- - Monday, January 27, 2020

A Sino-American War would be a disaster for both nations, but recent events have made it a much more real possibility. 

It is extremely unlikely that the United States would start such a conflict, but events in China are making it possible that the Chinese leadership — read Xi Jinping — might try to reunify Taiwan with China by force to distract the mainland’s population from an increasing string of domestic and foreign failures.

The fact is that wars tend to have outcomes that those who initiate them do not anticipate. Rather than an instrument of state policy, wars often mutate into something that cannot be controlled. If Mr. Xi contemplates a quick Taiwanese adventure as a way to relieve domestic pressure, the United States would be well advised to convince China’s leaders that such a conflict would not be quick, painless or economically worthwhile.

Mr. Xi has suffered several setbacks in the past year. The latest of these was the overwhelming election victory of an anti-China party in Taiwan’s recent elections. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is wisely not calling for a complete declaration of independence, but her party’s victory at the polls was a clear repudiation of the manner in which Mr. Xi has implemented the “one country, two systems” policy regarding both Taiwan and Hong Kong. 

That — combined with an overall slowdown in China’s economy and international condemnation over the handling of the Weiger (Uyghur) minority — has dimmed Mr. Xi’s star considerably. Many of China’s ruling elite have hitched their wagons to that star, and further setbacks could convince them that an overseas adventure could distract the masses from internal woes.

A Taiwanese declaration of independence would  force military action by Mr. Xi as China views that as line in the sand. So far, all but the most strident Taiwanese separatists have steered clear of outright independence. Consequently, any unprovoked Chinese use of forceful reunification would draw international condemnation that would almost certainly damage Mr. Xi’s ambitions to match or supersede the current status of the United States as the world’s leading power. However, all bets will be off if Mr. Xi and his cronies see their internal grip on power threatened.

Mr. Xi’s ambition to turn the South China Sea and its vital transportation lanes into a Chinese lake is also a potential flashpoint. This makes U.S. strategy in the region increasingly critical.

The last three American administrations have been consistent in their approach to freedom of the seas issues in the area and the Trump administration has been firm in its support for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, but an internal leadership crisis in Beijing could challenge that regional status quo. Consequently, the United States needs to ramp up both diplomacy and military readiness in a way that precludes overseas military adventurism as a safety valve for Mr. XI and company.

The United States needs to use diplomacy to convince Taiwan not to openly declare independence as it will virtually force China into a war, but we also need to convince Beijing that an unprovoked attack on a Taiwan which is trying to maintain the current status quo will be seen as “go to war issue” for the United States as it will impact freedom of the seas which is a vital U.S. interest.

That diplomatic position must continue to be backed up by credible military deterrence. Perhaps the most coherent thinking on this issue resides in the Marine Corps and its commandant general, David Berger. Mr. Berger has refocused the Marine Corps back to its traditional Pacific naval orientation and is pushing his service’s thinkers to concentrate on how Marines can best help counter China’s threats to the sea lanes in the western and southern Indo-Pacific region.

Frankly, some of our allies in the region are concerned that President Trump might sacrifice Taiwanese democracy for a greater deal with China. That would undermine his “Keep America great” pledge. We may no longer need Middle East oil, but free trade in Asia has been one of the lifelines of the American economy since the end of World War II.

Deterrence is the art of convincing a potential aggressor that the potential use of military force is not worth the potential consequences. China needs to be assured that an unprovoked attempt at reunification of Taiwan and China by force is risk not worth the cost.

• Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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