Will War Break Out in the Taiwan Strait?

Will War Break Out in the Taiwan Strait?

Sam Choon Yin (June 2005)

It can be said that an average person would not want to ‘experience’ war in his/her own state and in his/her lifetime. Monetary and psychic costs are bound to incur during the war and possibly for many more years to come. Yet, war is not uncommon. There are people who said that war could not take place between democratic countries. This is not true. For example, war broke out between England and France in 1914 although both were democratic states at that time. There are others who claimed that economic prosperity would deter a state from initiating a war. Again, this has been proven otherwise. Germany and Japan for instance were enjoying rapid economic growth, yet they initiated conflicts that led to World War II. So, how likely is war going to break out between China and Taiwan?

The passage of the anti-secession law on 14 March 2005 in China indicates that the Chinese are willing to engage in military confrontation should secessionists act ‘under any name or by any means’ cause Taiwan’s secession from China. One quarter of the 10-article bill was devoted to explaining the possibility of using non-peaceful means should there be any actions suggesting Taiwan’s secession from China, while the remaining three quarter advocates peaceful reunification between Taiwan and the motherland. China has long held the view that Taiwan is part of China. The passage of the anti-secession law basically makes their position formal.

It seems imperative that the Chinese view on the Taiwan issue be made formal for the balance of power in the cross strait appears to have tiled in favour of the US-Taiwan alliance. For many years, the US has openly expressed its intention to defend Taiwan should the latter be attacked. This has provided the Taiwanese a strong backing to reject reunification demands from the Chinese. Arms sales from the US to Taiwan continued to be large. The US has also conducted dozens of simulations to study Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against air attacks, naval blockages and military landings. The passage of the Taiwan Relations Act 1979 and Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 2000 by the US congress demonstrated the strong support US provided to Taiwan. The problem is compounded as the US had earlier agreed to China’s request for ceased arms sales from the US to Taiwan following the decision to normalise relationship between the US and China back in the 1970s. Alas, this was not followed through. The US position is that arms sales to Taiwan is necessary to balance the power in favour of freedom – to allow Taiwan to defend democracy and its people. The Chinese on the other hand think that the US appears to be another bully to humiliate China and take Taiwan away from the Chinese territory. Taiwan itself of course had, over the years, expanded its military capabilities. In the 1990s, Taiwan was the second largest arms buyers, second only to Saudi Arabia. The island had also turned out to be a potential producer of cruise missiles, most recently the Hsiung Feng cruise missile capable of reaching 1,000 kilometres away from its launching base. As a consequence, situation in the cross strait remains tense and unstable.

Being both a political and economic superpower, US siding toward Taiwan has complicated the reunification process wanted so much by the Chinese. Table 1 shows the military expenditure of the top fifteen countries around the world. The US clearly led the way, with its total military expenditure accounted for nearly half the global figure, rising 12 percent in 2004 to US$455 billion. According to the report published in The Straits Times, the figure was more than the combined total of the 32 next most powerful nations. China was ranked fifth at US$35.4 billion, way below that of the US. Economically, China’s aggregate strength was also relatively weaker, accounting for only one-ninth that of the US, and a quarter that of Japan. In fact, China is even lagging behind many developing countries. Thus, with the US presence in the cross strait, China’s chance of winning any military confrontation does not seem to be very promising.

Table 1: Military Expenditures Around the World



Military expenditure (US$, billions)




United States




United Kingdom




























Saudi Arabia




South Korea























Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (http://www.sipri.org); extracted from The Straits Times, June 9, 2005.

Why does US side with Taiwan in the first place? On paper, it is not easy to tell. One reason being that the US’s has been rather inconsistent about its position over the Taiwan issue. In addition, the US has no military treaty with Taiwan, thus provides no guarantee that the US would come to its assistance in case of military confrontation with the mainland. But in reality, the US is not likely to sit and watch as the battle goes on, particularly as it sees a ‘democratic state’ being assaulted. As Brzezinski (2005) notes, ‘..any Chinese military planner has to take into account the likelihood that even if China could overrun Taiwan, the United States would enter the conflict. That prospect vitiates any political calculus justifying a military cooperation until and unless the United States is out of the picture. And the United States will not be out of the picture for a long, long time’ (emphasis added). Chu (1996) thinks likewise, noting that Taiwan’s embracement of the democratic system would attract the attention and support of the Americans to compel their government to do something. In Chu’s words (pp. 99-100):

On the Taiwan issue, there is a strong basis in the United States for the country to go to war with China over Taiwan. Alongside the hot emotions and rhetoric of a pro-Taiwan Congress, American public opinion on Taiwan has changed fundamentally. Fifteen, ten or even eight years ago, Americans knew little about Taiwan. Taiwan was just a remote place with an authoritarian regime and a not-so-rich country. To Americans today, Taiwan is a ‘democratic country’ with the world’s second largest foreign currency reserves. Many Americans told me that if there had been a war between the mainland and Taiwan fifteen or ten years ago, Americans would not have supported their leadership had it gone to Taiwan’s aid because they knew nothing, or little that was positive, about Taiwan, but if there were a war between the mainland and Taiwan today, American public opinion would demand that its leadership do something.

            Would the above deter China from engaging in military confrontation with Taiwan? Apparently not. It is important to recognise that the Taiwan issue concerns Chinese sovereignty and territorial integration. They are the most fundamental of China’s national interest. The passage of the anti-secession law essentially confirms the Chinese position to do whatever they can, including the possibility of using non-peaceful means, to reunify with Taiwan. Henry Kissinger (1996, p. C7) once wrote, ‘Whatever the cost, China will fight rather than give up what it considers Chinese territory’. But the Chinese are not likely to pick up a fight with Taiwan (and the US) right now – unless perhaps Taiwan acts first and seek independence. China’s main priority is to become an economic power, to grow its gross domestic product comparable to that of the US, and then translate the economic strength to military strength. When this is accomplished, the Chinese would be in a much stronger position to deal with Taiwan and with a higher possibility of winning confrontations be it with the US and/or Japan. The passage of the anti-secession law in March 2005 therefore could be seen merely as a defensive instrument, at least for the time being, changing China’s position from preparing for the best outcome (the reunification of Taiwan and mainland China) to avoiding the worst scenario (Taiwan’s independence). The Chinese have basically ‘passed the ball to the Taiwanese side of the court’; to say that ‘the Chinese have made their point, now what would be the Taiwanese response?’. The strategy seems to be working. Ever since the law was passed, China-Taiwan relations have become more stable as both sides, as well as the US, knew exactly now what would happen if the danger line is crossed.

            The US too does not want to pick up a fight with China now. The Bush administration believes that the Chinese serve as a useful partner in the war against terror. China’s entry to the World Trade Organisation and its subsequent commitment to open up its economy also serve the US well, for they are in line with the US ideology of more trade and investments across borders. Of course, the fact that China is a nuclear power helps to deter any war from taking place. Any nuclear confrontation would lead to severe and heavy damages on both sides, a condition that the US and the Chinese do not wish to experience. Chen Shui-bian and his party’s calls for independence thus worried the US. To the US, maintaining the status quo is essential. The US has made it clear. It does not welcome any unilateral decisions that could raise tensions in the cross strait. Dialogues between Taiwan’s opposition leaders Lien-Chen and James Soong and the Chinese in April-May 2005 were welcomed and supported by the US. The return of political power to the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) is possible in the near future. One cannot rule out as well amendments in the Taiwan Relations Act in the US, possibly to reduce the US ‘weird’ involvement in the cross strait, that is, to sell arms to a government the US does not recognise. On this note, military confrontation between China and Taiwan is not likely to take place unless, quoting from Article 8 in the anti-secession law, ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces act under any name or by any means’… ‘cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidences entailing Taiwan’s secession from china should occur, or than possibilities for a peaceful reunification’ are ‘completely exhausted’.


(1) Brzezinski, Zbigniew, 2005, Clash of the titans (dialogue with John Mearsheimer), Foreign Policy, January/February 2005.

(2) Chu, Shulong, 1996, National Unity, Sovereignty and Territorial Integration, The China Journal, No. 36, July 1996, pp. 98-102.

(3) Kissinger, Henry, 1996, The Stakes with China, The Washington Post, 31 March 1996.