Ukraine Isn’t the Only Place Nuclear War Could Threaten to Erupt

Thanks to Vladimir Putin’s recent implicit threat to employ nuclear weapons if the U.S. and its NATO allies continue to arm Ukraine — “This is not a bluff,” he insisted on September 21st — the perils in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict once again hit the headlines. And it’s entirely possible, as ever more powerful U.S. weapons pour intoUkraine and Russian forces still suffer more defeatsIt is possible that the Russian president believes that the season for danger is over and that only the explosion of a nuke will convince the Western powers not to withdraw. If so, the war in Ukraine could prove historic in the worst sense imaginable — the first conflict since World War II to lead to nuclear devastation.

But don’t panic! As it happens, Ukraine isn’t the only place on the planet where a nuclear conflagration could erupt in the near future. Sad to say, around the island of Taiwan — where U.S. and Chinese forces are engaging in ever more provocative military maneuvers — there is also an increasing risk that such moves by both sides could lead to nuclear escalation.

Although neither the Chinese nor American officials have explicitly threatened to use such weapons, both sides have warned of possible extreme outcomes. When Joe Biden last spoke with Xi Jinping by telephone on July 29th, the Chinese president warned him against allowing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to visit the island (which she nonetheless did, four days later) or offering any further encouragement to “Taiwan independence forces” there. “Those who play with fire will perish by it,” he assuredThe American president issued an ambiguous warning that was certain, but which nonetheless left open the possibility for nuclear weapons.

To underline this point, China fired 11 Dongfeng-15 ballistic missiles (DF-15) into the waters around the island on September 4th. Many Western observers have been watching. believe that the barrage was meant as a demonstration of Beijing’s ability to attack any U.S. naval vessels that might come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of a Chinese blockade or invasion of the island. The DF-15 is capable of 600-mile range. believed capableThe possibility of delivering a conventional and nuclear payload.

China was also present in the days that followed. sentThe Taiwan Strait median line, which was previously an informal boundary between China & Taiwan, was crossed by nuclear-capable H-6 Heavy Bombers. Worse, state-owned media showed images of Dongfeng-17(DF-17) Hypersonic ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. moved into positionsTaiwan

Although Washington has not deployed nuclear-capable weaponsry in such brazen ways near Chinese territory, it has certainly sent aircraft carriers and guided missile warships into that area, signaling its readiness to launch attacks against the mainland if war breaks out. For example, while Pelosi was in Taiwan the Navy deployedThe USS is the carrier Ronald Reagan With its flotilla escort vessels in the nearby waters. Military officials in both countries are all too aware that should such ships ever attack Chinese territory, those DF-15s and DF-17s would be let loose against them — and, if armed with nuclear warheads, would likely provoke a U.S. nuclear response.

Both sides have received the implicit message that nuclear war could be possible. And although — unlike with Putin’s comments — the American media hasn’t highlighted the way Taiwan might trigger such a conflagration, the potential is all too ominously there.

“One China” and “Strategic Ambiguity”

In reality, there’s nothing new about the risk of nuclear war over Taiwan. Both the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan Strait crises are examples of 1954-1955 1958United States threatened to attack a then-nonnuclear China with such weaponry if it didn’t stop shelling the Taiwanese-controlled islands of Kinmen (Quemoy) and Mazu (Matsu), located off that country’s coast. At the time, Washington had no formal relations with the communist regime on the mainland and recognized the Republic of China (ROC) — as Taiwan cAlls itself — as the government of all China. In the end, however, U.S. leaders found it advantageous to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in place of the ROC and the risk of a nuclear conflict declined precipitously — until recently.

Credit the new, increasingly perilous situation to Washington’s changing views of Taiwan’s strategic value to America’s dominant position in the Pacific as it faces the challenge of China’s emergence as a great power. The United States officially recognized the PRC in 1978. severed its formal diplomatic and military relationship with the ROC, while “acknowledg[ing]The Chinese position that there is only One China [that] Taiwan is part of China.” That stance — what came to be known as the “One China” policy — has, in fact, underwritten peaceful relations between the two countries (and Taiwan’s autonomy) ever since, by allowing Chinese leaders to believe that the island would, in time, join the mainland.

Taiwan’s safety and autonomy has also been preserved over the years by another key feature of U.S. policy, known as “strategic ambiguity.” It originated with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, a measure passed in the wake of the U.S. decision to recognize the PRC as the legal government of all China. The act, which is still in effect, provides that the U.S. is empowered to supply Taiwan with “defensive” arms, while maintaining only semi-official ties with its leadership. It also says that Washington would view any Chinese attempt to alter Taiwan’s status through violent means as a matter “of grave concern,” but without explicitly stating that the U.S. will come to Taiwan’s aid if that were to occur. This official ambiguity is unacceptable helped keep the peace, in part by offering Taiwan’s leadership no guarantee that Washington would back them if they declared independence and China invaded, while giving the leaders of the People’s Republic no assurance that Washington would remain on the sidelines if they did.

Both the Republican and Democratic administrations have relied upon such strategic ambiguity as well as the One China policy to guide peaceful relations with the PRC since 1980. Over the years, there have been periods of spiking tensions between Washington and Beijing, with Taiwan’s status a persistent irritant, but never a fundamental breach in relations. And that — consider the irony, if you will — has allowed Taiwan to develop into a modern, prosperous quasi-state, while escaping involvement in a major-power confrontation (in part because it just didn’t figure prominently enough in U.S. strategic thinking).

From 1980 to 2001, America’s top foreign-policy officials were largely focused on defeating the Soviet Union, dealing with the end of the Cold War, and expanding global trade opportunities. From September 11, 2001 to 2018, their attention shifted to the Global War on Terror. In the early years under Trump, however, military officers began to shift their attention away from the War on Terror and towards what they believed was more important. termed “great-power competition,” arguing that facing off against “near-peer” adversaries, namely China and Russia, should be the dominant theme in military planning. Only then did Taiwan take on a new significance.

The Pentagon’s new strategic outlook was first spelled out in the National Defense Strategy of February 2018 in this way: “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the Reemergence of long-term, strategic competitiveness” with China and Russia. (Yes, the emphasis was in English. China, in particular, was identified as a vital threat to Washington’s continued global dominance. “As China continues its economic and military ascendance,” the document asserted, “it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

An ominous “new Cold War” era had begun.

Taiwan’s Strategic Significance Rises

To prevent China from achieving that most feared of all results, “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony,” Pentagon leaders devised a multipronged strategy, combining an enhanced U.S. military presence in the region with beefed-up, ever more militarized ties with America’s allies there. As that 2018 National Defense Strategy put it, “We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a Networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains.” Initially, that “networked security architecture” was only to involve long-term allies like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Soon, however, Taiwan was viewed as a key component of such an architecture.

Imagine a map of the Western Pacific to understand what this meant. In seeking to “contain” China, Washington was relying on a chain of island and peninsular allies stretching from South Korea and Japan to the Philippines and Australia. Japan’s southernmost islands, including Okinawa — the site of major American military bases (and a vigorous local anti-base movement) — do reach all the way into the Philippine Sea. They still have a gap between them and Luzon (the northernmost Philippine island). Smack in the middle of that gap lies… yep, you guessed it, Taiwan.

In the view of the top American military and foreign policy officials, for the United States to successfully prevent China from becoming a major regional power, it would have to bottle up that country’s naval forces within what they began calling “the first island chain” — the string of nations stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Indonesia. For China to thrive, as they saw it, that nation’s navy would have to be able to send its ships past that line of islands and reach deep into the Pacific. You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that solidifying U.S. defenses along that very chain became a top Pentagon priority — and, in that context, Taiwan has, ominously enough, come to be viewed as a crucial piece in the strategic puzzle.

Last December, Ely Ratner was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Relations Affairs. summed up the Pentagon’s new way of thinking about the island’s geopolitical role when he appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last December. “Taiwan,” he said, “is located at a critical node within the first island chain, anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”

This new perception of Taiwan’s “critical” significance has led senior policymakers in Washington to reconsider the basics, including their commitment to a One China policy and to strategic ambiguity. While the White House maintains that One China is its policy, President Biden repeatedly insists that the U.S. must defend Taiwan if attacked. When asked recentlyOn Sixty minutes whether “U.S. forces…would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion,” Biden said, without hesitation, “Yes.” The administration has also upgraded its diplomatic ties with the island and promised it billions of dollars’ worth of arms transfers and other forms of military assistance. In essence, such moves constitute a de facto abandonment of “One China” and its replacement with a “one China, one Taiwan” policy.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese authorities reacted with increasing anger and apprehension to such comments and the accompanying moves. As seen from Beijing, they represent the full-scale repudiation of multiple statements acknowledging Taiwan’s indivisible ties to the mainland, as well as a potential military threat of the first order should that island become a formal U.S. ally. This is unacceptable for President Xi and his associates.

“The repeated attempts by the Taiwan authorities to look for U.S. support for their independence agenda as well as the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China” are deeply troubling, President Xi toldBiden during their November 2021 telephone call. “Such moves are extremely dangerous, just like playing with fire. Whoever plays with fire will get burned.”

Since then, Chinese officials escalated their rhetoric and have threatened war in ever more explicit terms. “If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence,” Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the U.S., typically told NPR in January 2022, “it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in military conflict.”

China began conducting regular air- and naval exercises in the airspace and sea-space around Taiwan to show its seriousness. Such maneuvers usually involveThe deployment of five to six warships, a dozen or greater warplanes, and ever greater firepower clearly aimed at intimidating the Taiwanese leadership. On August 5, for example, the Chinese deployed13 warships, 68 warplanes and 2 days later, 13 warplanes were deployed in Taiwan. 14 ships and 66 planes.

Each time, Taiwanese mobilize their own aircraft and deploy coastal defense ships in response. Accordingly, as China’s maneuvers grow in size and frequency, the risk of an accidental or unintended clash becomes ever more likely. This explosive mix is further exacerbated by the frequent deployment of U.S. naval vessels to nearby waters. Every time an American naval vessel is sent through the Taiwan Strait — something that occurs almost once a month now — China scrambles its own air and sea defenses, producing a comparable risk of unintended violence.

This was the case, for instance, when guided-missile cruisers USS were launched. AntietamUSS ChancellorsvilleOn August 28th, he sailed through the strait. According to Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, China’s military “conducted security tracking and monitoring of the U.S. warships’ passage during their whole course and had all movements of the U.S. warships under control.”

No Barriers to Escalation

If it weren’t for the seemingly never-ending war in Ukraine, the dangers of all of this might be far more apparent and deemed far more newsworthy. There are no signs that Washington or Beijing will reduce their provocative military actions around Taiwan at this time. This means an unintended or accidental clash could happen at any time and possibly trigger a full-scale conflict.

Imagine then what Taiwan’s decision to declare independence or for the Biden administration not to continue with the One China policy would mean. China would likely respond aggressively to this, perhaps by imposing a naval blockade or even an invasion. Due to the growing lack of interest from the key parties towards compromise, a violent outcome is increasingly likely.

However such a conflict erupts, it may prove difficult to contain the fighting at a “conventional” level. Both sides are wary that another war of Attrition will break out like the one in Ukraine. They have instead designed their military forces to engage in rapid, firepower-intensive combat with the goal of securing a quick victory. This could mean that Beijing fires hundreds of missiles at U.S. air bases and ships in the region to eliminate any American ability to attack its territory. For Washington, it might mean launching missiles at China’s key ports, air bases, radar stations, and command centers. The results could be catastrophic in either case. The U.S. will lose its carriers and other warships, while China will lose its ability to wage war. Would the leaders of the losing side be willing to accept such a situation, even if it meant resorting not to nuclear weapons? Although no one can be certain, the temptation to escalate is undoubtedly great.

At the moment, there is no U.S.-China negotiation to resolve Taiwan’s question, to avoid unintended clashes in Taiwan Strait or to reduce the risk for nuclear escalation. In fact, China quite publicly cut off all discussion of bilateral issues, ranging from military affairs to climate change, in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. So, it’s essential, despite the present focus on escalation risks in Ukraine, to recognize that avoiding a war over Taiwan is no less important — especially given the danger that such a conflict could prove of even greater destructiveness. That’s why it’s so critical that Washington and Beijing put aside their differences long enough to initiate talks focused on preventing such a catastrophe.