While the United States is preoccupied with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, a far more dangerous crisis is brewing: the prospect of an armed confrontation between Taiwan and mainland China.  Unfortunately, Washington’s current policy places us in the middle of that quarrel.  If U.S. leaders do not change course, America could find herself in a perilous showdown with a nuclear-armed China within a decade.

Beijing insists that Taiwan is merely a renegade province of the People’s Republic of China, and, although Chinese officials state that the PRC wants to regain sovereignty over the island by peaceful means, they have consistently refused to renounce the use of force to achieve reunification.  Renouncing force is an option that they will not entertain even in off-the-record discussions, even when the concession is presented as part of a quid pro quo for the termination of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan—something Beijing wants very much.

It is often difficult for Americans and other Westerners to comprehend the depth of Chinese determination to get Taiwan to “return to the motherland.”  To many (probably most) Chinese, Taiwan is the most potent remaining symbol of China’s long period of weakness and dependence, which began in the early 19th century, and her resulting shabby treatment at the hands of various colonial powers.  For these inheritors of an ancient and proud culture, that treatment was profoundly humiliating and opened deep emotional wounds that have yet to heal.  It was during the period of weakness that Britain wrested Hong Kong away; Japan seized Taiwan (and later Manchuria); czarist Russia amputated portions of Chinese territory along their border; and France, Germany, and other countries established colonies or enclaves.  That is why the emotional symbolism of China’s reclamation of Hong Kong in 1997 transcended even that entity’s admittedly significant economic importance.  The last of the European enclaves, Macao, was restored to Beijing’s jurisdiction in 1999.  Taiwan is now the principal piece of traditional Chinese territory that has yet to be recovered.

There also are ominous indications that the political elite in China is losing patience on the Taiwan issue.  Long gone is the cavalier attitude of PRC leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1970’s that the Taiwan issue could remain unresolved for 100 years without unduly upsetting Beijing.  As Taiwan has democratized and accelerated her quest for international recognition, Beijing has become noticeably less sanguine.  An early indication of growing impatience came in 2000, when the Chinese government issued an 11,000-word White Paper.  The key section outlined “three situations” in which China would use force against Taiwan.  The first two reflected previous PRC statements that Beijing would resort to force if either a turn of events led to the separation of Taiwan from the mainland (i.e., a clear move toward formal independence) or a foreign invasion or other measures led to Taiwan’s separation.  The third situation was unprecedented, however.  The White Paper emphasized that the Taiwanese authorities could not expect to stall negotiations for reunification indefinitely.  For the first time, Beijing indicated that it might consider such delaying tactics to be sufficient grounds for resorting to military force.

Any remaining doubt on that score disappeared when the National People’s Congress (the PRC’s rubber-stamp legislature) passed the Anti-Secession Act in March 2005.  Much of the language in the statute was uncompromising and hawkish.  Article 2 made it clear that “the state will never allow the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces to make Taiwan secede from China under any name or by any means.”  And the heart of the act, Article 8, stressed that Beijing was determined to prevail, by whatever means necessary, on the issue of reunification.

In the event that the “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities of a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Beijing is backing up this determined language with substantive military measures.  For example, the PRC has expanded deployment of missiles on its side of the Taiwan Strait and now has more than 700 missiles arrayed against Taiwan.  The PRC’s overall military modernization program is accelerating, and it concentrates on developing weapon systems that would make a U.S. air and naval intervention very risky.

It is likely that Beijing has not yet decided to use coercion to achieve reunification, but it is equally apparent that the PRC political elite regards the use of force as a viable option if peaceful alternatives prove ineffective.  Any one of several developments could set a coercive strategy in motion: the emergence of a more hard-line PRC government; evidence that pro-independence sentiment on Taiwan is becoming dominant; or simply frustration on the mainland with the prospect of an indefinite stalemate.  That danger may increase as communism fades as a unifying force in China and Chinese nationalism replaces it.

Meanwhile, separatist sentiments are growing in Taiwan—especially among younger Taiwanese.  To them, China is an alien country.  A vibrant, distinct society has evolved in Taiwan, and many Taiwanese note that their island has been ruled by Beijing for only 4 of the last 111 years—and never by communists.  Taiwan has developed separately from the mainland, and it is understandable that many Taiwanese want that reality ratified by having an independent state that enjoys full international recognition.

The bulk of the Taiwanese business community favors close ties to the mainland, which helps to counteract the influence of the pro-independence faction.  The overall trend, however, seems clear.  Numerous public-opinion surveys show that very few Taiwanese are interested in reunification with a communist China.  Indeed, a growing number of Taiwanese may not be interested in reunification even if the mainland someday becomes democratic.  At the very least, there is a broad consensus in favor of the island’s current de facto independence, and most Taiwanese want some form of political recognition from the international community.  A distinct national identity has emerged in Taiwan—a “Taiwanese consciousness,” as President Chen Shui-bian stressed in his 2006 New Year’s address to the nation—leaving little room for Beijing’s hope that the Taiwanese people will eventually agree to reunification.

Given the intensity of the emotions on both sides of the strait, it is uncertain how long the modus vivendi that has existed since Washington’s rapprochement with the PRC in the 1970’s can endure.  Both Beijing and Taipei seem increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo built around Taiwan’s acceptance of her place in political and diplomatic limbo.  They also have sharply conflicting prescriptions for resolving the impasse.  Beijing advocates the formula of “one country, two systems,” which would mean a status for Taiwan similar to that granted Hong Kong—albeit with somewhat greater autonomy.  Taipei categorically rejects that solution.  During the years of control by the Kuomintang Party (KMT) (from the late 1940’s to the mid-90’s), Taiwanese leaders at least implicitly accepted the concept of one China.  But the formula under KMT President Lee Teng-hui in the late 90’s shifted to “one China, two states.”  The model Lee and his supporters seemed to be advocating was that of Germany during the latter stages of the Cold War.  That option, though, was anathema to the PRC.

When the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won Taiwan’s presidency in 2000, sentiment for an independent Taiwan intensified.  Under the current president, Chen Shui-bian, even the pro forma acceptance of one China has largely been abandoned.  According to Chen, one China is merely one possible outcome of negotiations between their two sovereign and equal states.  Moreover, a sizable portion of the Democratic Progressive Party’s membership is even more radical than Chen.  And the DPP’s junior partner in the “Pan Green” electoral alliance (the Taiwan Solidarity Union) makes the DPP look anemic on the independence issue.  To staunchly pro-independence elements in either the DPP or the TSU, the ultimate goal of negotiations with Beijing is not reunification but formal separation.

The United States has pursued a policy that seeks both to preserve friendly ties with Beijing and to protect Taiwan’s de facto independence.  As developed during the 1980’s and 90’s, that policy incorporated the doctrine of strategic ambiguity.  On the one hand, Washington officially adheres to a one-China policy and does not dispute Beijing’s contention that Taiwan is part of China.  On the other, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act mandates that the United States sell defensive arms to Taiwan and regard any PRC effort to coerce Taiwan as a grave breach of the peace.  Whether the United States would intervene with her own military forces in the event of a Chinese attack remains ambiguous.  The point of strategic ambiguity is to keep both sides guessing.  The rationale is that Taipei would have to wonder whether the United States would really come to Taiwan’s rescue if Taiwanese leaders needlessly provoked Beijing by pushing an independence agenda.  Conversely, Beijing would have to suspect that the United States would defend Taiwan.  Therefore, both sides have an incentive to act cautiously.

Strategic ambiguity worked reasonably well until the mid-90’s, when a newly democratic Taiwan began to push the independence envelope, and the PRC reacted with ever-more-pointed warnings.  Today, there is an increasing likelihood that Taipei and Beijing may interpret U.S. policy exactly the opposite of the way that U.S. officials desire.  As the PRC’s economic and military power grows, Chinese leaders may conclude that the American commitment to defend Taiwan is a bluff.  And the Taiwanese may conclude that the United States would never allow a vibrant fellow democracy to be conquered by an authoritarian aggressor, even if Taiwan’s actions were provocative.  As Washington has tried to preserve an increasingly fragile status quo, it has often created confusion and increased the risk of miscalculation by one or both parties to the Taiwan dispute.

An especially troubling aspect of U.S. policy is that America has little control over events relevant to the Taiwan situation.  To some extent, that is a problem inherent in any international trouble spot involving the United States.  It is always possible for the opposing party to trigger a crisis.  But the Taiwan problem is far more complicated and dangerous.  The United States has to worry not only about whether her potential adversary (China) remains prudent but about whether her client state (Taiwan) remains prudent.  Indeed, in this case, Washington may have to worry more about Taipei than about Beijing.  It is dangerous to undertake any commitment to defend a client or an ally, but it is especially risky when the United States does not (and probably cannot) exercise effective control over the actions of that ally or client.  That is precisely the situation today in the relationship between Washington and Taipei.

The United States is at a precarious point with regard to her Taiwan policy.  “For the decade ahead, we need to keep the lid on the pressure cooker,” states one high-ranking U.S. official.  Washington may find that such a mission is beyond its ability.  At the very least, it will be an increasingly frustrating and dangerous mission.  Given the trends both in Taiwan and on the mainland, there is a mounting danger of military confrontation sometime in the next decade between the two parties that could entangle the United States.  Indeed, unless significant policy changes take place in Taipei, Beijing, or Washington, a collision course is all too likely.