting since ’79 that we’d watch their backs. You’ll doubtless recall that we sent a couple of aircraft carriers up the Taiwan Strait when the Chinese started making troublesome noises in ’96.

The would is a different question. FYI, most conservatives in the U.S. love Taiwan. Always have, even back when they were a dictatorship (which, as Monty correctly mentions, was until quite recently). I’ll be generous and guess that they correctly saw the direction Taiwan would take and liked the government for that reason rather than out of any kind of knee-jerk “they’re not commies” kind of thing. Conservatives were furious when Nixon went to China, and equally furious when Carter normalized relations with PRC.
Add in the fact that Clinton dispatched the flattops and you can see a consensus to do something.

But, as you mentioned, China is tough. And we made ‘em tougher. A few weeks of air strikes won’t work on China the way it worked (or didn’t) on Bosnia. Or even Iraq. Mix that with the fact that the average person in the streets of the US does not have a good sense of the history here and cares little about Taiwan. Now things are less predictable. One of the ways Pres. Bush was able to garner popular support for the Gulf War, even though it was thought to be a risky undertaking at the time, was to demonize Saddam Hussein. That option is pretty clearly not open to Clinton. Another tactic Bush used successfully was to build an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors, to make Americans feel like we were world leaders. As you correctly mentioned, that option is also not available this time.

So all that is a long way of saying I don’t know. But, sadly, I fear that we are about to find out.

Livin’ on Tums, Vitamin E and Rogaine

China’s economy and political clout is growing at an economic rate. I’m sure business interests not only from inside the U.S. but from other countries like France would oppose any intervention. Money is a big factor today. With the US economy boomming and Europe behind, it is hard to ask anyone to give up stability for a guaranteed prolonged war (just ask President Johnson). A conflict would only worsen the Southeast Asian economy as it already is. In any case the U.S would defend Taiwan because they have an obligation to, partly because of long-standing obselete cold war diplomacy and partly because they feel that they gave the Commies China without any opposition at a time when they were the “protector of the world”(hence the good relations between our government and the Nationalist regime).
If we were to defend the Taiwanese it would be the 70’s all over again with far bloodier and longer lasting consequences.

To respond to the above, it was my understanding that the defensive pact that the US and Taiwan have does not cover aggresive acts by Taiwan. In other words, if Taiwan is just hanging out and China invades, the US is bound to defend it. If China says “Send us $100mil a year or we’ll attack you” and Taiwan refuses, the US will defend it. However, if Taiwan provokes another nation into attacking it, or attacks another nation, the US is not committed to defending it.

As for my thoughts, it seems to be the best interest of the United States to foster democracy where possible. The question here is, is it possible for the US to make a difference? If the US was to attack, I do feel we’d be more or less going at it alone as Taiwan seems to have little global support. As well, an actual invasion of Taiwan by US forces would be required to evict China as well as a continued military presence further stretching our already decreased military. Although Taiwan has a more advanced military than China, China has the sheer numbers that Taiwan couldn’t go at it alone.

My personal feelings are that while I’d like to see the US defend Taiwan’s democracy and status as a independant nation, I doubt that we would. China is simply too large of an antagonist to take on as a single nation, and its nuclear potentional only makes it more so. If the US had additional allies in this, then perhaps yes. As stands, I think no.

“I guess it is possible for one person to make a difference, although most of the time they probably shouldn’t.”

Relax, Monty.

–Yes, Taiwan is a young democracy, and the KMT, as an entity, has old blood on it’s hands. But for the last decade, it has become quite open.

I’m not sure what you mean by “degree of cooperation;” no it’s not an all out war, but most journalists describe relations as “icy” or “antagonistic” or some such things. China allows investment and tourism from Taiwan because it’s in both their interests. And both would lose money in a war. But it ain’t like they hold high-level meetings more than once every five years or so. And I mentioned the size of the economy because the US is more likely to intervene in an “important” country than in one more easily ignored.

–ejected/forbidden, whatever. I was making the point that Taiwan is, currently, denied access to many international organizations, even innocuous ones like the WHO. Whether or not that denial is legitimate is another debate. I was including this info for people who didn’t know.

–Taiwan has been populated for at least 1000 years; when Chinese first started coming here in the 17th century, they displaced aboriginal tribes (which still remain). The European occupations ended long, long time ago. It was administered as a territory of China after that, and declared a seperate province in 1895. It was handed over to the Japanese in 1898, and remained under (surprisingly benevolent) Japanese rule until he end of WWII; at which time China was involved in a Civil War and had no real national government. The KMT came here and took over in 1949. My point was that the majority of the population here is several generations removed from having any allegiance to Beijing.

–Yes, soverieignty is the issue, but Taiwan is the current primary manifestation of it. Let’s stop splitting hairs.

–Gee whiz, the subject is war and the other side has nukes. I think the point is kind of obvious. And Taiwan’s diplomatic allies are places like Honduras and The Solomon Islands. Probably the biggest ones are Panama and the Vatican. It is very possible that Britan might throw a few fighters or a ship in, and concieviebly the French or Aussies. But there would not be any international group like the UN or NATO providing the appearence of “world consensus.” It would be an obviously US initiated and run venture. Hence my use of the term “more-or-less alone.”

Manhattan–people here are quite familiar with the TRA, but are quite nervous about that “would.” They know about the support in congress, but most have little faith in Clinton. He’s taken away some of the ambiguity that previously characterized US policy, and some think that provoked the current crisis: the Taiwanese felt like they were being painted into a corner and had to do something to keep their options open.

“It all started with marbles in school…”

I believe that the US position on this, as with the rest of the western world, is about consumption and capitalism not sensitivity to any of the above mentioned issues.
Human rights in China don’t really exist, what they have done in Tibet is murderous, and the west cares not. And not for any other reason than that they are first and foremost Capitalists. China represents the single largest market of the future. Whoever dances longest with the devil is likely to get the first and largest bite at the apple.
My guess is the US and world would be big on rhetoric and short on action should China invade Taiwan.
China enjoys ‘Most Favoured Nation’ trading status and that really says it all.

An observation:

I don’t think it is fear of an American military response that is keeping China from invading Taiwan. Taiwan has built a military that could very well fend off a PRC invasion. At the very least, even a victorious PLA would come away with a Hell of a bloody nose. Red China’s only real military advatages are manpower and nukes. IINM, Taiwan has a bigger Navy and Air Force than the PRC. Even back in 1962, Taiwan shot down several PRC planes and forced the Reds to back down on their plans to take the island of Quemoy. And who’s to say for sure that Taiwan doesn’t have nukes.

Let us not forget the idea of being sovereign is changing. Obviously Kosovo isn’t sovereign but was treated much as if it were. The same of the ex-Yugoslav republics. They were not sovereign but were treated as such from day one.

It is no longer internationally unacceptable to interfere with traditional areas in sovereign countries (of course provided that the countries in question are weak).

Let’s not forget that China does have a history of ruling other lands (Tibet, Korea, Vietnam) and not all that benevolently either. I’d think that further flexing of muscle to occupy another land yet again would not engender much love from other countries in the region–especially countries who’ve been occupied.

I would say that the US is prepared to fight in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. This has been a consistent American policy for fifty years. It’s based on the factors Furt mentioned in his OP as well as the fact that Taiwan has always been one of the US’ loyalest allies.

There is a growing movement in Taiwan to renounce all claims to the mainland and declare Taiwan an independent nation. The mainland government has always said that it would regard that as an act of war (the logic of that must be very twisted) so the Taiwanese government has held off.

There is virtually no chance for a UN resolution against China is if does attack Taiwan. China is a member of the UN Security Council and as such has a veto over all UN actions. However, I would expect there would be other nations willing to join the US in resisting a Chinese invasion. But realistically, the US and Taiwan would bear
the majority of the burden.

Mike: well, there is a certain non-twisted logic involved. If the PRC government considers Taiwan to be a renegade province (which they do), and the government of the province in question declares itself to be a different country (not a different government of the same country as they now maintain), then that declaration would be an act of rebellion thus renewing the civil war which the KMT lost on the mainland.

Hi, name’s Doghouse, making my debut here.

For the latest in China’s “twisted logic”, check this out: China maintains that “all Chinese” earnestly desire reunification, and so has held a longstanding policy that it would only attack Taiwan if the island’s government attempted to “split the motherland” (against the will of the Chinese people, in other words) or if “foreign forces” intervened. But what if Taiwan’s citizens expressed a genuine desire to become independent, thereby trumping Beijing’s “all Chinese” claim stated above? (Recent polls have shown a marked upswing in sentiment in favor of official independence on the island.)

The answer? Beijing has said in the past week that people in Taiwan who want independence are no longer Chinese–and so their agitation for independence constitutes “intervention by foreign forces”! It’s quite conceivable that, if opposition leader Chen Shui-bian were elected, he could hold a referendum, show that 90% percent of Taiwan’s residents want to be independent of China, and then Beijing would (attempt to) invade because the island has suddenly been occupied overnight by over 20 million “foreigners”.

I believe I saw this in the past week’s China Post–if anyone’s interested, I can go back and dig up a reference.

Pleased 'ta make yer acquaintence,


I should have mentioned it earlier, but PapaBear did: China is, currently, incapable of invading Taiwan. No credible military analyst thinks Beijing could do it. But what they could do is 1)a prolonged missle-lobbing campaign or 2)a naval blockade. Without US support, either one could cause massive problems in terms of morale, economy, etc. Most people-on-the-street in Taiwan think that China’s military is far better than Taiwan’s. This isn’t true, but perceptions can make their own reality; without US support, the will to resist MAY not be there.

BTW, some say this is why Taiwan’s president wanted to make the announcement now; in 2010 the military situation may well be different.

“It all started with marbles in school…”

First of all, the obvious answer:

The Peoples’ Republic of China and the United States of America cannot afford to enter into a military contest. The result would be substantially the same as would have occurred had the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics gone to war with us.

Given that answer, what does it mean with regard to Taiwan?

IF we decide Taiwan is worth the diplomatic and economic/political effort, we will make clear to the PRC that Taiwan is ‘off-limits’ and to attempt any invasion would provoke nuclear war. This method works quite well, as demonstrated by the Cuba Missile Crisis.

IF we don’t decide it is worth the effort, then we won’t attempt to totally cover Taiwan with the threat of MAD. When that happens, we get worse results (see Vietnam, Angola, Somalia).

Currently, we are very aggressive in our protection of the island of Taiwan. The PRC has, for the time, adopted a slow and go stance on the issue, keeping the ‘official’ line one of unification, while acting in a de-facto fashion to establish an economic interlinking that will convince the Taiwanese and the US that it can be ‘trusted’ to deal with the island in a fashion that will cause the US to drop its intense support for an ‘independent’ regime there.

Guesses as to the future? Near term, no change. Long term? Who says the PRC will stay the PRC in the long run?

<This method works quite well, as demonstrated by the Cuba Missile Crisis.>

Boy, that line is a gem. What is this, the Wile E. Coyote school of foreign policy?

But seriously, the PRC has painted itself into a corner by staking its legitimacy on a concept of territorial integrity that it cannot enforce. In a tactical sense, and assuming rational diplomacy prevails, I agree that Taiwan is relatively safe–China doesn’t have the means to invade the island, and an extended blockade or missile barrage runs too great a risk of conflict with the United States.

But in a strategic sense, I think we’re approaching a very dangerous juncture where we can’t assume that all the actors are rational. Depending on how events play out over the next seven or so months, Taiwan’s population could be whipped up into a damn-the-torpedoes flavor of nationalism that drive Beijing into panic mode. Indeed, “Who says the PRC will stay the PRC in the long run?” The old men in Beijing are aware of this potentiality as well–or better–than anyone else. Do you think they’ll take such prospects lying down?

As for Russia, it appears that Beijing is determined to learn from what it perceives as that country’s mistakes–especially in regard to Moscow’s failure to keep its various territories in line.

No animal is more dangerous than when it’s cornered, and I suspect that the PRC is starting to feel cornered. Only one thing appears certain to me: nobody–not Beijing, Washington, or Taipei–has the ability to dictate the course of events in the high-handed manner that Esquire outlines above. Nobody wants a war over Taiwan, just like nobody wanted a war over Serbia–in 1914, that is. But in geopolitics, things can take on a deadly life of their own.

Hold onto your hats.


The first line of my message disappeared just now. The line that I refer to at the beginning is “This method works quite well, as demonstrated by the Cuba Missile Crisis.” I really do love that, though–you ought to make that into your profile signature.


Actually, Austria-Hungary and Germany did want a war in 1914, just not the war they ended up with.
Austria-Hungary was facing a succession/nationality crisis. Emperor Franz Joseph was very old and it was felt that when he died several of the ethnic gropus in the empire would try to break away during the transition. It was thought that a recent military victory would enhance the government’s stature and discourage the secessionists.
Germany felt threatened by the growing military strength of Russia. Russia was undergoing military and economic reform that promised to make it much more effective in combat. Being as a war between Germany and Russia (and its French allies) was fairly inevitable, Germany decided it would be better to have the war now, before Russia could complete its reforms. So Germany backed Austria in its decision to go to war with Serbia.

And to complete Mike King’s analysis, England, France, Rusiia, and Italy all had their own reasons for wanting war, as well. (Not the war they got, as he noted.)

France “needed” to redeem itself for the Franco-Prussian debacle (and regain Alsace-Lorain among other regions).
Italy had an ongoing border dispute with Austria lingering from the time it wrested its independence from Austria.
Russia “needed” a war to assert itself as a true world power (after being humbled by Japan) and to take the minds of the populace off the ongoing unrest at home. (Boy, did that backfire!)
England wanted to “humble” Germany to reduce the conflicts the two countries had had in their African and Pacific empires and to prevent Germany from achieving the foremost Navy in the world.

In fact, the only large nation that entered WWI reluctantly was the U.S. Every other nation was eager for the fray. (At the time we entered, we were eager, but that had more to do with really dumb actions by Germany than an inherent wish to enter the war.)


Well, to totally complete Mike King’s analysis, The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) was eagar to exploit Britain and Italy’s preoccupation with the war in Europe to retake possessions in North Africa and the Near East that the Sultans had lost to those two nations. England’s ally Japan also took advantage of the European war to gobble up German possessions in the Pacific. Serbia, Belgium and the United States were really the only reluctant participants.