There are already too many recent reports about war between Taiwan and China coming from political leaders and Western media to count. They range from speculating whether war will break out to when it will happen, and even to reports that Taiwan has been attacked. This year, Congress has proposed more than 10 bills related to Taiwan, and the frequency of visits to Taiwan by officials and members of Congress has increased. It feels as if everyone is already moving toward the front lines of battle; indeed, it has already become routine to fly American military aircraft to Taiwan.
At the same time, the U.S. is repeatedly playing the Taiwan card, making a show of supporting Taiwan’s admittance to the United Nations as well as Taiwan’s renaming its representative office. The U.S. waffles between strategic ambiguity and strategic clarity. President Joe Biden has twice spoken of America’s promise regarding Taiwan’s security, which has led President Tsai Ing-wen and the Taiwanese to believe that the U.S. will send troops to help defend Taiwan. Why all these big policy changes? U.S. legislators say they are concerned about Taiwan’s democracy and freedom, while officials say that because of the Chinese Communist Party’s expanding military strength, they worry about cross-strait peace and Taiwan’s security. These might all be justifiable reasons, but are they the only ones?
Another explanation with historical precedent is that the U.S. regards Taiwan as a pawn. Donald Trump was always ready to say that Taiwan is viewed as a stand-in which the U.S. could use to feel out and provoke the CCP. This is a proxy war. Proxy wars have been waged since ancient times. They were used widely during the Cold War due to the development of nuclear weapons. This kind of warfare occurs when one power wants to avoid direct confrontation with an enemy or is unwilling to engage in all-out war. To strike and destroy its enemy, it ensnares and uses a third party to wage its war instead.
Why might Taiwan be pushed into a proxy war? The first reason lies in the changing power dynamic between China and the U.S. To suppress emerging powers without using direct military conflict, which might incite nuclear war, the current hegemony requires a proxy war strategy. Over the last two years, the U.S. has raised the idea that China is a threat and has turned it into an enemy. Cross-strait tensions and Taiwan’s democratization just happen to be the perfect playing field for a proxy war.
Second, apart from the structural factor of strategic competition between China and the U.S., proxy wars of interest groups are also important. This is especially so for America’s military industrial complex, which has long relied on the enormous interests of U.S. national defense and international arms. However, the national defense budget has been slowly shrinking, and research and development funding for and orders to arms manufacturers are not in the same position as they once were. The military industrial complex urgently needs to construct a new enemy and conduct a proxy war for the U.S.
The ecology of the U.S. military industrial complex is complicated and includes the companies upstream and downstream from arms dealers, Congress members, retired officials and think tanks. There have been many reports in recent yers assessing cross-strait military affairs, as well as congressional acts relating to Taiwan. For example, a few days ago, congressional Republicans proposed the Taiwan Deterrence Act, which would provide $2 billion in military financing loans to Taiwan, to purchase U.S. weapons. At the same time, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said that a peaceful or militaristic takeover of Taiwan by China would have the harshest impact on America’s economic stability. Actually, Del Toro created a technology company 17 year ago that conducted business with the Department of Defense, so one could say he is part of the military industrial complex.
Third, there is growing populism and chauvinism in U.S. politics. As part of a power struggle and in an effort to flaunt their accomplishments, political figures from Trump, Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo to Antony Blinken continue to expand on the utility of playing the Taiwan card. They also hope to provoke a strong response from the Chinese Communist Party. For example, when Wang Yi and Blinken met recently at the Group of 20 summit, Wang stated that if the issue of Taiwan is dealt with incorrectly, U.S.-China relations would be severely damaged. In response two days ago, Blinken said that should a unilateral force destroy the status quo across the strait, many countries would “take action.”
It is worth noting is that internal cooperation and incentives for proxies are critical factors in how great powers instigate proxy wars. Some proxy wars are even instigated by the proxies themselves, and the great powers are passively drawn into the conflict. In Taiwan’s case, changes in its politics and cross-strait relations have always been two important independent variables in the triangular relationship between the U.S., China and Taiwan that affect U.S.-China relations and peace in the Taiwan Strait. For example, after Chen Shui-bian espoused the One Country on Each Side concept, the U.S. and China adopted a more stable joint management of the Taiwan Strait. Today, the Tsai and Biden administrations seem to be competing to provoke Beijing, both impatient to step on that red line.
A war in the Taiwan Strait has no winners. For Taiwan, it would mean destruction and injury; for China, hindered development; and for the U.S., decreased hegemony. However, the U.S.-China power struggle, the U.S. military industrial complex and manipulation by Taiwan’s political leaders might unfortunately push Taiwan toward a proxy war. Hopefully, everyone will remain smart, pragmatic and cautious as they address the present and future of Taiwan on both sides of the strait.
The author is the former deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council.