Next to Ukraine, the most dangerous flash point in the world today is the island of Taiwan. The rivalry between the two superpowers – United States and China – would still exist even if there was no Taiwan. This rivalry is a contest for supremacy in both economic and military terms. However, the existence of Taiwan presents the most dangerous scenario of an accidental violent conflict between the superpowers.
Just this past week, there were extensive Chinese military exercises that were simulating a blockade and possible invasion of Taiwan. At the same time, there was a major military and naval exercise that featured an alliance of American and Philippine troops simulating the invasion of an island.
It is too much of a coincidence that there are islands converted from reefs that are occupied by China but are actually part of Philippine territory. The biggest threat is an accidental war. The ancient Greek philosopher Thucydides said that all major conflicts are caused by rivalry between an existing power and a rising power. Hank Paulson, treasury secretary under George W. Bush, said that conflict between today’s existing power and today’s rising power should be avoided at all cost.
He reasons that if there is such a conflict, the result would be catastrophic. He further warns that failure to resolve conflicts today is not an option.
Paulson says: “I never defend the actions I have seen China has taken. I abhor them. But what I say is we need to be smart and tough and do things in a realistic way that will work. I am interested in results. Our one-China policy has served us very well over the years and it’s very important that we stick to it. If we stick to one China and have a deterrent in the region, war is not inevitable.”
For the past 70 years since the end of the second world war, China and the United States have managed to avoid disaster over Taiwan. However, there is talk in different policy circles around the world that this peace may not last much longer. Several geopolitical observers have pointed out that China is strengthening its military and naval capabilities in preparation for war. There is speculation that China is considering an invasion of Taiwan or, at the very least, a blockade of the island.
The Chinese government is gradually putting more and more vessels into the seas off their coast near the shores of neighboring countries like the Philippines and Vietnam and even into the Pacific.
It has slowly come to a point where there is much less space available for Americans and nearby Southeast Asian countries to maneuver in the South China Sea. At the same time, the Chinese are working towards a land-based anti-ship missile system that will make the US Navy or its allies think hard about sailing through the South China Sea. Chinese naval vessels have even gone through American territorial waters off the shores of Alaska.
Even though China is claiming Taiwan as its 23rd province, the majority of the Taiwanese people in several surveys consider that although they are of Chinese descent, their loyalty is to Taiwan and not China.
Even a cursory study of Taiwan’s history can explain this behavior. Taiwan was actually a colony of Japan from the year 1895 to the year 1945, the end of the second World War. In 1949, Chang Kai-Shek led his Nationalist Army across the Taiwan Strait. He settled in Taiwan with the intention of going back and recovering mainland China from the control of the Chinese Communist Army. The island of Taiwan and the ethnically Chinese people have therefore never been under communist rule. The Taiwanese were able to develop a vibrant democracy. In contrast, mainland China has become the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party. The political and economic system of Taiwan and mainland China have become very different.
China’s determination to conquer the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait and the Senkaku Islands which is controlled by Japan is due to the geographic location of these three areas. China calls the islands bordering these three territorial waters as the “first island chain.” This forms a wall between China and the Pacific Ocean.
The previous policy of the United States towards China was to contain China’s expansion. For decades, this approach worked well due to three factors: First, the United States had a big lead over China when it came to military power and discouraged Beijing from using conventional force to neutralize the “first island chain.” Second, China was focused on its economic development and integration into the global economy. Third, the United States and its allies were able to deal with challenges that could cause conflict with China.
However, these three factors have slowly evolved. China’s military and naval power have become much more powerful compared to its past. Second, China has become the second strongest economy in the world. Third, Beijing seems to be more willing to tangle with the United States in pursuit of its own selfish agenda.
Philippine geography as part of the “first island chain” makes it an obvious target for China’s desire to become a world power. It will therefore be very difficult for the Philippines to maintain neutrality. China will not voluntarily give up Philippine territory that it has sequestered by force.