In 1995, an innocuous conversation between Chinese military officers and an American with access to policy circles led to a “firestorm” of discussion about how far China would be able to go to assert its authority in Taiwan.
One general noted that the US had lost the leverage it enjoyed in the 1950s, when China would not have been able to respond to a nuclear attack.
“If you hit us now, we can hit back. So you will not make those threats,” the general said. “In the end, you care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei.”
Richard C. Bush and Michael E. O’Hanlon use this exchange to open their comprehensive analysis of the Taiwan question, A War Like No Other: The Truth About China’s Challenge to America. Both authors are long-time China watchers. Bush was a US government China hand for almost two decades while O’Hanlon is a prominent security expert. Their book reflects this breath of knowledge.
Bush and O’Hanlon lay out myriad scenarios. They outline the relative strengths of each of the three militaries that would be involved in a contest across the Taiwan Strait. They look at the political flashpoints and lay bare the plausible situations that could send stubborn leaders down the path of armed conflict.
Unfortunately, the complex relationship between China and Taiwan, the political necessities that that exist on each side, American efforts to negotiate the middle of the road, and the personalities of the leaders involved are not subjects that easily lend themselves to answers.
A War Like No Other is written from a very well informed perch that allows the authors to examine many points of view but makes it difficult for them to take a definitive stance. The data is there. The risky assessment (or prediction) of how the situation will play itself out is not.
Like so many other books on the subject, it answers the question of whether war is coming with a resounding maybe – or maybe not. Although couched in accessible language, it reads more like an official assessment of the situation with the authors often “concerned” about one circumstance or “worried” about another.
The authors do, however, clearly explain the current state of affairs. They outline the history of Taiwan and delve briefly into a national psyche that creates its own set of dangers. They explore the island’s almost reckless democracy and the the potential for miscommunication. Beijing and Taipei simply don’t talk, they find.
Finally, much hinges on where the US stands in all of this. Perhaps the most salient piece of information is that, contrary to what many people think, the US does not have a formal defense treaty with Taiwan. The commitment to defend the island in the case of an aggressive act by China is an informal one. This, coupled with the fact that many in the US have lost their taste for war, could see Chinese leaders take a gamble.
China couldn’t overcome the US, but it may just be strong enough to take over Taiwan – or to make itself believe that the effort is worth it.
Many analysts see the Taiwan issue as the most dangerous in the world. It is certainly the one most likely to spark nuclear war between the two goliaths of the century.
A War Like No Other offers no answers but it does lay out the pieces of a puzzle that could be put together in ways that will benefit the world or bring it to the brink of annihilation.
Excerpt: Predicting the future
There are many reasons why war between China and Taiwan is unlikely. That is a good thing. But to say that war is unlikely is a very different thing from saying it is impossible or even highly improbable. The script by which China and Taiwan stumble together off a cliff that neither really knew was there is easily written. All it takes is for Beijing to exaggerate Taipei’s hostility, for Taipei to overestimate Beijing’s rationality and underestimate its resolve, for both to be confused about the intentions of the United States, and for leaders in both China and Taiwan to feel captive to nationalist publics. And once the guns start firing, the consequences would be catastrophic.
As we finish the manuscript of this book, in the fall of 2006, the trend lines on the Taiwan Strait seem to favor peace and stability. The more radical and more pro-independence Green forces on Taiwan are weak, discredited, and in disarray. The Blue forces have regained their confidence and already have a charismatic presumptive candidate for the 2008 presidential election, Ma Ying-jeou, the mayor of Taipei and chairman of the Kuomintang. China appears to sense that time is on its side and has been more skillful in appealing to the Taiwan audiences. When Mr Ma wins, by this scenario, he will not engage in the kind of provocations of his predecessors.