During a conference on 11 September in Taipei, American political scientist and international relations scholar John Mearsheimer pointed out that compared with military factors, a war in the Taiwan Strait is more likely to be triggered by political factors, in particular a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan.
Intensifying China-US rivalry
The Southeast Asia Impact Alliance organised a geopolitics conference on 11 September in Taipei, inviting former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, former President of the Executive Yuan Jiang Yi-huah, former Taiwan Foreign Minister David Lin, former Taiwan Vice Defence Minister Chen Yeong-kang and several renowned academics from around the world to discuss China-US relations and the Taiwan Strait situation.
Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, stated that the present international situation is indeed tense, especially as China tries to dominate Asia and replicate the US’s successes in the Western world. At the same time, China-US political and military rivalry will only intensify as Beijing pushes even harder for reunification with Taiwan.
However, he thinks that it is clear from the Russia-Ukraine war that China will not easily initiate war unless it is confident of achieving a quick and decisive victory. Mearsheimer added that war is the last resort of politics, and so political factors are far more likely to trigger war than military factors.
Taking the example of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, which precipitated the Pacific War, Mearsheimer pointed out that although Japan was aware that launching an attack would be detrimental to itself, it had to react politically because it was pressured by the US’s economic sanctions, thus leading to war.
China must contend with the fact that instead of a quick and decisive win, it could be trapped in a prolonged war in the Taiwan Strait.
Maintaining peace with ‘one-China policy’ framework
In the context of the present Taiwan Strait situation, Mearsheimer analysed that if Beijing resorts to force, a massive amphibious operation would have to be launched to cross the Taiwan Strait. However, the People’s Liberation Army lacks combat experience and would have to deal with the US, Japan and Australia coming to the aid of Taiwan, making it significantly tougher to attack Taiwan.
He thinks that China must contend with the fact that instead of a quick and decisive win, it could be trapped in a prolonged war in the Taiwan Strait. This also shows that military factors such as US deterrence against China and the inherent dangers of the Taiwan Strait still strongly keep Beijing in check.
Mearsheimer stressed that from a political viewpoint, a declaration of independence from Taiwan would most likely be the reason for Beijing to declare war in the Taiwan Strait. “If we can avoid talking about Taiwan independence and angering the Chinese leader, we can maintain the current situation, which is not too bad right now,” he assessed.
Besides Mearsheimer, Graham Allison, founding dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in the US, also participated in the conference through a pre-recorded video. He echoed the same sentiment, stating that if Taiwan were to declare independence, it would most likely be the spark that ignites war in the Taiwan Strait.
... even though the “one-China policy” framework adopted by the US is not to everyone’s satisfaction, it has nevertheless effectively maintained peace, security and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait for decades, which is in itself miraculous.
Allison emphasised that “the US-China competition is akin to restless elephants on the grassland. Under such circumstances, there is no such thing as a ‘good option’. All that Taiwan can do is to not be the cause of the problem, to not be a provocateur.”
But he also notes that Beijing’s military actions as well as the statements or actions of US congress members could also be a form of provocation, and could ignite unintended conflict.
Allison added that even though the “one-China policy” framework adopted by the US is not to everyone’s satisfaction, it has nevertheless effectively maintained peace, security and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait for decades, which is in itself miraculous.
He stressed that the one-China policy framework is flexible and has been successfully evolving, and hence there is no reason not to maintain the one-China policy.
Not an issue only for Taiwan and mainland China
As for whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defence should a war break out, Mearsheimer stated that US President Joe Biden has more than once declared his position on this matter, and this clearly shows the Biden administration’s attitude towards this issue.
David Lin, who served as the Taiwan’s foreign minister during the Ma Ying-jeou administration and representative to the UK during the Tsai Ing-wen administration, stated at the forum that cross-strait relations is not an issue only for the two sides of the strait, as future developments and trends could also be impacted by the China-US relations as well as Indo-Pacific countries.
Lin stated that Taiwan’s long-term strategy is geared towards attaining peace as well as regional stability and prosperity. He added that while Taiwan seeks to continue its strong security ties with the US, it must also strike a balance vis-a-vis maintaining peace and dialogue with the mainland.
This article was first published as “引爆台海战争最可能原因是台湾宣布独立”.
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