After consulting with the secretary of state, I call the National Security Council staff. We agree that the president should immediately telephone China’s president to urge him not to mobilize the military or to make any public threats against Taiwan. Forget about using the Foreign Ministry channel. We have to get straight to China’s top leader, who will be feeling the heat domestically as well as internationally. And only our president can reach their president.
For our part, we will intercede with the Taiwan government and ask it not to mobilize its military forces and to return the Mainland crew promptly. It is too late. American intelligence reports that China has mobilized not only its regular military forces but also its internal security forces. Angry Chinese students are swarming into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and the central squares of other Chinese cities, shouting, “Down with the Taiwan separatists! ” Some in the crowds carry hastily made signs saying, “Down with the America-loving Chinese Communist Party toadies!
” and “When will China finally stand up? ” This scene is hypothetical, but it is not a fantasy. Crises like this have happened in the past and could happen in the future. Taiwan is just a hair short of being a formal ally of the United States. We are not legally obligated to come to its defense. But an American law called the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 does require the president to view any Chinese use of force against Taiwan as a “threat to the peace and security” of the region and to consult with Congress on how to react.
American sympathies— especially those of members of Congress—have always lain much more with the small democratic island of Taiwan than with the communist giant China. The executive branch and the foreign policy community would worry that if U. S. forces fail to stand up to Chinese bullying, American credibility in Asia and the rest of the world would be harmed seriously. The United States has more than seventy thousand soldiers in uniform deployed in Asia in order to defend our allies and deter aggression.
If we don’t use these soldiers to defend Taiwan, wouldn’t other countries view the United States as a paper tiger? For all these reasons, any president is likely to feel compelled to respond to Chinese military actions in the Taiwan Strait by making a strong military gesture of our own in the hopes that this show of resolve will end the crisis by forcing Beijing to de-escalate just as it did in 1996. But the next crisis could escalate instead if the Chinese leaders believe that caving in to the United States would cause them to be humiliated domestically and put the survival of their regime at risk.
Crisis escalation has a life of its own. War can result even if no one wants it to happen. 4 china: fragile superpower Taiwan is the most likely flashpoint for a military clash between China and the United States but it is not the only one. Relations between China and America’s close ally, Japan, have grown dangerously acrimonious over the past several years. Chinese People’s Liberation Navy vessels have begun patrolling in waters in the East China Sea near the Diaoyu Islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan.
A maritime incident could spin out of control if Chinese and Japanese politicians feel pushed by hostile public opinion. China’s neighbor and former ally, North Korea, has tested long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. So far negotiations have failed to solve the problem, and international economic sanctions are squeezing the regime. If North Korea collapses violently and sends thousands of refugees fleeing into Northeast China, Beijing might send troops into the country to restore order over the objections of South Korea and the United States.
In a situation like one of these, China’s leaders may not be able to manage the domestic pressures that could drive them into an eyeball-toeyeball confrontation with the United States. China Rising China is reemerging as a major power after one hundred and fifty years of being a weak player on the world stage—a brief hiatus in China’s long history. For two thousand years, until the late nineteenth century when it was overtaken by the United States, China had the largest economy in the world.
1 Since 1978, by shedding central planning, creating a market economy, and opening to the world, China has revived itself as an economic powerhouse and a world power. The CIA forecasts that by the middle of the twenty-first century, China’s economy will once again surpass the United States economy in size, although its per capita income will still be much lower than that in the United States. 2 History teaches us that rising powers are likely to provoke war. The ancient historian Thucydides identified the fear that a
rising Athens inspired in other states as the cause of the Peloponnesian War. 3 In the twentieth century, rising powers Germany and Japan were the cause of two devastating world wars. Are China and America doomed to become enemies in the twenty-first century? Inevitably, as China moves up the economic and technological ladder, it will compete with America and expand its global reach. But a much graver danger is that as China rises in power, the United States will misread and mishandle it, so that we find ourselves embroiled in a hostile relationship with it.