Seoul, Thursday 13 May 2021
Fears of China launching a military attack against Taiwan have spiked with Chinese warplanes flying across the halfway point in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing amping up cyber pressure, and Chinese media calling for missile strikes on American allies if they intervene.
In a newly published Special Report for the Asia Pacific Leadership Network (APLN) Professor Robert Ayson of Victoria University of Wellington sets out different scenarios that could trigger a nuclear war in the Taiwan strait between China and the United States and how it can be avoided.
He reviews background factors such as strategic factors and operational problems that could give rise to such a catastrophe as well as the reasons why nuclear escalation might be regarded as unlikely.
Many of the ingredients are in place for a Taiwan Strait crisis to precipitate a nuclear escalation, including:
Worsening political tensions between Beijing and Taipei over Taiwan’s future, coupled with growing great power competition and distrust between China and the United States.
Shifting asymmetries of military power between China and Taiwan and between China and the United States creating incentives for escalation.
Difficulties in ensuring firebreaks between conventional military options and attacks that involve or risk nuclear capabilities.
Brittle political communications between Washington and Beijing and problems in securing military-military dialogue (including the planned Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meeting in 2020).
Professor Ayson examines the escalation pathway from the absence of a precipitating crisis to a) a serious and escalating Taiwan Strait crisis, b) a conventional war in the Taiwan Strait, c) the use of nuclear weapons.
He offers recommendations to reduce the chances of conventional military escalation and escalation that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.
China and the United States establish an understanding of shared no-go areas in a Taiwan Strait crisis, including assets that if attacked would be likely to generate disproportionate retaliation.
Both China and the United States recognise the risks of the murky zone between escalating pressure and actual fighting in a regional contingency.
They should aim for formal or informal rules on what differentiates unthreatening information seeking from activities that put their forces at risk, including through cyber operations and other measures short of physical conflict.
Taiwan and the United States should identify what factors intensify the chances that an early and dangerous resort to force (by Taiwan or China) will occur in a Taiwan Strait crisis, and what this means for their understanding of America’s role.
Taiwan, the United States, and China have a common interest in ensuring that they have C4I (computers, comms, command and control, intelligence) systems that allow them to maintain control during an escalating crisis and conventional conflict, reducing pre-emptive pressures. They should all signal their reluctance to put these systems at risk in an escalating crisis.
Crisis stability and the dangers of crisis instability needs to be a recurring subject in a renewed process of US-China strategic dialogue and involve military, diplomatic and political leaders.
The US and China do not need to see themselves as friends or close partners. But they might wish to think of themselves as adversarial partners (a concept used by Coral Bell in depicting the limits to competition in US-Soviet relations).
Because even if their competition leads them into a fight over the Taiwan Strait, China and the United States will retain a common interest shared with Taiwan in controlling the escalation that could come next.