China’s rubber-stamp national legislature, by a vote of 2,896-0, has passed a law authorizing a military attack to stop the island of Taiwan from pursuing formal independence. It is difficult to tell just how genuinely threatening this move is, but it is likely sooner or later to force the United States into some difficult decisions.
That could be doubly difficult.
“The United States is so absorbed by Iraq that it is unable to pay close attention to potentially more dangerous situations developing elsewhere,” said Muazzam Gill, vice president of the American Leadership Institute in Anaheim, who recently returned from a working visit in China.
When the Kuomintang lost the civil war with the communists and occupied the offshore island of Taiwan, the United States backed the regime. Over the years, especially as it adopted market-oriented economic policies, Taiwan prospered economically, and, over the last decade, it has become increasingly democratic politically.
In real terms, Taiwan has long been independent from the mainland. But both sides have played a delicate game of make-believe for decades — the mainland because it believes it will eventually reclaim Taiwan as a province, and Taiwan because it long maintained that it was the legitimate government of China and would eventually resume its rightful place in charge.
In recent years, the Taiwanese Chinese seem to have tired of the game, and there has been growing sentiment for formal independence. At the same time, the mainland, having adopted more market-oriented economic policies without giving up communist political domination, has experienced remarkable economic growth and is starting to flex its political muscles in the region. Reasserting its claim to Taiwan is part of that drive.
If China actually takes military action to reclaim Taiwan, the United States will face a dilemma. We don’t have a formal mutual defense agreement with Taiwan, but we sell them weapons and have longstanding ties. If Beijing becomes more aggressive, would the U.S. feel obliged to insert itself into the situation?
Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said the current crisis represents “something of a midpoint between mere symbolism and having concrete war plans.” But he expects matters to come to a head between China and Taiwan in the next decade.
This move by China’s parliament, then, looks like an early warning that the U.S. could face problems in the Pacific that might make Iraq look easy.