If the war on terror can be said to have a silver lining, it's that the United States has steered clear of conflict with China. Before 9/11 neoconservatives in Washington were more worried about an eventual war with Beijing than with Baghdad, and in 2001 the Pentagon declared China an emerging threat. But since 9/11 the government in Beijing has made common cause with the United States by squelching terrorist activity on China's western borders, and has cooperated with American efforts to contain North Korea. With global commerce fueling its stupendous economic growth, China is becoming integrated into the community of nations as never before—as best evidenced, perhaps, by Beijing's successful bid to host the 2008 Olympics.
This easing of tension has been especially welcome on the matter of Taiwan—the island that China still considers a renegade province. Trade and investment have blossomed so quickly across the Taiwan Strait that China has become Taiwan's largest export market, and also the destination for some $70 billion or more in Taiwanese capital. To some, these developments suggest that time is on the side of a peaceful solution to the problem of Taiwan's disputed status.
But the reality may be quite the opposite. In fact, a number of analysts in both America and East Asia believe that military conflict between China and Taiwan is not only likely but imminent. Just how imminent depends partly on the Taiwanese legislative elections scheduled for December 11. If pro-independence parties gain a majority in the legislature, the stage will be set for a confrontation, producing a hellish prospect for U.S. foreign policy: on top of its ongoing military commitment in the Middle East, the United States may face a Chinese attack against Taiwan, a fragile democracy that America has promised to help protect.
On some level, of course, the idea that China would actually attack Taiwan—rather than merely threaten to do so, as it has for years—makes no sense. Attacking would invite a military response from the United States, and even without American intervention, it's not clear that China's military is up to the task of seizing the island. China would also risk losing the trade relationships that drive its economic growth.
Nevertheless, the threat of a Chinese attack has loomed over Taiwan since at least 1972, when China's Premier Zhou Enlai, in negotiations with Richard Nixon, refused to renounce the use of force against the island. Subsequent Chinese leaders have reiterated the point. Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping threatened the Carter Administration with an attack against Taiwan in 1978, and repeated the warning to U.S. officials during the 1980s. In 1995 China conducted military exercises near Taiwan, and President Jiang Zemin, in a major policy speech, reminded the world that China would use military force against the island if necessary.
"I don't think China wants to use force," Thomas Christensen, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University, told me recently. But he had just returned from his fourth trip to China in the past two years, and the mood he'd encountered while speaking privately with Chinese policy experts was decidedly pessimistic. "What I heard on several occasions," Christensen said, "is that you see a much more serious consideration of actual conflict with the United States over Taiwan."
The disagreement over Taiwan's status dates to 1949, when the Chinese Communists emerged victorious in China's bloody civil war and the vanquished Nationalists fled to the island. For years both sides clung to the notion that Taiwan was part of a larger China: the Communists hoped to finish the war and take the island; the Nationalists hoped to use it as a base from which to retake the mainland. After half a century under U.S. protection, few people in Taiwan still look to China for their national identity. But on the mainland a very different sort of evolution has occurred. In the late 1970s Deng Xiaoping began steering China away from communism toward capitalism, and subsequent Chinese leaders have justified their rule not with communist ideology but with the promise of making China prosperous and powerful. Bringing Taiwan back under the sway of the mainland—a prospect China calls "reunification"—would be a crucial sign that this promise had been fulfilled.
Yet China's leaders haven't indicated that they want to occupy Taiwan. Indeed, ever since Deng proposed a "one country, two systems" solution, in 1979, China has said that Taiwan could keep its own administration and even its military organs intact. More likely what they want is simply to prevent Taiwan from securing the legal independence that would end the promise of eventual reunification. "The Party needs to avoid humiliation on Taiwan more than it needs to gain a big victory on it," Christensen explains. A genuine sense of nationalism is involved, but the Chinese government also has domestic political motives: "The Communist elite worries that humiliation on that issue could provide a rallying point for people frustrated with the Party for other reasons." If they think their political survival is at stake, China's leaders may feel they have no choice but to go to war. Last year high-ranking Chinese military officials stated unequivocally that China was ready to use force against Taiwan, even at the cost of international censure, economic stagnation, and the loss of the Olympics.
So far the United States has managed to prevent conflict by pressuring Taiwan not to declare independence. But as Taiwan's democracy matures, America's ability to influence the island is fading.