from Strength Through Peace

Top Conflicts to Watch in 2021: The Danger of U.S.-China Confrontation Over Taiwan

People wave flags while soldiers driving tanks pass on a street as part of a military drill in Taichung, Taiwan, on November 3, 2020.
People wave flags while soldiers driving tanks pass on a street as part of a military drill in Taichung, Taiwan, on November 3, 2020. Ann Wang/Reuters

January 22, 2021
7:00 am (EST)

People wave flags while soldiers driving tanks pass on a street as part of a military drill in Taichung, Taiwan, on November 3, 2020.
People wave flags while soldiers driving tanks pass on a street as part of a military drill in Taichung, Taiwan, on November 3, 2020. Ann Wang/Reuters
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Yun Sun is a senior fellow, codirector of the East Asia program, and director of the China program at the Stimson Center.

2020 witnessed tension across the Taiwan Strait unseen since the 1996 missile crisis. Feeling challenged by the popular Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government and the Trump administration’s measures to enhance ties with Taiwan, the mainland China escalated its military posturing and coercive approach significantly. “Unification by force” became a buzzword among the Chinese public, and the public sentiment strengthens Beijing’s justification for intensified military actions. Although China may not seek a preemptive military campaign for unification, it is increasingly tolerant, or even neutral toward the military risk over Taiwan.   

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While people appear to believe that the Biden administration will strive to avoid acute crisis with China over Taiwan, U.S. policy toward Taiwan only reflects half of the story. The other, and more important half is from China. At least three factors contribute to China’s increasingly destabilizing stance: the belief that DPP is seeking “Taiwan independence”; the indispensability of unification for China’s rise and for Xi’s glory. In this sense, the trajectory of China’s coercion will only intensify rather than subside.  

China prefers peaceful unification over use of force. However, in the Chinese lexicon, coercion is not unpeaceful. China’s confidence in unification lies the belief that there will be a day that the United States is exhausted by the security commitment to an island so far away as power balance continues to tilt in China’s favor, therefore, for Beijing, when and only when the United States withdraws, will Taiwan’s political will to negotiate peaceful unification with China begin to emerge. The calculation dictates that China must respond militarily to Taiwan’s “moves” toward independence before that day comes. The growing confidence in the shifting power balance also fosters growing Chinese tolerance, or even neutrality toward military risk.  

China’s calculations pose serious danger for miscalculation and inadvertent escalation of tension with the United States. Neither side seems to believe the other side wants a conflict, and consequently could put themselves in a game of chicken and collision course given the stakes at hand. Regardless of who prevails, both will suffer tremendous human and financial costs, and Taiwan will be the first to bear the dire result of such a war. To avoid such a scenario will require the United States to balance its adamant support of Taiwan with a clear strategy for conflict prevention and to find the optimal combination of military deterrence and smart diplomatic strategies.

View the full results of the Preventive Priorities Survey to see which other contingencies were deemed top tier priorities for 2021.

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