How Taiwan Became the Center of a Fight Between China and the U.S.

U.S. policymakers waffled, China’s leaders miscalculated, and the potential for conflict keeps growing, a Fletcher professor argues in his new book

Who’s in the driver’s seat when it comes to the relationship—and conflict—between China, the U.S., and Taiwan? No one, says Sulmaan Khan. Each country has the illusion that it is in control, but in fact they are all jostling for the steering wheel, he says. 

That’s one of the lessons from his new book, The Struggle for Taiwan: A History of America, China, and the Island Caught Between, which the Guardian calls a “deeply researched and fascinating history of the island.” 

Khan, the Denison Chair in History and International Relations at The Fletcher School, notes that the conflict over Taiwan has on more than one occasion brought the world to the edge of nuclear war—and that we are closer to a danger point now than most people realize.

Book cover

The Chinese consider Taiwan part of their country, and anyone who says otherwise provokes Beijing’s ire. When Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, announced she was flying to Taiwan despite Chinese objections in 2022, a Chinese newspaper called for the government to blow up her plane. In fact, it was easy to imagine a Chinese plane flying too close to hers and causing a crash, Khan says, which could have had devastating consequences for all three countries.

The Qing Empire conquered Taiwan in 1683 and proceeded to rule it as part of their empire. Then the Japanese defeated the Qing in a war in 1894-5 and took possession of Taiwan, and ruled it as a colony until 1945. In 1943 the U.S. promised that China would take back possession of Taiwan after World War II ended—thinking the country would be led by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.

It didn’t work out that way, and in 1949 Chiang and his Nationalist Chinese forces fled to Taiwan as the Communist Party of China took control of the mainland. While on Taiwan, Chiang claimed to rule and speak for all of China, with official U.S. recognition. Also with U.S. acquiescence, he established an anti-communist police state on Taiwan that he and then his son ruled over. 

All along, Taiwan had been a sticking point between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China. Chinese leader Mao Zedong drummed up patriotic fervor over Taiwan in the 1950s, and twice there were stark confrontations between China and the U.S. about small islands in the Taiwan Strait, bringing the two countries to the brink of war.

“Xi, like almost every Chinese leader before him, had no understanding of Taiwan.”

Sulmaan Khan

In the crises of 1954–1955 and 1958, “the United States was being dragged to a position where it was considering using nuclear weapons to defend islands it knew it had no interest in defending,” Khan writes. “A single miscalculation was all that lay between a crisis and a general Sino-American war.”

Khan says U.S. presidents starting with Roosevelt and continuing to the present day have all avoided making tough decisions about Taiwan—should it be given to China or defended from China?

President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s might have had a reputation as a decisive former general, but “when it came to the China and Taiwan conundrums, Eisenhower was his own worst enemy. He never managed to make up his mind on what was vital and what was not,” writes Khan, author of Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping

U.S. policymakers kept waffling, Khan writes, leaving “the odd feeling of having stumbled into a scene from Waiting for Godot, in all its endlessly repetitive futility ... This is where the United States government was, still lost in an unending conversation about what to do about Taiwan, still churning its wheels in the deepening mud, and still getting absolutely nowhere.”

That indecision continued over the decades, even as President Richard Nixon achieved a rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China starting in 1971; it was if policymakers hoped the problem would just go away on its own. 

The U.S. formally recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter, but even then, U.S. policy was never definitive. Carter’s administration “never quite managed to articulate why it cared about Taiwan, but it cared enough to make complete abandonment impossible,” writes Khan.

Growing Competition

In the meantime, Taiwan itself was changing. It held its first direct elections for the presidency in 1996, and has seen peaceful turnover of political power since then, becoming a thriving democracy.  

The Chinese government has tried to influence the elections, but those efforts turned out to be counterproductive. “China had pursued a course that had alienated Taiwan completely. It had bullied, threatened, and displayed force, both at home and abroad. In doing so, it had made the thought of unification unacceptable to much of the Taiwanese electorate,” Khan writes. That only got worse with the ascension of Xi Jinping as leader. “Xi, like almost every Chinese leader before him, had no understanding of Taiwan.”

With the U.S. increasingly viewing China as its global competitor, starting in the Obama years, accelerating with the Trump administration, and continuing under Joe Biden, support for democratic Taiwan has strengthened, leading to great potential for conflict between China and the U.S. over the island.

But the old contradictions are still present. As Khan says, the United States in the 2020s, for example, “wished to promote Taiwan’s presence in international organizations, but it remained unwilling to recognize Taiwan itself. It had shifted from pure ambiguity to ambiguity with a tilt in favor of Taiwan—and it had done so because it had decided China was an enemy. Like China, it was mired in jingoism and confusion. Like China, it had no idea what it would do if things went wrong.”

Khan sees the potential for trouble ahead. The United States, China, and Taiwan “had walked right up to the edge of a war that could go nuclear several times in the past.... Now [in the early 2020s] they seemed to be living on that edge permanently.”

“When deterrence, toughness, and pride drive policy, the room for error diminishes to virtually nil,” he writes. Still, writing of the past near misses at war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, he argues that “cataclysm was not inevitable then. And it is not inevitable now.”

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