The fastest route to a bloody war between China and the United States is through Taiwan. If the current crisis caused by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosis’s untimely trip and China’s robust military response lead to a collision between Chinese and American naval ships or planes, even an accident could provide the spark that ignite a big fire. In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was advised not to travel to Sarajevo as President Pelosi was at the Pentagon prior to her visit. But no one imagined that during his visit he would be assassinated, providing the spark that ignited a conflagration so devastating that historians have had to create an entirely new category: world war..
Fortunately, both the US and Chinese governments know that a hot war would spell disaster for both. No serious person in either government wants war. Unfortunately, history offers many examples where rivals whose leaders did not want war nevertheless found themselves forced to make fateful choices between accepting what they deemed an unacceptable loss, on the one hand, and taking action. which increased the risks of war, on the other hand. . The classic case is the First World War. After a terrorist with obscure ties to the government of Serbia assassinated his successor, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary felt he had to punish Serbia with force. Austria being his only ally, Germany felt that it had no choice but to give him its full support. Russia felt compelled to support its Orthodox Christian brothers in Serbia. One step led to another in a vicious circle of action and reaction that brought all of Europe to war within five weeks.
On the grandest canvas in history, when a rising power seriously threatens to displace a great ruling power, the rivalry more often than not ends in war. The last 500 years have seen sixteen instances of such Thucydidian rivalries. Twelve ended in war. In each case, the immediate causes of war included accidents, unforced errors, and the unintended consequences of inevitable choices in which one side accepted increased risk in the hope that another would back down. But underlying were underlying structural drivers that Thucydides highlighted when explaining how the two main city-states of classical Greece destroyed each other during the Peloponnesian War. As he wrote: It was the rise of Athens and the fear it instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.
Today, the United States and China are engaged in the GOAT rivalry, the greatest rivalry of all time. In this struggle, is the Taiwan war inevitable? Historical records suggest that war is more likely than not. But as the past five decades have shown, this is not necessarily the case. Fifty years ago, in 1972, when Nixon and Kissinger opened relations with China, the differences between the United States and China over Taiwan were certainly irreconcilable. But statesmen have demonstrated that irreconcilable does not mean unmanageable. They created a framework of strategic ambiguity that provided five decades in which citizens on both sides of the Strait saw their incomes, health and well-being increase more than during any equivalent period in their long history.
The hard facts about the China-US confrontation over Taiwan today are three. First, not only Xi Jinping, but the entire Chinese leadership and nation are resolutely determined to prevent Taiwan from becoming an independent state. If forced to choose between accepting an independent Taiwan and a war that destroys Taiwan and much of China, Xi and his team will choose war.
Second, what Winston Churchill called the murderous undercurrents of domestic politics now run rampant in the United States and China. A fundamental axiom of American policy prohibits letting a serious competitor gain the upper hand in a matter of national security. Republican and Democratic politicians are therefore racing to show who can be tougher on China than the other. Presidential hopeful Mike Pompeo called on the United States to recognize an independent Taiwan, and given the dynamics among Republicans, this will likely be a common plank in the Republican party platform during the 2024 presidential campaign. In Taipei, Pelosi announcement the solemn vow of the United States to support the defense of Taiwan. And this week, Senator Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican leader on defense issues, introduced the Taiwan Policy Act, which would designate Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally and commit $4.5 billion in military aid. Meanwhile, as Xi organizes the political pieces for an unprecedented third term as General Secretary and virtual emperor for life, the pressure for him to stand up to the United States and stay strong in Taiwan is stronger than ever. .
Third, while most American politicians have not yet recognized it, the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has transformed in the quarter century since the last Taiwan crisis. The local balance of power has shifted decisively in favor of China. As I explained in an article published here last year, the United States could lose a war in Taiwan. Indeed, as former Undersecretary of Defense Robert Work has publicly stated, in the most realistic simulations of the Pentagon and sensitive war games, in conflicts limited to Taiwan, the score is eighteen to zero, and the eighteen is not the United States team.
If the United States waged a local war against Taiwan, the president would likely face a fateful choice between losing and escalating to a larger war in which the United States would have the upper hand. Despite the huge leap forward in its military capabilities, the United States continues to dominate the blue seas on which China depends both for the import of energy and for the export of its products. Of course, this broader war could escalate further. And the higher rungs of this escalation ladder include the use of nuclear weapons.
In the nuclear field, there is no doubt that the United States could wipe China off the map. Nor is there any doubt that it could not do so without China responding with nuclear strikes that would kill most Americans. China now has a robust nuclear arsenal that creates a Cold Warriors condition called MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction. In a nuclear war, neither the United States nor China could destroy the other without being destroyed themselves. In this world, as President Ronald Reagan taught us, a nuclear war cannot be won and therefore must never be fought. But while no rational leader would choose to wage nuclear war, the history of the Cold War includes a number of confrontations in which leaders chose to take increased war risks rather than accept the taking of Berlin by the Soviets or the planting of nuclear bombs. missiles in Cuba.
If the best the current US and Chinese governments can handle is business as usual, which we saw last week, then we should expect history to play out as usual. Tragically, history as usual would mean a catastrophic war that could destroy both.
Graham T. Allison is the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard Kennedy School. He is the former director of Harvards Belfer Center and the author ofDestined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydidess’s Trap?
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