China and the United States have very few reasons to go to war. The ideological differences of the Cold War are over and the two nations share no common borders to dispute. But both are now superpowers, and each has global interests that have the potential to cause military confrontation. We have economic differences, and China is to blame for most of them due to its predatory trade practices and cavalier attitude toward intellectual property. However, neither of these is likely to result in a shooting war.
The primary cause for conflict in East Asia and the Pacific Rim has always been issues of sovereignty, and there are two such problems that could cause a Sino-American conflict: Freedom of navigation (FON) in the South China Sea and Taiwan.
China’s claim to territorial sovereignty over areas of the South China Sea blatantly violates international agreements on freedom of the sea, and its claims do not impact the United States alone. The Philippines, Japan and Vietnam all dispute islands and shoals that China claims as its own.
Freedom of navigation disputes have been “go to war” issues for Americans since we achieved independence. Our aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea to ensure FON against Chinese claims of sovereignty have a very real possibility of causing a shooting incident either by accident or by provocation. If that happens, we will be on the side of the angels and international law. It is unlikely that such an incident will result in a major regional conflict, at least in the near term. Taiwan is another matter entirely.
During the Cold War before President Nixon’s opening to China, Taiwan was an easy issue for the United States. The Red Chinese were godless Communists and the Nationalists on Taiwan were the good guys who were still considered to be the legitimate government of China by the United States. Things are different and far more complicated today.
Taiwan has dropped the fiction that its Kuomintang Party will one day return to the mainland and overthrow the Communists. The Kuomintang is now just one political party in a vibrant and prosperous democracy, but therein lies the rub. Many Taiwanese no longer consider Taiwan to be Chinese at all; they want to declare independence from China, and — if not yet dominant — they may soon be the majority. That is unacceptable to Beijing, which threatens that a declaration of Taiwanese independence will effectively cross a red line requiring military action to bring Taiwan back into the fold.
At the present time, a majority of people both on the mainland and on Taiwan favor the status quo. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) views Taiwan as a rogue province that will eventually see the light while the Taiwanese still call themselves the Republic of China; but time marches on. An increasing percentage of young people of all ethnic backgrounds born on Taiwan view themselves as Taiwanese and ague that Taiwan has only been ruled by China for about two centuries in its recorded history.
A declaration of Taiwanese independence would put the United States into a quandary. Red China remains an often-repressive autocracy and Taiwan is a free — if rowdy — democracy. Any U.S. president who allows Mainland China to overrun Taiwan would be accused of Munich-like appeasement even though we have no formal bilateral defense treaty with Taiwan.
Mainland Chinese of my acquaintance — even liberals who want Beijing to become more democratic — argue that the United States does not hold the moral high ground in this argument. They cite our suppression of southern independence in our Civil War and our annexation of Hawaii as being morally equivalent to Red China’s position on Taiwan.
The United States has a very real national interest in working toward a peaceful compromise. Without American help, Taiwan would go under through sheer numbers alone; but as previously discussed, sovereignty issues in that region have led to very nasty past conflicts. A U.S.-China war would be disastrous to the world’s economy — not just ours and China’s. Taiwan will not accept Hong Kong-like status because Hong Kong was forced to accept a Beijing-appointed executive branch.
There is likely a compromise that would allow Taiwan full autonomy within a Chinese European Union-like arrangement. Even the EU has sovereignty issues as exemplified by Brexit, and Beijing and Taipei could benefit from any lessons learned from the Brexit fiasco. It is even possible that — having a democratic wolf in the flock — might help Red China truly become a people’s republic.
• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.