Taiwan: A Dangerous Flashpoint


For the near future (two to five years), the issue of Taiwan and its position between China and the U.S. offers the greatest potential in the world for the outbreak of either conventional or nuclear war. Still worse, we may even see such fears realized within weeks or months in what could well be the greatest military conflict since 1945.

With that as an opening, we might just as well continue “downhill” to what almost certainly is one of the most dangerous “flashpoints” inside the political globe. Comparisons to other geopolitical “hotspots,” Korea, Russian electoral “meddling,” South China Sea, global terror, Israel-Islam, China-India, while “serious” by themselves, possess neither alone nor even together the magnitude and degree of potential as this issue by itself.

This is, as they say, a “mouthful,” and it remains, by definition, fully subjective. But it is, at the same time, both reasonably accurate and potentially disastrous in itself as to rate this “dubious” distinction. The military capacities from both sides, alone, would qualify this issue as the worst-case scenario currently on the planet. It is, simultaneously, nearly unprecedented in scope and style as to rate potentially as the most dangerous and unsolved problem able to destroy the political globe as we know it.


No crisis in recent history, war, or threat of war, can approach this potential event. The magnitude and diversity of the weapons themselves can be compared to the mid-point of the Cold War. We must go back to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to appreciate the possible scale of destruction from the theoretical use of atomic bombs, missiles, naval forces, and other “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD) assembled by sovereign units.  But the Missile Crisis arrived almost “overnight,” without warning, and was settled within two weeks, with exactly a single casualty (an American spy plane pilot). Yet if the issue escalated to nuclear exchange, the disaster could have produced millions of deaths in the first minutes alone. In the case of Taiwan, we already have had years of warnings, predictions, and possible outcomes, all replete with potential disastrous scenarios. Whether nuclear or conventional, the Taiwan issue is, and will be, the most dangerous military scenario on earth.

And it gets worse day by day.

Since China is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, invasion estimates have been pushed to 2023 or ’24, while the recent flurry of Chinese Air Force “excursions” over Taiwan (150 planes at once), plus Chinese naval-landing exercises, have alerted some to predict imminent invasion. The test of China’s first “hypersonic” missile around the earth (August) took the rest of the world, including U.S. intelligence, by complete surprise.

In short, nobody knows, but predictions arrive almost daily. What’s the next “surprise”?

The background of future war over Taiwan challenges history’s worst-case scenarios. While Churchill may have declared World War II the “most preventable” in history, singular events came without warning. When told that the British declared war (September 3, 1939), Hitler turned to his Foreign Secretary (von Ribbentrop) and asked “now what”? The shock of Pearl Harbor prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to call the attack “dastardly and unprovoked,” while his successor, Harry Truman, had his day interrupted by the news that the North had invaded the South in Korea (June 25, 1950).

Actual invasion itself is normally a “surprise.” Japan did not signal Hawaii, “We’ll be there on the seventh, around 8 AM. Have a good day.”

The American Civil War was preceded by decades of bitter political tension, but war was not foreseen generally until Lincoln’s election and South Carolina’s secession (November, December 1860). As late as February-March 1861, a month-long conference, held in the Willard Hotel next to the White House and led by former president John Tyler, met to discuss possible peaceful solutions. A month later came Fort Sumter.

Should there be a war to decide the future political status of Taiwan, the full population of “Mother Earth” (seven billion) should shout out in perfect unison, “See, we told you so.” But for many of them, this might, literally, be their “last words.”

The full background goes back to 1927, with the beginning of the civil war between the Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists of Mao Zedong. Neither space nor time allows for a full account of this historic event, which did not end until the Communists finally drove Chiang’s Nationalists out of China in 1949 to the island fortress of Taiwan, 112 miles from the mainland.

Featured in this long contest for control of China was one of the most historic events in history, Mao’s “Long March” from southern to northern China. This event covered some 6,000 miles in one year (1934), or the distance from New York to San Francisco. And back again! Mao’s Communist army began with about 100,000 soldiers and ended with some 8,000 left!

With the end of the civil war in 1949, estimates of those killed range close to the figure of ten million. This, surely, was one of the great contests of world history, a contest that the world now confronts as a potential for still another long war, World War III.

Since the Communist victory in 1949, these two have conducted their own version of “Cold War” itself, replete with the same-set scenarios of war-peace diplomacy, political, historic, and geopolitical divides, with allied versus opposition “camps” that almost exactly mirrored the larger Cold War.  Like West Germany, South Korea, and South Vietnam in the Cold War, Taiwan has remained a firm bastion of pro-American, democratic political sentiment and cultural loyalty, symbolic of the larger issues that reflected the high tension that gripped the world until the final end of the Soviet Union and World Communism the day after Christmas, 1991.

Like the Soviet-American global struggle, the internal sides in the “China Tangle” have had their share of war threats and almost constant geopolitical “high wire” tension. But, thus far, no invasion, but many threats. This is, and has been, a direct by-product of the larger Cold War, where “protracted” has been the applied description: continuous, enduring, indecisive, prolonged, bitter, tedious, extended, persistent, sustained.

All these terms reflect the geopolitics of the Taiwan Strait, where the naval power of the United States has offset the manpower and logistics of “Red China” while the profound differences between the interpretations of Marxism and the nature of Communism had provoked the “Sino-Soviet Split.” This rupture has isolated Taiwan into a “middle man” between the giants centered in Beijing and Washington. Thus, at its center, Taiwan has been caught up in a “bipolar” contest, symbolic of the larger Cold War (again).

Taiwan in America

For seventy years, the Taiwan issue has remained a central foreign policy problem inside America’s political culture, rivaled only by Germany in Europe, which settled peacefully despite dire predictions (1989). The fall of China, the most populated country in the world, to Communism in October 1949 came as a profound shock to Americans, who had centered near-total attention on post-war Europe, the Marshall Plan, and NATO. The shift to Asia came suddenly and unexpectedly and soon enveloped this country in two frustrating and tragic wars, Korea and Vietnam, which for years kept Taiwan on the Asian “back burner.”

The sheer persistence of the issue, however, remained near the top concern of America in Asia. Taiwan as “political football” rarely left American attention and resulted in serious domestic tensions throughout, and after, the Cold War itself.

The first of these came almost immediately after the beginning of the Korean War. Within four days after the North Korean invasion (June 25, 1950), the Truman Administration sent an aircraft carrier, a heavy cruiser, and eight destroyers into the Taiwan Strait to prevent any potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan (now officially the Republic of China, “ROC”). With that single move, Truman inaugurated the first of a series of many tactical, legal, and strategic maneuvers that came to symbolize the geopolitical attachment of America to the ROC, maneuvers that continue to this day in the twenty-first century.

This “Taiwan Patrol Force,” as it came to be called, began operating permanently as an Asian extension of the “containment” policy that was adopted by the U.S. to safeguard Western Europe against the Soviet Red Army. Shortly afterward, the U.S. established a defense command in Taiwan and sent a “Military Assistance Advisory Group” (MAAG) there to train and aid the ROC against a potential Red Chinese invasion. By 1955, there were over ten thousand American troops stationed in the ROC, making Taiwan the largest site for American military advisory groups in the world.

The immediate response from China resulted in a series of tactical military maneuvers against Taiwan that came to symbolize the relationship to this day. In August 1954, the Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) launched air and sea raids against Taiwan’s offshore islands, Quemoy and Matsu, and then occupied the Dachen islands in January 1955. The U.S. Navy, in response, steamed into the Taiwan Strait with 70 warships, including seven aircraft carriers, and evacuated some 15,000 civilians, 11,000 troops, 125 vehicles, and 165 artillery pieces without a single casualty. On March 3, 1955, the relationship became official with the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two. The Formosa (Taiwan’s colonial name under Portugal) Defense Resolution was granted by Congress in May 1955, thus inaugurating the two as de facto allies against Red China. The first Strait Crisis was over, but the standoff had just begun.

In August 1958, the Chinese tried again, shelling Quemoy and Matsu, as if prior to an invasion. Again, the U.S. intervened, sending in four aircraft carriers plus cruisers, destroyers, submarines, and amphibious ships, many equipped with low-yield atomic bombs. ROC Air Force pilots used American Sabre jets and sidewinder missiles against PLA MIG jets (Soviet loans) to achieve 33 kills. On October 6, Beijing announced a cease-fire. The 1958 crisis was over, but the tension only increased, making Taiwan the “Berlin” of the Far East.

The Taiwan issue dominated the first televised presidential debate (1960), overshadowing all other foreign policy issues. On several occasions, the strategic differences between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy illustrated the deep distinctions then centered on Cold War policies. Kennedy dismissed the importance of the two islands, Quemoy and Matsu, as being “indefensible,” telling the TV audience that, “it would be unwise to take a chance on being dragged into war which may lead to world war.” Nixon countered with a more “hardline” response, declaring that it was a matter of the “principle involved” and that Taiwan and the islands represented to the world a symbolic “area of freedom.”

Nothing was resolved by the debate, but the policies and “principles involved” in the issue remain nearly as real now as they did then.

The issue of Taiwan soon became relatively lost within the next two decades as the U.S. became more deeply involved in the Vietnam War and, simultaneously, the Nixon Administration, especially Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, reversed years of “containment” policies by enrolling with China against the Soviet Union in the larger Cold War.

The Shanghai Communiqué, February 28, 1972, declared that neither side would “seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region” and that both “acknowledge [that] all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China.” Thus was introduced one of the strangest and confused diplomatic structures in history, with the U.S. simultaneously supporting Taiwan with military assistance while “acknowledging” that Taiwan actually belonged to China. Kissinger later explained this confusion by the word “acknowledge” as being a “constructive ambiguity” – deliberately less than full validity.

This linguistic misdemeanor was soon clarified by President Jimmy Carter when official recognition of China was granted in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA). This legislation was a true “dividing line” in the full spectrum of the triangular relations between the three constituencies.

The TRA ended official recognition of Taiwan, formally recognized mainland China, and relegated Taiwan into a non-profit corporation, “The American Institute in Taiwan” (AIT). The TRA permitted the U.S. to continue all cultural and commercial exchanges with Taiwan, including defensive weapons “in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities.” TRA language formally forbade any invasion or threats against Taiwan by “other than peaceful means” as “a threat to the peace and security of the western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” It also allowed the U.S. to export “arms of defensive character to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion.”

For its part, China has continuously maintained and reiterated that it views the TRA as “an unwanted intrusion by the United States into the internal affairs of China.”

In the years since the U.S. passed the TRA, the semi-official definition of this complex and dangerous relationship has been termed a case of “strategic ambiguity;” a description which to this very day provides the political globe with a continuous threat of World War III, with a casus belli that goes back nearly a century (to 1927) over issues that have been alive for over 70 years (to 1949). Which is another way of saying a “war without an immediate reason.”

One is reminded of the historic German annexation of the French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine after the war of 1871, an event that kept the two countries enemies until the explosion of World War I (1914). The French slogan of that era, (“Alsace-Lorraine, speak of it never, think of it always”) was the only main issue that kept the two apart and led to the climatic collapse of world order, and, subsequently, world war. The rest, as they say, “is history.”

Will it repeat?

In an effort to clarify the ambiguity that arose over the TRA, the Reagan Administration announced its “Six Assurances” to govern the TRA. In turn, these were:

  1. No date to end U.S. arms sales;
  2. No U.S. mediation with China to terminate the TRA;
  3. No pressure on Taiwan to do so;
  4. No change in the sovereignty of Taiwan;
  5. No change in the TRA legislation;
  6. No consultation with China re the status of Taiwan.

The State Department has reaffirmed these Assurances to China on several occasions since. Moreover, all American political administrations since the TRA passed have consistently upheld the provisions of the act, particularly those that affirm the right of Taiwan to defend itself and the right of the U.S. to assist them in this. Overall, since 1979, there have been slightly more than one hundred separate and distinct transfers of armaments, military equipment, and financial aid from the U.S. to Taiwan. On no occasion has the PRC (People’s Republic of China) officially interrupted or publically condemned these transfers. In all, both Clinton Administrations have the lead in these transfers with thirty-three, while Trump’s one term saw twenty-one. Thus, far Biden has one.

But the diplomatic situation seems frozen. In November 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reaffirmed America’s long-term commitment: “Taiwan has not been a part of China, and that was recognized with the work that the Reagan Administration did to lay out the policies that the United States has adhered to now for three and a half decades.”

The National Defense Authorization Act, 2021, has reaffirmed both the TRA and the Six Assurances.

Now What?

The current crisis has an immediate precedent that goes back to 1995-96, when the PRC fired rockets near Taiwan, conducted naval exercises, and moved troops to invasion-staging areas. President Bill Clinton responded by sending two carrier battle groups to waters next to Taiwan. His demonstration succeeded. China backed down, and the crisis ended.

In the meantime, Taiwan has become more isolated diplomatically (only 15 countries officially recognize Taiwan, most in Latin America and the Pacific) while China has advanced upon the world stage as possibly the next “superpower” to replace the fading U.S., absorbed by domestic divisions and ideological-sociological tensions.

China’s military capacity, without doing a detailed review, has been described as the “fastest modernizing military force” in the world. The PLA already has the largest army in the world; the navy has been fast- challenging western navies for control of the Pacific, while China’s nuclear arsenal, although carefully guarded, is generally ranked third in the world. This geopolitical reality is further bolstered by China’s rapid rise as a power in outer space. General David Thompson, second in command of the U.S. Space Force, has noted that China is threatening to overtake the U.S. military as the most dominant force in space. “We absolutely believe,” Thompson recently explained, “that the Chinese thinking would be if it’s coming to crisis and conflict, they’re going to start this conflict in space.”

Regardless of statistics and military realities, any future American military clash with China would shake both U.S. society and the political world in general as none other since Pearl Harbor. Obviously, any future war over Taiwan must be avoided …by both sides.

Yet the recent Chinese military maneuvers against Taiwan threaten just that: World War III. Actions and statements to that effect have dominated recent headlines. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has issued strong, uncompromising statements: “there is no room for China to compromise or to make concessions.” At the same time, the Ministry repeated China’s long-standing, defiant belief that Taiwan has always been part of China: “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory. The Taiwan issue is purely an internal affair of China that allows no foreign intervention.”

For the American side, President Biden is as firm as have been all his predecessors. “We are not going to step back,” Biden recently maintained, “we are not going to change any of our views.” When asked if the U.S. would defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, he replied, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” Taiwan’s current president, Tsai Ing-wen, was equally firm, “we would not surrender to pressure or act rashly.”

Which brings up the “64 dollar question,” Now what?

The clear raison d’état, the explanation behind this crisis, and all crises before, is as old as history: geopolitics. The territorial Chinese claim that Taiwan is integral to China, always has been, and always will be, regardless of factual realities – and this is the gigantic stumbling block that might just set off the first major war of this century.

In order to challenge this central issue of our times, there are two clear choices. But one thing is crystal clear, something must change: 1) either change their minds or 2) eliminate their capacity to change the territorial status quo.

But how?

1. Change their minds. Taiwan is at least ten thousand years old and has gone through a series of owners: From the aborigines who first entered the island to the colonial periods of Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese rule, to the years of Chinese dynastic conquest, to the Japanese occupation from 1895 to 1945, and to, finally, seventy years of self-governing status.

Today, as the “Republic of China” (ROC) with 23 million people, Taiwan is a democratic polity and a capitalist economic giant and trading leader in the world economy. A member of the famous “Asian Tigers,” Taiwan is the most technologically advanced computer maker in the world, whose GDP ranks 21st in the global economy. Taiwan’s investment in Asia totals around 300 billion dollars, half to the mainland itself, half to Southeast Asia.

Taiwan, ROC, has been for our lifetime a strong, democratic, and independent country. Given the status of Hong Kong since the Chinese takeover, it would be suicidal for the U.S. to surrender the standing independence of the ROC.

Task: Negotiate with China for recognition of the independence, or at least the “autonomy,” of the ROC.


2. Pursue the “Quad” as a wall of “containment” against any potential Chinese invasion.

The Quad has been for years the U.S. pursuit of a series of four nations, USA, Japan, Australia, and India, which would form an alliance to secure the peace and stability of the Asian-Pacific region. The current Biden Administration, as both the Trump and Obama administrations, has been actively pursuing the solidification of such an alliance and has, thus far, taken several steps to bring the idea to fruition.

Like its Asian predecessor, SEATO (1954-1977), the Quad in theory has the potential to include non-members as “protectorate” states, (as was South Vietnam).

Task: Incorporate the ROC as a “protectorate” country in any future Quad negotiations. In any invasion plans for Taiwan, China might have to reconsider if they meet resistance from the rest of democratic Asia, rather than the U.S. alone.

Conclusion: whether or not the diplomatic steps above solve the Taiwan “continuing crisis“ or not, it remains clear that there has to be some sort of a rapprochement between the sides for any resolution of the main threat against the peace of the world. That is now, and has been, the continued insistence of mainland China that Taiwan, ROC, belongs to them and nobody else.

The people of Taiwan reject this. The American people do as well.

Within the political globe, only China can restrict Taiwan’s right to independence, a restriction both arbitrary and self-serving. To surrender Taiwan to China would surrender the only democracy and free economy in Chinese history.

Upon reflection, Nixon was probably right back in 1960. In the last analysis, it’s always the “principle involved.”

More Articles by Dr. John J. Tierney, Jr. 

Academic Programs at IWP