Ever wondered where World War III might break out?
A clear and troubling consensus has emerged in the American national security community that the Taiwan Strait is the most likely place for a major war to erupt between the United States and China; that it might start soon, and that such a conflict might quickly escalate into a nuclear confrontation.
In March, the leading foreign policy organization in the United States, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, issued a report concluding that Taiwan has become “the most dangerous flashpoint in the world.” There, a unique and troubling set of geopolitical developments have conspired to make a shooting war between the People’s Republic of China and the United States more likely than ever before. Recently the newly appointed commander of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific Region, Admiral John Aquilino, remarked that a possible invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) “is much closer than we think.”
Ever since a pro-Western government was established on the island in the wake of Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Beijing has waged a patient and methodical campaign to re-establish sovereignty over the island, which today is home to a thriving, autonomous democracy of 24 million with a high-tech-oriented economy and a strategically invaluable semiconductor industry.
Taiwan has a military of 300,000 members and more than 400 jet fighters, but the primary deterrent preventing Beijing from seizing the island by force has been the military might of the United States. For 40 years, Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” has been successful in both deterring China from seizing the island by force, and dissuading the Taiwanese from declaring independence, an act which various PRC officials have said would be an open provocation to war. Current U.S. policy officially recognizes the PRC as the sole Chinese nation, but also promises military and political support for Taiwan. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act declares that the U.S. will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means as a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the United States.”
Thus, the United States has not promised to defend the island but left itself the option of doing so. It has also signaled to Beijing by various diplomatic and military channels its inclination to do so. This policy, also known as “dual deterrence,” has come under considerable pressure of late. President Xi Jinping has offered up a number of rather stern, even bellicose messages that he intends to make unification a reality sooner rather than later. Indeed, Xi sees unification today as an indispensable objective in his strategy of “national rejuvenation,” in which China assumes its rightful place on the world stage and begins to shape the rules-based international order in a way that he has described as “just and reasonable,” given China’s rising importance. As Xi said in a recent speech, “China must be, and will be united… We do not forsake the use of force.”