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Is Taiwan really the world's most dangerous place?

Is Taiwan really the world's most dangerous place?
© Getty Images

Last week’s Economist declared Taiwan the world’s most dangerous place. The argument is straight forward. China, with a Navy larger than America’s and a modern and formidable military, is moving towards a military takeover of the island. The two most senior U.S. Navy admirals in the Pacific so testified to Congress last month.

Aggressive Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), although not into its air space or territorial waters, and recent amphibious exercises are signs of its intent on reunification. Leaders in Beijing and Moscow believe that America is in decline and lacks the capacity it once did to exert global leadership because of a fixation on domestic disruption and unrest and the inability of its two political parties to govern. That belief reinforces the likelihood that China could move to re-incorporate Taiwan sooner than later.

Members of Congress are considering legislation that would commit the United States to direct defense of Taiwan in the event of Chinese aggression, ending the policy of strategic ambiguity mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. But does any of this discussion of a Taiwan crisis sound familiar? 

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In 1954-1955, after the Korean War ended in a truce, China bombarded Taiwan’s tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu a few miles off China’s coast. In essence, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Republic of China (ROC) were at war. The Eisenhower administration considered several military options, including the threat of using nuclear weapons, and in January 1955 submitted a resolution to Congress to defend Taiwan. By a vote of 410-3 in the House and a large majority in the Senate, the Formosa Resolution  granted Ike full authority to go to war over Taiwan if need be.

The PRC and ROC reached an informal agreement and the crisis dissipated, only to arise again in 1958. Neither led to war with the U.S. The PRC was still very underdeveloped, struggling to repair the enormous devastation of the civil war. And Beijing would not possess nuclear weapons until late 1964.

While none of those conditions exist today, is the situation as or more perilous than in 1955? At a superficial level, the answer seems to be yes. But further scrutiny suggests otherwise.

What do Taiwan and its people believe? By most polls, Taiwanese seem far less threatened by a Chinese military takeover than we do. If Taiwan’s threat perception was as strong as that in Washington, surely given its resources and technologies, it would be mounting a far more robust defense. The army requires only four months of active-duty service. And as China has deployed a powerful anti-access and area denial strategy, Taiwan would be bristling with anti-ship cruise missiles, tens of thousands of mines and many more submarines.

Does it therefore make sense for the U.S. to be more preoccupied with Taiwan’s defense than Taiwan?  

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Taiwan has about half-a-trillion dollars invested in China, with which it conducts nearly half of its international trade. If China launched a military attack, the Taiwanese Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Company, which produces virtually all China’s chips, could be destroyed. That alone would greatly damage China and much of the global economy dependent on these chips. 

The reaction by China’s neighbors to a military takeover would almost certainly be exceedingly damaging to China and could lead to new threat based alliance systems and a strengthening of links with the U.S. and possibly NATO. Hence, aside from fulfilling aspirations dating back to 1949, is this in China’s interests?

China has many other, non-forceful options vis-a-vis Taiwan, including economic and political intimidation and working from within Taiwan to install a regime that would accept unification. And the PLA is well aware that Operation Causeway to retake Formosa from the Japanese in 1944, never implemented, called for a force of 4,000 ships and 400,000 soldiers and marines (larger than the Normandy invasion that same year) and a capability China never will attain.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S often overly militarized responses to perceived threats. Vietnam and non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are the two most disastrous examples. China may become the world’s largest economy and perhaps field an even more powerful military. 

But, as Ike assembled Project Solarium in 1953 to conduct a deep analysis of America’s strategic options vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, the same needs to be done before we rush to ill-informed conclusions about China.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is United Press International’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book due out this year is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World.”