In word and deed-namely its biggest military show in 35 years-China has made it clear that it views the United States as potential enemy No. 1” (“China Prepares Scenario for War With America,” by John Leicester, AP, San Antonio Express-News, October 23, 2000).
“Describing its relations with Taiwan as ‘complicated and grim,’ China defended its recent military buildup Monday and warned that it would go to war if necessary to reclaim Taiwan. The threat came in a policy paper on the military issued by the cabinet” (“China Repeats: We’ll Fight to Take Taiwan,” by Michael Dorgan, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, October 17, 2000).
Go to war with whom? Definitely with Taiwan itself, but also potentially with the United States, which for 50 years had indicated its willingness to protect this island from a forceful takeover by the Chinese mainland.
Are these serious threats or is China merely bluffing in order to gain the diplomatic advantage? One former American diplomat said the following: “The whole relationship between China and the United States is based on an untruth. It is an untruth that China is prepared to go to war to defend [Taiwan].”
Is this a credible view or is there another side to the story? Before we attempt to answer, a brief political history of Taiwan is in order.
A brief history
China successfully invaded Taiwan in 1683 and retained control until 1895 when the Chinese lost a naval war with Japan. The island was then ceded to the Japanese. Nearly 50 years later at the Cairo Conference in 1943, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill decided to give Taiwan back to China. Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist government took Taiwan over in 1945.
After losing the Civil War with the Chinese Communists in 1949, Chiang fled to Taiwan with a million troops and a small army of bureaucrats. He remained there until his death in 1975. From a Western perspective, his successors gradually transformed the island from a relatively benevolent dictatorship to a prosperous, thriving democracy.
Two observers of China summed up China’s relationship to Taiwan in the 20th century. “Except for the Civil War years between 1945 and 1949, Taiwan has not been under the control of any government on mainland China since 1895” ( The Coming Conflict With China, by Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, 1998, p. 157).
This is not to say that the mainland has not had its eye on Taiwan. It has! There was trouble with the United States over two smaller islands in the general vicinity with serious implications for Taiwan during the Eisenhower presidency in the ’50s. And again in 1996 when President Clinton sent the aircraft carriers Nimitz and Independence to meet another serious Chinese threat. American support had firmed up after the Korean War started in 1950.
But for most of the last 50 years, the Chinese have followed Mao’s basic dictum that “there was no urgency on Taiwan, that only the larger strategic issues were important.”
China has basically sought reunification with Taiwan through a mixture of propaganda, economic exchanges and diplomacy with the occasional exercising of military threats, which have become more pronounced in the last few years.
Good reasons for a peaceful resolution
In the last half century economic relationships between China and Taiwan have grown to the point that wealthy Taiwanese have invested some $30 billion in mainland enterprises. In fact, China represents the most important area of financial growth for the island, and at least one third of all long-distance telephone calls from Taiwan are made to the mainland.
China also has its own domestic reasons for avoiding a war over Taiwan, a prominent one being their ongoing preparations for entering the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Another important factor is that once a limited war fought with conventional weaponry has started between opponents who both have a nuclear arsenal, it might just spread far beyond the originally intended constraints.
Of course, there is always another side to the story-the one that worries some of the world’s keenest international observers.
In 1997, China assumed control of Hong Kong after several years of protracted negotiations with the British. Then, in 1999, the island of Macau passed from Portuguese sovereignty to the Chinese. So, the desire to see all of their historic territory under a single national roof is growing-especially in the light of China’s solid economic growth over the last several years coupled with widespread predictions of ultimate superpower status.
Understanding U.S. attitudes
A case has been made that the lives of U.S. soldiers should not be jeopardized over Taiwan-that Taiwan is solely China’s domestic concern, merely a residual problem from an “unfinished” civil war, and definitely too far away from American shores to really count.
But, this is simplistic thinking. The reality is that if China were allowed to take Taiwan by force, the implications for all of East Asia would be profound. The Asian balance of power would suffer and relatively peaceful conditions along with recent unprecedented prosperity (with a few negative blips on the chart) would be seriously put at risk.
Chinese domination of East Asia would be a virtual certainty-and that possibility is clearly understood from Tokyo to Australia.
That is why, in spite of constant Chinese protests, America has continued to equip Taiwan with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of modern military equipment, as well as sending its own aircraft carriers when the island seemed under serious duress.
Was the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia during American and allied air raids really an accident? Or was the United States sending a message to China?
Probability of a future war
When I visited several major cities in China with a church group in the autumn of 1986, relations between the mainland and the West never seemed better. There was talk of “our Russian enemies,” and President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger’s benchmark diplomatic successes with China in the early ’70s appeared to be bearing real fruit.
Now, not quite 15 years later, the tide has turned.
Will there be a war between America and China over Taiwan in the near future? Looking only at the evidence of qualified Asian observers, who feel that China’s military capacity simply cannot match the American standard, we would say, probably not.
But, who would have predicted the sudden and protracted violence in Palestine when negotiations for a peaceful settlement seemed so promising only months before? International affairs can suddenly take a turn for the worse. Nations, as well as individuals, can quickly abandon all logic, and act emotionally and irrationally in a given situation.
In the longer term, Bible prophecy indicates a major power from the East will send troops west in such large numbers that it seems only China could fill the bill. You’ll find this prophecy in chapter 9 of the book of Revelation. WNP