Taiwan vs. China — Possible Outcomes
I want to state, first, that this is an expression of what I would think may likely happen, not necessarily what I’d like to see happen. I’d like to see a fully independent Taiwan, living in peace with their neighbors on the mainland. Of course, I’d also like to see the end of the drug war, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to walk in front of a cop smoking a joint while selling shrooms to anyone that wants them. Principles sometimes compete with each other, and sometimes pragmatism make the costs of living up to those principles too heavy to bear. So take it for what it’s worth.
For the purposes of argument, let’s stipulate that tomorrow Taiwan formally issues a declaration of independence from China. There are three scenarios I see occurring, and the most likely two are bad (all below the fold):
1: China Accepts Taiwanese Independence
I say unlikely for several reasons. Historically, declarations of independence typically start wars. It occurred when the US declared independence from Britian, and when the Confederates tried to secede from the US. After Texas seceded from Mexico (which Mexico did not accept), it started a war with the US. Around the world in recent times, the secession of parts of Yugoslavia began a war that hurt all parties (resulting in the end of Yugoslavia as a state), and current efforts by Chechnya to secede has resulted in their varying-intensity war with Russia.
A Taiwanese declaration of independence would be especially difficult for China to accept, as it would make it easier for other Chinese provinces to break away. For China to let Taiwan officially break off would be a show of weakness to other sections of their state, and would result in further internal dissent. Besides, after years of claiming Taiwan an official part of China, it would almost be required from the standpoint of national pride that they invade Taiwan in response.
Of course, the question would arise in the minds of the Chinese as to what America’s response would be. Here you need to understand one bit about government, particularly one-party government where dissent is violently put down: they’ll arrive at whatever answer they seek. By that I mean that the hawkish factions of their government will be looking for excuses why America won’t intervene. At the moment, they’ve got several. We currently have an unpopular President leading an unpopular war, and a populace that doesn’t want to stick our noses in another part of the world. The Chinese, rightly or wrongly, would most likely interpret this to mean that they could take Taiwan without any opposition from us. Further, America could issue strong words to the extent that we would not accept an invasion, but China (again due to national pride) is unlikely to accept our words as anything more than saber-rattling. and would be almost called to defy them.
Given these constraints, I find it very unlikely that a Declaration of Independence would result in anything but war.
2: China invades Taiwan, and America stays out of it.
Possibility: Fairly likely
Again, we currently have an unpopular President waging an unpopular war in a remote part of the world, and a populace that looks as it as largely unnecessary from the standpoint of national security. Whether or not it’s the right thing to do, Bush would have an uphill battle convincing the American people that we should go in and make this fight.
It will be even more uphill than some of the conflicts we entered during the cold war. In those conflicts, we were never really fighting the Soviets face to face. Either we were supporting the local armies fighting the Soviets, or they were supporting the local armies fighting us. Occasionally, neither state was directly involved, but was sending weaponry in for one of the combatants. If this were to happen, and we took Taiwan’s side, it would be direct war between us and China, not indirect war. That is something that will be hard to sell to the American people.
Given the nature of international politics, if we don’t enter the fight, nobody else will. The rest of the UN has shown the ability to put money over idealism, and China is a far more lucrative friend than enemy. If America doesn’t step up to help Taiwan, nobody else will.
Of course, the American military staying out of the fight would be sending the Taiwanese to certain defeat. That’s a scenario that many, such as a certain commenter here, would be very unwilling to allow. But it’s certainly a plausible (and quite likely) scenario, regardless. It would result in Taiwan going to the wolves, and an emboldened China who was not countered in an act of aggression.
3: China Invades and America Fights on Taiwan’s behalf
This is a situation, that for all intensive purposes, is unprecedented. One nuclear hyperpower in a war against also-nuclear controlling power in the region. We’re talking about direct war between America and China. Now, I don’t think China can beat us in a direct war, conventional or otherwise. But for us to defeat them will make the loss of life and cost of the Iraq war look like a playground scuffle.
There’s a chance this won’t be that bad. Obviously, both the US and China know it’s not in their interests to get into a serious war. Both sides would be doing as much as possible to make sure it was limited to Taiwan. These things have a way of escalating, though. If it escalates, it’s bad news for us, regardless of if we win. And it’s worse news for Taiwan, who will be stuck in the middle.
Taiwan has every right to declare independence, but being right is sometimes the dumbest strategic move. The threat to Taiwan— and by extension China and the US— if they declare independence, is large. The threat of not acting is small, because China has no impetus to start a war as long as Taiwan doesn’t declare independence. I wish it were not this way. But the situation is as it is, and the balance of power is such that Taiwan would be committing suicide to declare independence. My wishes don’t change that fact.