Time for Conflict Prevention Across the Taiwan Strait

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 7

As Taiwan’s presidential election concludes, Beijing and Washington both will—pro tempore—breathe a sigh of relief to have successfully stifled Taiwan’s most recent attempt to validate its de facto sovereignty through the holding of two controversial UN referenda, which both ended in vetoes because the total vote only reached 35 percent each, a far cry from the 50 percent quorum required to validate the results of the referenda (Taiwan News Online, March 23).

Hu Jintao’s recent speech at the outset of China’s 11th National People’s Congress (NPC, March 3) reiterated—albeit in a softer rhetoric—that the “One-China principle” is Beijing’s bottom line, and Beijing will never make any concession on it. General Yang Deqing, a NPC representative of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), reportedly said that if an “unusual event” occurs in Taiwan, the PLA will resolutely “defend national unification and territorial integrity” upon the Central Military Commission’s (CMC) orders (Ming Pao, March 5). Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao remarked that both Tibet and Taiwan are “the issues concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity which must be determined by all the Chinese people” [1].

Behind the scene of Taiwan’s presidential elections, the failed referendums and the stalled Six Party Talks, lay the grid of the so-called U.S.-China co-management framework, an idea that has gained ground among policymakers in Washington and Beijing progressively after September 11. In response to Taiwan’s plan to hold the referendums to either join or re-enter the UN, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed a strong objection to the referenda and called it “provocative.” Such an open rebuke is rather contagious for the European Union (EU) and Japan (New Europe, March 11; The Japan Times, January 31). The Western democracies’ vehement opposition to the public will of Taiwanese citizens mirrors the Indian government’s opposition to plebiscites in Jammu and Kashmir out of fear of prompting an independence movement among its Muslim-majority dwellers. One may ask, to what extent is the U.S.-China co-management framework working, or serving the interests of the United States? Is it really leading the Taiwan deadlock to a peaceful outcome? Or defending the widely-touted Western values of democracy and human rights? Or is Taiwan, a fledging democracy in East Asia, being sacrificed to China’s determination for unification at all costs?

To date, U.S.-China co-management has focused on managing cross-Strait tensions by repressing Taiwan’s attempts to express and garner recognition from the international community to consolidate its de facto sovereignty. Despite the obvious restraints on Taiwan, China continues to expand its military power to asymmetrically deter U.S. military intervention in case of a Taiwan contingency. Beijing’s official think tank leaders such as Yan Xuetong bluntly advocate the use of force against Taiwan. The U.S. Defense Department’s 2008 PRC Military Power Report reiterated China’s continuous deployment of advanced weapons systems to the regions opposite Taiwan, developing capabilities for a number of different military options against Taiwan, an air and missile campaign, blockade and amphibious invasion [2]. This month, Beijing announced its annual military budget as $58.8 billion, a 17.6 percent increase over the last year, but the PRC Military Power Report estimates China’s real military expenditure of 2007 as between $97-139 billion, the latter figure more than doubling the official Chinese figure (International Herald Tribune, March 4) [3].

Yan Xuetong, professor and director at the Institute of International Affairs, Tsinghua University in Beijing, openly argued in a Hong Kong Phoenix TV live talk show that China should not hesitate to use force to counter Taiwan’s de jure independence. Yan emphasized that Beijing has a two-stage strategy—first, preventing Taiwan independence at all costs, even by force; as the next step, unification by force—implying that a forceful unification is inevitable (Phoenix TV, February 2). Yan Xuetong reiterated that the utmost intention of Beijing’s Taiwan policy is to “maintain the integrity of China’s territory at all costs,” which is already clearly expressed in a declaration publicized on May 17, 2004 by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, rather than the Anti-Secession Law, which shows a soft line gesture (Xinhua News Agency, May 17). Beijing’s hard-line statements toward Taiwan and the increase in both the scope and depth of Chinese military maneuvers and capabilities, one could discern a stark contrast between Beijing’s soft-line rhetoric and hard-line behaviors. While Yan is concerned that China could miss the right timing to attack Taiwan due to U.S.-China co-management, the current U.S.-China co-management to constrain Taiwan from consolidating its de facto sovereignty may indeed benefit China’s long-enacted Taiwan strategy—preventing Taiwan’s independence, and unifying Taiwan by force as soon as the chance appears favorable.

The U.S.–China co-management framework, a strategic concept coined by pro-Beijing scholars [4], has produced an echo effect for Beijing’s diplomacy to strip more influence from the United States on critical regional security issues—e.g. the Korean Peninsula and the cross-Strait issue—which now hinge on co-management by the United States and China. Beijing’s intention to collaborate with the United States on the North Korean nuclear issue is arbitrated by Beijing’s desire to gain Washington’s support on the Taiwan issue [5]. This formula helps China elude direct confrontations with the United States—as China is relatively weaker—and at the same time “muddle through” imminent issues like the North Korean nuclear crisis to protect China’s strategic interest. Indeed, this pragmatic tactic functioned well—especially while the United States is preoccupied with the war on terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, China has been able to convince the United States to “delegate” the management of the Six Party Talks almost entirely to China’s discretion since 2003. The consequence was rather counter-productive: China managed to muddle through the North Korean nuclear issue without taking any responsibility to pressure and contain the North Korean regime, let alone take any initiatives toward denuclearization. Beijing’s inaction allowed Pyongyang to conduct the nuclear test in October 2006 and establish itself as a nuclear weapon state, at least in Pyongyang’s eyes. In spite of the provocative test, China continues to openly support the North Korean regime, while the Six Party Talks are again stagnated since September 2007.

Looking back on history, one may not find it surprising to see that the U.S.-China co-management on the North Korean nuclear issue is failing today. For the United States and China, their strategic and geo-political interests over the Korean Peninsula are fundamentally different. For example, the latest studies on the Korean War based on newly declassified documents from China and Russia show that Mao Zedong had strategically decided to support North Korea’s invasion of South Korea well before U.S. forces reached the Yalu River neighborhood, and well before June 1950 [6]. Upon the request of Kim Il-Sung, who badly needed a larger army for invading the South, Mao in the summer of 1949 generously granted Kim Il-Sung approximately 30,000 ethnic Korean PLA troops fully equipped with modern arms left by the Soviet Red Army, who were some backbone forces (the PLA 166th division) that played an important role in the decisive battles against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government troops in Manchuria in the early stages of the Chinese civil war. As the troops were transferred to Kim Il-Sung’s command, they reappeared as the 6th division of the Korean People’s Army to play another decisive role in the Korean War in first attacking Kaesong, Seoul, and further south to Taejon [7].

During the Korean War, Mao sacrificed as many as 400,000 soldiers and, most importantly, he missed the opportunity to seize Taiwan by force, but the Korean War eventually established China as a major military power in North East Asia. Having paid such high costs for defending North Korea in the last century, China indeed cherishes the vital strategic interest of North Korea. Thus, why would China pressure North Korea to the verge of collapse on the nuclear issue? The ensuing crisis of North Korean refugees and its already significant economic stake in North Korea are also factors for China to sustain the hermit kingdom. Many analysts believe that China convened the Six-Party Talks with the intention of creating chances for North Korea and China to muddle through the nuclear crisis without jeopardizing the North Korean regime. Kim Jong-il is well aware of North Korea’s strategic value for China, and may have made a tempting proposal to Beijing: when China attacks Taiwan, North Korea could destabilize the Korean Peninsula in order to divert U.S. forces between the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula [8]. Thus, there is a common interest between Beijing and Pyongyang to sustain the North Korean regime, due to such a second trigger effect.

Given the above-mentioned pretext, it is doubtful whether U.S.-China co-management over the Taiwan issue could really result in a win-win situation, especially when it contains Taiwan. If Beijing is indeed following Yan Xuetong’s logic—preventing Taiwan’s independence for the time being, and unifying Taiwan by force when a favorable chance emerges—e.g. when the PLA becomes strong enough to deter U.S. military intervention—the current U.S.-China co-management framework is likely to function in favor of China’s long-term strategy, rather than manage it. On the other hand, the Chinese military appears to be over-confident in its capability to capture Taiwan, combined with China’s economic power and the centripetal force it exudes. At this point, the risk of miscalculation and misjudgment is especially subtle and therefore dangerous for the new administration in Taiwan. Under such circumstances, what is urgently needed is effective conflict prevention and mediation to keep sustainable peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Thus far, Beijing is confident and feels comfortable to assume that the United States and Japan—a logistical support-provider to U.S. forces—are “the only two states” willing to intervene in a cross-Strait conflict. If other countries take a conciliatory stance toward China in suggesting “neutrality in case of a cross-Strait conflict,” Beijing would assume it has a good chance to isolate Taiwan and deter U.S. military intervention. Beijing’s optimistic calculation might motivate the country toward an adventurous option to use force against Taiwan. The PLA’s over-confidence per se creates a dangerous potential risk for the PLA to commit miscalculations and misjudgments, just as Admiral Yamamoto did prior to the Pearl Harbor assault in December 1941: militarily and tactically it was a successful operation for the Japanese military, but politically and strategically it was a disaster because the operation completely transformed American public opinion overnight, from anti-war isolationism to full-fledged support of President Roosevelt’s declaration of war. Should the PLA conduct such an assault against Taiwan, Beijing may suddenly see the majority of the world—including all Western countries—confront China as their “common threat.” Economic sanctions and political denunciation by the international community would eventually erode the Chinese Communist Party regime, which is already challenged by a lack of legitimacy due to systematic corruption and domestic social-economic tensions. Notwithstanding this risk of an eventual failure, Beijing might commit a fatal misjudgment caused by the PLA’s over-confidence in its military capacity, and the jingoistic public opinion driven by super-nationalism and the lack of objective information. Thus, effective and comprehensive conflict prevention is urgently needed.

Indeed, a cross-Strait conflict is potentially one of the most dangerous conflicts involving two major nuclear powers, in which the risk of escalation, in the worst case, cannot exclude strategic nuclear exchange. Thus, it is understandable that many countries make such a statement of “neutrality” or remain bystanders. The location of Taiwan, however, in the midst of the vital sea lines of communications (SLOCs), any level of armed conflict will inevitably envelop an international affair with global consequences, economically, politically and militarily. By nature, a cross-Strait conflict cannot be a limited theatre of war. Therefore, it would greatly improve conflict prevention if NATO could at a minimum maintain its own version of “strategic ambiguity” to make Beijing’s calculation of using force more difficult, less optimistic, and thereby more prudent [9]. The recent large-scale naval exercise conducted by the United States, Japanese, Australian, Indian and Singaporean navies in September 2007 might have aimed at such a signalling effect toward China. It will also be constructive if Europe, together with other Western countries, were to make Beijing understand that any armed attack on Taiwan would lead to worldwide criticism and boycotts of Chinese products.

To leave the issue to Beijing-Taipei bilateral talks is not a solution either. In the 1990s, former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui secretly sent an envoy to Hong Kong to negotiate with Beijing on cross-Strait political issues but apparently failed to bring any constructive outcomes and, consequently, Lee resorted to declaring the controversial meeting special “state-to-state relations” (BBC, July 20, 2000). Likely, China’s One-China principle and Ma Ying-jeou’s claim of “sovereignty country” would hardly coalesce. Given the power disparity between Beijing and Taipei, any bilateral talks on equal terms are impossible and unrealistic. Given Beijing’s persistence on its old-fashioned sovereignty concept and territorial integrity, any bilateral talks would inevitably end up as a cruel power game, in which the absorption of Taiwan would be imminent due to its relatively weaker position. If Beijing judges that Taiwan is already weak and isolated enough to allow for Chinese military operations, Beijing would opt for the use of force to realize its unification aim. The current co-existence framework in the cross-Strait relationship is unsustainable, because the framework lacks a solid ground in terms of international law, and is instead subject to the change of various variables such as military power parity, international political dynamics, economic mergers, and domestic social-political developments in China and Taiwan. In such unstable circumstances, third-party intervention would be constructive and helpful to create a win-win situation. In this respect, Europe, which has a rich historical experience of transcending national borders through post-modern regional cooperation, could provide much inspiration and creative ideas for China and Taiwan, helping them to find a creative third way-out that both parties can comfortably accept. For instance, Europe could suggest to Beijing that a loose confederation or commonwealth to consolidate the current ambiguous co-existence—neither unification nor independence—would be a feasible peaceful solution acceptable to both sides, as well as the international community. When the U.S.-China co-management only muddles through the cross-Strait problem without leading to any fundamental solution, Europe’s rich experiences of conflict prevention and management could be a new subject worth studying for the related parties in the Asia-Pacific.


1. Chinese premier’s news conference, 18 March 2008.

2. Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2008, Annual Report to Congress, Office of the US Secretary of Defence.

3. Ibid., op. cit., p. 32.

4. Zhao, Quansheng (2006), ‘Moving toward a Co-Management Approach: China’s Policy toward North Korea and Taiwan’, Asian Perspective, 30 (1): 39-78.

5. A logic of Chinese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhou Wenzhong, quoted in Zhao Quansheng (2005), ‘Beijing’s Policy toward Two Hot Spots: Korea and Taiwan’, Stockholm Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol. 15, p. 45.

6. Zhu, Jianrong (2004) Mo Takuto no Chosen Sensou [Mao Zedong’s Korean War], Tokyo: Iwanami.

7. Hagiwara, Ryo (1997; 2003), Chosen-Senso: Kin Nissei to Macarther no Inbo [The Korean War: A Conspiracy of Kim Il Sung and MacArthur]. Bungei-Shunju, Tokyo. It is a unique study on the Korean war, which is entirely based on over 1.6 million pages of North Korean documents captured by the US during the Korean War and later declassified as US national archieve.

8. In his writing ‘Drives behind the Use of Force’, Steve Tsang deemed that Beijing has leverage in Pyongyang, and has the scope to persuade the North Koreans to increase or reduce tension, albeit only to a limited extent: ‘Should Beijing choose to use force against Taiwan, it may be able to persuade Pyongyang that this can be done with mutual benefits … If Beijing were to adopt such an approach, its intention would be to create confusion in order to deter the US from responding quickly and effectively to its moves against Taiwan’. See, Tsang, Steve (ed.) (2006) If China Attacks Taiwan. London/New York: Routledge, p. 2. Also see .

9. Masako Ikegami (2007), ‘NATO and Japan: Strengthening Asian Stability’, NATO Review, Partnership: Old and New (summer 2007).