Will the Chinese Civil War End with a Bang or with a Whimper?

Will the Chinese Civil War End with a Bang or with a Whimper?
A panel presentation to the Watson Institute with Dr. Lyle Goldstein

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island, 18 November 2021

American and Chinese views of the Taiwan issue – the question of what political relationship the island should have with the Chinese mainland – could now hardly be more different.  The issue is the legacy of the unfinished Chinese civil war, U.S. containment policies, and divergent political evolutions.  It has become very hard to see a path to its peaceful resolution.  But anything else would be a tragedy with incalculable collateral damage, up to and including a possible nuclear exchange between China and the United States.

For most Americans, Taiwan has no past.  It is a democratic country that, for some inexplicable reason, the Chinese Communist Party wants to swallow.  We Americans are famously amnesiac.  We have forgotten how differently we portrayed Taiwan in the 1950s and ‘60s.  Back then, we asserted that, despite its defeat on the mainland, the Chinese regime that had retreated to Taiwan was still the lawful government of China, including the mainland and outer Mongolia as well as Taiwan.  And we insisted on the right of the defeated Chinese authorities in Taipei to continue to represent China internationally.

On several occasions, during the Korean conflict and later, as air battles took place in the Taiwan Strait, we threatened to attack the China mainland with nuclear weapons.  We helped defend the “offshore islands” that Taipei still controls in the mainland Chinese provinces of Zhejiang and Fujian.   Taipei and Beijing saw Taipei’s retention of these as symbolizing both their ongoing civil war and their shared assertion that there was only one China, and that Taiwan was part of it.  In 1972, we began to set aside deference to Taipei’s claim that it, rather than Beijing, was China’s capital and to join Beijing in a united front against Moscow.  This transformed global geopolitics and helped bring down the USSR, ending the Cold War.

But as the Taiwan question receded from American minds, neither Taiwan, its inclusion in the U.S. sphere of influence, nor Chinese nationalism on the mainland faded away.  As time went on, under continuing American protection, Taiwan democratized, many of its people asserted an identity distinct from that of other Chinese, and the ruling authorities in Taipei decided that they no longer aspired to rule all of China.  They then sought unilaterally to call off the Chinese civil war.  But no war ends until both sides agree it is over.

Ending the foreign-sponsored division of China has been the passionate imperative of Chinese patriots for more than a century.  It still is.  For Chinese nationalists, U.S. support for Taiwan’s continuing separation from the rest of China is a perpetuation of foreign imperialist efforts to carve their country into spheres of influence, disrespect the right of Chinese to determine their own destiny, deny the legitimacy of their government, and prop up a rival to their government on Taiwan.

In the 1970s, Washington agreed with Beijing on a formula for managing the Taiwan question that left the Chinese civil war to be worked out between Beijing and Taipei.  It has not been.  Many now speculate that this long quiescent struggle could be about to re-erupt into military confrontation, this time in a war between China and the United States as well as between the unreconciled Chinese parties on either side of the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing has repeatedly emphasized its strong preference for accomplishing national reunification peacefully rather than with a use of force.  It has offered to accept what amounts to a symbolic rather than substantive form of reunification to Taiwan.  But to “win without fighting,” Beijing must show that, even if the U.S. backs Taiwan, its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would surely win if the two sides were to return to combat, and that Taipei therefore has no realistic alternative to the negotiation of some form of reconciliation with Chinese across the Strait.

The PLA’s current shows of force are aimed at bringing Taipei back to the negotiating table, which the island abandoned when it elected leaders committed themselves to seek an identity separate from China.  So far, Beijing’s shows of force have not changed Taipei’s refusal to talk about “peaceful reunification.” No talks mean no path to peace.

In 1979, Beijing normalized relations with Washington.  Without giving up its right to use force against Taipei, it adopted a strategy of peaceful reunification premised on formal undertakings from the United States to sever official relations with Taipei, withdraw U.S. military forces and installations from Taiwan, and annul its previous defense commitment to the island, even as it continued to sell weapons to Taiwan.  In the 1980s, U.S. compliance with these conditions – memorialized in three joint communiqués – incentivized Beijing to pursue a peaceful settlement with Taipei even as it encouraged Taipei to seek a modus vivendi with Beijing.

But, from Beijing’s perspective, incremental changes in U.S. policies toward Taiwan since then have culminated in de facto invalidation of the premises on which the two sides originally finessed the issue. Washington has openly restored high level official interactions with the authorities in Taipei, resumed opposition to third countries switching diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing, reestablished an overt U.S. military presence and possible tripwire on the island, and escalated its threats to intervene should war between Beijing and Taipei resume.  In these circumstances, Sino-American relations have become not just distrustful but hostile.  And, behind its increasingly overt American shield, Taipei has become progressively less risk averse and more insistent on a status as a state independent from the rest of China.

Washington’s lip service to the “Three Communiqués” is now so thoroughly contradicted by U.S. behavior that it is no longer persuasive.  As Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking for China in unprecedentedly accusatory terms, put it his most recent meeting with Secretary of State Blinken: “We [meaning China] require the US to pursue a real one-China policy, not a fake one-China policy; we require the US to fulfil its commitments to China, not act treacherously; we require the US to truly implement the one-China policy through action, rather than saying one thing and doing another.”  This and ongoing shows of force against Taiwan recall the warnings Beijing issued in advance of its entry into the Korean War, the Sino-Indian border war of 1962, and the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, all of which warnings were ignored by those to whom they were directed.

The circumstances that would justify Beijing’s using force against Taiwan are clearly spelled out in Article 8 of the 2005 Chinese Anti-Secession law.  They are:

  1. if “Taiwan independence” forces, under whatever name and method, accomplish the fact of Taiwan’s separation from China,
  2. or if a major event occurs which would lead to Taiwan’s separation from China,
  3. or if all possibility of peaceful unification is lost.

A majority in Beijing believe that changes in Taiwan’s stance, U.S. backing for these, and Washington’s accelerating abandonment of the previously agreed framework for managing the Taiwan issue have now combined to meet these criteria.

The record shows that the clearer U.S. and other foreign support for Taiwan’s continued separation from the rest of China becomes, the more affronted Beijing is, the likelier war is, and the higher the potential reputational cost to the United States of failing to intervene.  There is no evidence that the PRC has decided to end the Chinese civil war by using force in any specific timeframe.  But the PLA is now well along in developing a full range of military options to prevail in future armed conflict over Taiwan whether or not the United States is part of it.  Beijing is clearly signaling a willingness, however reluctant, to risk escalating military pressure on Taipei to bring it to the negotiating table and, if it doesn’t come, going to war to impose terms on it or conquer it.

Military and other pressures on Taiwan can be calibrated and incremental.  Conquest requires a swift and decisive knockout punch.  China has been developing options to support everything from intimidating shows of force to the seizure of territory, mining of harbors, blockade of air space, or outright assault on Taiwan with missile, cyber, air and naval attacks followed by amphibious and helicopter-borne landings.  My colleague and friend, Lyle Goldstein will outline some of the key things China has done to perfect these options.

[Lyle Goldstein speaks, accompanied by slides]

The conventional military capabilities and scenarios that Lyle has just outlined are the focus of U.S. attention.  They have been the basis for the complacent assumption that there would be plenty of warning of any use of force by the PLA against Taiwan.  But the obvious alternative to frontal assault is an offshore bombardment of Taiwan by the PLA Rocket Forces, coupled with crippling cyber-attacks, special forces and fifth column operations, and air attacks to destroy Taiwan’s ability to defend itself and to pave the way for the PLA army and marines to move into position to accept Taiwan’s surrender or complete its conquest.  Such an approach would reduce warning time to near zero, produce chaos on the island, facilitate the decapitation of the current Taiwan leadership, open the way for its possible replacement by mutineers or quislings, and enable the invasion and occupation of the island.  This raises the question: are we now focused on PLA activities that are diversionary rather than real?

Standoff bombardment and other saturation attacks on Taiwan’s defenses demand a thoroughly convincing deterrent to U.S. intervention.  So, China is heavying up and diversifying its nuclear arsenal to sustain an assured retaliatory capability based on “launch on warning” and very likely a credible first-strike option   Again, I defer to Lyle.

[Lyle Goldstein speaks, accompanied by slides]

As Taiwan’s defense minister has said, China now has the capability to use force to bring Taiwan to heel.  The PLA’s planners assume the United States will intervene.  Taiwan’s planners are betting that we will.   The only certainty is that a war would leave Taiwan and its democracy in ruins.  The U.S. and China are in an arms race.  China’s confidence in its ability to defeat us is growing.  So is our doubt that we could prevail.  In the case of Taiwan, time is not on the side of U.S. intervention.

America’s allies and security partners have always looked to Washington to manage the Taiwan issue with Beijing.  None would welcome a takeover of Taiwan by Beijing, but none has formally agreed to join the United States in a war over the issue.  For forty years, the U.S. managed its and Taipei’s differences with Beijing through diplomacy backed by military deterrence.  Washington’s assurances to Beijing that it would not support unilateral changes in the status quo by Taiwan made a war over Taiwan seem unnecessary.  This enabled deterrence at reasonable cost and with minimal risk.  Now diplomacy has vanished.  It has been replaced by a purely military approach of escalating threats, confrontation, and nuclear as well as conventional arms races.  In this context, what was once deterrent is now provocative to Beijing.

Although the United States, when pressed, still declares that it does not support independence for Taiwan, it now appears to be opposed to any form of reunification, however achieved.  Where it once opposed unilateral change in the status quo by either Beijing or Taipei, it now appears to oppose such change only if engineered by Beijing.

In these circumstances, Beijing can see no peaceful path to the successful defense of China’s unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity and an end to foreign spheres of influence on Chinese soil.  So, it is doing what it must to be able to resolve the issue by military means.  Whether it judges it must finally do so will be decided by whether the United States and Taipei continue to deny it realistic alternatives to the use of force.  The November 15/16 virtual “summit meeting” between Presidents Biden and Xi Jinping affirmed China’s red lines and restated U.S. policy in terms that Chinese consider to be “word games.”  It left the issue to fester without so-called “guardrails.”

Despite some brave talk in Taipei, Taiwan’s current leaders behave as though they believe that they need do only the bare minimum to defend themselves because American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines will be prepared to die, and that Americans will be willing to risk nuclear retaliation against our homeland, to back Taiwanese perpetual separation from China.  Should we?  Will we?

The risks are now too grave to permit wishful thinking.  We need to base our answers to these questions on a realistic appraisal of Chinese military capabilities as well as Taiwan’s and our own.  The PLA can now bring overwhelming military power to bear on Taiwan.  How much of a fight is Taiwan prepared to put up if Beijing is goaded into attack or decides to impose a solution?  If the United States intervenes in a war over Taiwan, how much meaningful support from allies and security partners would we really have?  What would our other designated adversary, Russia, do to take advantage of a Taiwan crisis?

As Vietnam did, China cares deeply about national unity and immunity from foreign intervention.  We fought bravely in Vietnam but lost because Hanoi, despite its military inferiority, cared far more about the outcome than we did.  Hanoi was prepared to sacrifice everything to reunite its country.  We were not willing to do as much to keep it divided.

Do our concerns about Taiwan match or exceed those of Chinese nationalism?  Are we prepared to risk our cities over Taiwan’s status?   What sacrifices in lives and treasure are Americans prepared to make to assure unilateral self-determination for Taiwan?  How would we terminate a war with China over that issue and on what terms?  We need to get real.

If Taiwanese want self-determination in the form of maximum autonomy or even independence from China, that is their right, but it is up to them to achieve it.  To secure the status they desire, they must persuade Beijing to accept it.   Americans cannot do this for them.  We should not pretend we can.

In 1775, we Americans were only able to achieve self-determination from our British motherland through six years of bitter warfare and two years of tough negotiations.  No foreigner can decide – either at the negotiating table or on the battlefield — what relationship Taiwanese have with their Chinese motherland.  The parties to the unended Chinse civil war must do this themselves.  They alone can determine what sacrifices they are prepared to make to preserve, enhance, or extinguish Taiwan’s current de facto autonomy.

Two hundred years ago, in comparable circumstances, as political pressure mounted to support the Greek struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams judiciously declared: “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.  But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”  Adams was an American nationalist and realist whose statesmanship prudently put America and its interests first.  America and the world are the better for his having done so.

We Americans need to think long and hard about alternatives to the war we are casually brewing up over Taiwan.  Such a war will not end well for Taiwan, for China, or for us.  Taiwan and the mainland need to talk.  The United States needs to encourage this, not pursue policies that appear to make cross-Strait dialogue unnecessary.  China and the United States need to return to managing the Taiwan issue, not using it to provide the focus for a military showdown that can only be a disaster for all concerned.