The China-Taiwan Tinderbox

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The China-Taiwan Tinderbox

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Few people today remember much about the Korean War (1950-53). It started as a civil war between North and South Korea. Yet, since there were political and strategic interests involved, soon the United States, the former Soviet Union, China and 19 other nations entered the dangerous fray. Besides the Koreans, the primary contenders were the United States and its United Nations allies on one side, and China and the former U.S.S.R. on the other. In that war, the U.S. suffered over 150,000 casualties, South Korea over a million, and North Korea and China about two million.

At one point in 1951, U.N. commanding officer General Douglas MacArthur urged attacking China and blockading its coasts as the only way to defeat the enemy. President Truman feared this would lead to a world war between the United States, China and the Soviet Union.

After two more years of bloody combat, a truce agreement was signed that left Korea divided. This unresolved conflict remains one of the world's trouble spots.

But more importantly, this war showed how easily a local civil war in Asia can escalate to epic proportions and involve the world's major powers.

The recent Taiwan elections

Now, 50 years since the start of the Korean War, another Asian threat looms on the horizon. The small, but economically powerful island of Taiwan has elected a president whose political platform calls for independence from mainland China. The Chinese authorities have said such a declaration would trigger a war. This could lead to alignments among the world's major powers that resemble the past. Moreover, a recent poll among the Chinese showed 95 percent favor going to war if Taiwan declared its independence.

How did this explosive situation arise?

In 1949 several million Chinese fled to this island after Mao Zedong, the Communist leader, conquered mainland China. From that time the Chinese have threatened to invade Taiwan, but thanks mostly to strong U.S. support of the island, the threat has never been carried out.

Chinese incorporation of Hong Kong and Macau

In recent years China has become more emboldened by annexing Hong Kong and Macau. Now only Taiwan remains outside the fold.

Yet Taiwan is a far different situation. Instead of being on the Chinese coastline as Hong Kong and Macau are, it is a prosperous island 160 miles (250 kilometers) off the coast. Its sizable population of 23 million and its successful democratic and open economic system has helped Taiwan attain one of the world's highest standards of living. Taiwan produces 80 percent of all computer motherboards in the world. Unlike Hong Kong and Macau, it has a considerable military force, is not a foreign-run country and passionately resists being incorporated by China. Meanwhile, mainland China is still beset by a rigid, one party Communist rule and a very low standard of living which, of course, does not attract the Taiwanese people in the least.

On the other hand, for Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Taiwan is the last and juiciest of all former territories left to recover. He realizes incorporating wayward Taiwan would place him in the Communist pantheon with the likes of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

One U.S. official commented, "After the return of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999, Taiwan is the last reunification issue on Beijing's agenda. It's also a cause that appeals to Chinese nationalism and could rally popular support for the leadership. It's a life and death issue for the Chinese regime" (The Washington Post, March 16, 2000, p. 22).

Sino-expert Elizabeth Rosenthal adds, "It is hard for non-Chinese to understand the depths of Chinese devotion to Taiwan, which is born partly of decades of Communist Party propaganda and partly of humiliations of China's history, when Westerners carved up China for their economic advantage. 'China was divided when it was weak, and now that it is getting strong again, people's nationalist feeling rises and they feel strongly it is time to reunite the country,' said Zhang Yunling, the head of South Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences" (The New York Times, March 20, 2000).

Navigating between Scylla and Charybdis

In ancient times, when one had to avoid two dangerous extremes, it was said he was between Scylla and Charybdis, two famous perils seamen had to avoid. Newly-elected Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian now has to guide his nation between two great dangers. One is provoking China into a war, which is increasingly becoming a real possibility. The other is backing down from his political pledge of independence and enraging his followers, which would undermine his political strength.

Up to now, to avoid either extreme, he has resorted to pleasing both sides. With China, he has extended an olive leaf, toned down the independence rhetoric and expressed a desire to visit mainland China to calm tensions.

With his partisans, he has said, "Taiwan is an independent, sovereign country; it is not a part of the People's Republic of China" (Newsweek, March 27, 2000, p. 26). He has also rejected as "unacceptable" China's "one country, two systems" formula for reunification, and has stressed Taiwan will not follow in the steps of Hong Kong and Macau.

This balancing act seems difficult to maintain in the long run. Chen has great pressure to live up to his pledge of independence, while China's patience is dwindling fast.

"Even before the election," explained Newsweek, "Beijing sensed that Taiwan was slipping away. In response, military hard-liners have launched a campaign to boost China's readiness for conflict. The military has pushed for bigger budgets and training programs focused on naval power projection and amphibious lift-all crucial to an invasion scenario. Last week mainland scholars warned darkly that reunification by force 'could be just a matter of hours away'" (March 27, 2000, p. 27).

Recently, Wei Jingsheng, a Chinese dissident who spent 19 years as a political prisoner in China, told The Washington Times he thought China's warning that Taiwan might not get a second chance for peace if they elected Chen was a sign that China had already decided to invade Taiwan.

Trapped in the middle

Caught in the middle of this dangerous dispute is the United States. Several times in the past, when America saw early signs of Chinese aggression toward Taiwan, it dispatched some of its carriers into the area to quell the rising tensions. The last time was in 1996, just prior to Taiwanese presidential elections, when China lobbed some missiles in front of Taiwan. The U.S. dispatched two aircraft carriers to the region and China backed off.

But U.S. relations have also changed toward Taiwan. In 1979, the U.S. allowed a 24-year-old defense treaty with Taiwan to expire and replaced it with the Taiwan Relations Act that only requires the U.S. to give Taiwan the means to protect itself.

The U.S. calls this new relationship with China and Taiwan "strategic ambiguity," which means neither side knows how committed the U.S. is to entering a possible conflict. To please China, the U.S. formally recognized it as the sole legal authority, but still insists on having cultural, commercial and unofficial (meaning military) relations with Taiwan. In this way, China never knows how far the U.S. will go to defend Taiwan, and neither does Taiwan know how far the U.S. is prepared to back it if it declares independence. This "ambiguity" could be tested in the future.

China and Russia's new "strategic partnership"

Lately, China has been building up its war arsenal thanks to a new partnership with Russia. Soon China will receive two modern Russian destroyers that China hopes can curb U.S. power in the region. It also has many submarines (71), missiles that can reach Taiwan (200) and advanced Russian fighter jets (40).

The Los Angeles Times reported, "Alarmed by U.S. political and military might worldwide, both Moscow and Beijing have called for increased cooperation to check American power and to pave the way for a 'multi-polar world'.... For Russia, attempting to strengthen ties with China is a logical move to counter Western leaders who oppose the Chechen war on humanitarian grounds" (Dec. 9, 1999).

Pavel Voshchanov, a Russian former secretary to the president, stated in the same article, "China is the only one of Russia's neighbors that has not clearly oriented itself either toward the West or toward the Muslim world. In order to be able to ignore both these opponents, Russia needs to have a third force, and China is a perfect candidate for this mission."

Russia is the chief supplier of arms to China, and in a possible conflict involving Taiwan and the U.S., it would be difficult for Russia not to side with China.

For example, in the past year, as the Chinese celebrated their 50th anniversary of Communist rule, President Jiang took a swipe at the U.S. and vowed to "unite" China and make it powerful again. A reporter at the celebration wrote: "Just as pointedly, a formation of Russian-made Su-27 fighters roared overhead, evidence of a newly declared 'strategic partnership' with Moscow (the two nations began their first-ever joint naval exercise last week)" (Time, Sept. 27, 1999).

Most military strategists consider China still doesn't have the firepower to successfully invade Taiwan. Newsweek asked, "Now that Chen is at the helm, will China invade? Beijing hoped Taiwan would think so. But an attack is unlikely for now. China's generals realize they still lack the muscle to succeed in an outright invasion" (March 27, 2000).

BBC News offered this analysis on a possible Chinese attack against Taiwan: "So the big question is whether the U.S. would actually be prepared to go to war with China over Taiwan. The U.S. points to its military build-up in the region four years ago [1996] as proof of its commitment. But deploying battleships, and actually firing on China are very different things, and President Clinton has gone to great lengths to improve relations with Beijing which he would not throw away lightly.

"In a sign of deepening Congressional mistrust of China, the House of Representatives recently approved legislation to deepen the ties with the Taiwanese military, although the bill looks unlikely to pass the Senate. President Clinton has also said he would veto the bill. But this is his last year in office, and if Beijing increases the pressure on Taiwan in the run-up to the elections there, the question of Taiwan might also become a factor in the American elections too" (March 7, 2000, emphasis added).

A troubling hot spot

Taiwan has now entered a new scenario. Gone are the days when all the Taiwanese leaders came from the same ruling party (the KMT) and sought a status quo with China. Now, the journey to preserve the peace will be far more difficult. Newsweek said both China and the KMT knew Chen Shui-bian's victory "would mean not only the end of the KMT era. It would put China's dreams of peaceful reunification almost out of reach-and could even make its leaders start considering war" (March 27, 2000).

Everything depends on what China and Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian will do. An ever-present danger is that, just as in the wars in Korea and Vietnam, what could begin as a local civil war between China and Taiwan could eventually involve the world's main powers-who have far more deadlier firepower than before.

To complicate matters, a well-respected Chinese newspaper reported China would consider using neutron bombs, which can destroy people but not buildings, if an amphibious invasion failed. After this report, this Chinese government newspaper was shut down, since they had revealed classified material. A U.S. newspaper mentioned, "'Editors of Haowangjiao (Weekly) released something they were not supposed to release,' a man at its parent publication who refused to identify himself said Tuesday... But it isn't clear whether the article's publication was a blunder or a deliberate but deniable warning to Taiwan and the United States" (Spokane Spokesman-Review, March 22, 2000).

If China invades Taiwan, then either the U.S. backs down and shows great weakness and cowardice by allowing the island to be swallowed up, or it steps in. Since China has a strategic partnership with Russia, which now has a president who showed a ruthless side in the Chechen war, what will Russia do? Will it back China (which sorely needs Russian weapons) and use this show of bravado to promote the much needed Russian nationalism? If this happens, it could cause the United States to react and interrupt aid and commerce to China and Russia, among other things.

Regional tinderbox

In sum, history has shown that great conflagrations can begin with local civil wars, which eventually activate different alliances and lead to larger conflicts. Two end-time alliances could arise from such smaller conflicts. The first is mentioned in Revelation 17:13 Revelation 17:13These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength to the beast.
American King James Version×
where 10 kings give their "power and authority" to the beast. Another is mentioned in Revelation 16:12 Revelation 16:12And the sixth angel poured out his vial on the great river Euphrates; and the water thereof was dried up, that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared.
American King James Version×
where the "kings from the east" prepare to invade the Holy Land.

Taiwan is a tinderbox worth watching, for an armed conflict there could produce a domino effect among the world's most powerful nations and activate their different alliances. It is one of the many possibilities that could lead to an end-time scenario. WNP