The Cold War substantially changed the position of the United States on Taiwan. After a short interlude of indifference and neglect, especially after the Korean War (1950-53), the US started seeing Taiwan as essential to its strategic interests and security.
After that, notwithstanding all the tongue-in-cheek statements by the US about taking a nonchalant or even positive stance on the "peaceful" reunification of Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, the actual US policy has always been to forestall Taiwan's return to China by whatever means possible unless the cost of doing so becomes unbearable.
Beijing's ultimate goal of national reunification
For Beijing, the Taiwan question has always pertained to national reunification and the ultimate end of the civil war, preferably by peaceful means, and to prevent Taiwan from declaring "independence". And till national reunification is realized, the prerequisite and overriding principle for cross-Straits peace, for Beijing, is the recognition of the 1992 Consensus by Taiwan.
However, the rise of China has prompted the US to label China as a strategic rival and an existential threat, and incorporate the island into its grand strategy to contain, isolate and weaken China on both the military and nonmilitary fronts.
For Beijing, on the other hand, the Taiwan question is not just about national reunification. A non-1992 Consensus recognizing Taiwan is also a strategic threat to national security and stability. This threat from Taiwan has over the years fundamentally altered Beijing's strategy toward both the US and Taiwan.
US policy on Taiwan remains duplicitous
In his book The Long Peace, John L. Gaddis, a prominent scholar of the Cold War, documents the US' position on Taiwan in the 1940s. In his words: "There was never any question, whether in the Pentagon, the State Department, or the Far East Command, as to the strategic importance of Taiwan once it became apparent that Chiang Kai-shek could not retain control of the mainland. The prospect of a Taiwan dominated by 'Kremlin-directed Communists,' the Joint Chiefs (of Staff) concluded late in 1948, would be 'very seriously detrimental to our national security,' since it would give the Communists the capability of dominating sea lanes of communication between Japan and Malaya, and of threatening the Philippines, the Ryukyus, and ultimately Japan itself.
"A State Department draft report to the National Security Council early in 1949 argued that 'the basic aim of the U.S. should be to deny Formosa and the Pescadores to the Communists.' MacArthur was particularly adamant on this point. He told Max W.Bishop, Chief of the State Department's Division of Northeast Asian Affairs, that'if Formosa went to the Chinese Communists our whole defensive position in the Far East (would be) definitely lost; that it could only result eventually in putting our defensive line back to the west coast of the continental United States.'"
McArthur even characterized Taiwan as "an unsinkable aircraft carrier and submarine tender" that should never be allowed to fall under the control of the enemies of the US.
Over time, the strategic value of Taiwan for the US has not diminished; instead, it has vastly increased as a result of the dramatic rise of China, particularly its growing military power. China is also seen as a revanchist power challenging the global hegemony of the US.
For US, reunification is harmful to its interest
In the words of two US strategists, Richard Haass and David Sacks: "One thing, however, has not changed…: an imposed Chinese takeover of Taiwan remains antithetical to US interests. If the United States fails to respond to such a Chinese use of force, regional US allies, such as Japan and South Korea, will conclude that the United States cannot be relied upon and that it is pulling back from the region. These Asian allies would then either accommodate China, leading to the dissolution of US alliances and the crumbling of the balance of power, or they would seek nuclear weapons in a bid to become strategically self-reliant. Either scenario would greatly increase the chance of war in a region that is central to the world's economy and home to most of its people."
Moreover, "China's military would no longer be bottled up within the first island chain: its navy would instead have the ability to project Chinese power throughout the western Pacific." These views on Taiwan are still dominant in the political and intellectual circles of the US.
Given the crucial importance of Taiwan to US security and strategic interests, as well as to its credibility among its allies and partners, it stretches the belief that the US will accept with equanimity the reunification of the mainland and Taiwan even if the reunification comes about peacefully, a majority of the Taiwan residents support reunification with the mainland, and China is no longer demonized as an "authoritarian" country.
US goes to great lengths to prevent reunification
In order to permanently prevent Taiwan's reunification with the mainland and tether the island to the US bandwagon, Washington has in the last couple of decades ratcheted up support for the pro-independence and secessionist forces in Taiwan, pressured those backing rapprochement with the mainland not to do so, treated Taiwan as "an independent political entity", strengthened Taiwan's defense capabilities by selling it arms and training its armed forces, increased high-level official contacts with Taiwan, included Taiwan in its "Indo-Pacific" strategy, helped boost Taiwan's role in the "first island chain", changed its stance on Taiwan from "strategic ambiguity" to "strategic clarity", assured Taiwan residents it would militarily protect them against an "invasion" by the mainland, created opportunities for Taiwan to take part in international affairs, threatened countries still recognizing Taiwan as an "independent entity" to not cut diplomatic ties with the island, widened the US-Japan alliance to cover the cross-Straits conflict, drawn the European Union, the QUAD and AUKUS into its Taiwan game, and boosted economic ties with Taiwan.
From Beijing's point of view, all these are provocative moves by the US aimed at widening the political and psychological chasm between the people on the two sides of the Taiwan Straits, increasing the island's dependence on the US and its allies, and make the reunification of the mainland and Taiwan more difficult.
The US' provocative actions are also a dubious attempt to turn the island into a threat to China's security, particularly to bottle up the Chinese navy inside the "first island chain" forever, thus making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for China to protect its overseas interests. Also, these measures will put the US in an advantageous strategic position when a war with China eventually breaks out, inadvertently or otherwise. And in case a war breaks out, the island will become a forward base for the US to attack the mainland.
From Beijing's strategic point of view, the Taiwan question has rapidly transformed into a matter of national security which calls for immediate and serious attention. An "independent" Taiwan allied with the US will be the biggest existential security threat.
Strategic patience not a permanent choice
Insofar as Taiwan remains a question of national reunification and does not declare de jure "independence", the Chinese mainland can afford strategic patience, and pursue peaceful reunification.
But once Taiwan mutates into a national security threat and becomes increasingly alarming due to US machinations, Beijing's strategic calculus will drastically change. And national reunification via forging closer economic ties with the island and winning the hearts and minds of the island's residents in the long run will become a secondary strategic goal. The primary imperative will be to permanently remove Taiwan as a national security threat through whatever means necessary.
Beijing's sense of threat emerging from the increasingly bellicose and irresponsible Taiwan policy of the US is amply reflected in the words of President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese officials. China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi and US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan held their third meeting in Luxembourg on June 13, where Yang warned Sullivan that there would be "cataclysmic effects" if the US did not handle the Taiwan question properly. "This risk will increase if the US continues its approach of 'using Taiwan to contain China' and Taiwan's adoption of 'relying on the US for independence,'" Yang said.
The warning by Yang came just a day after State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that Beijing will counter any attempts to make "Taiwan independent".
Most importantly, in a phone call on July 28, President Xi asserted that China will not give any elbow room to the "Taiwan independence forces" and warned US President Joe Biden that "those who play with fire will be perished by it. It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this".The warning was issued as tensions mounted over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, which she did on Tuesday.
China believes the US has adopted a "salami-slicing" approach to abandon the one-China principle and push Taiwan toward de facto, if not de jure, "independence"－and determined to maintain the status quo of a divided China.
US has turned Straits into a tinderbox
As both Beijing and Washington see Taiwan as essential to their security and the US is increasingly using Taiwan as a "forward base" against Beijing, the Taiwan Straits has turned into a tinderbox where a Sino-US military conflict could flare up with disastrous consequences for the world. A US-China war over Taiwan will see the island completely devastated. To avoid this catastrophe, Taiwan residents must force the pro-independence Taiwan authorities to stop allowing Washington to meddle in cross-Straits affairs and use the island against Beijing, and seek rapprochement with the mainland.
Furthermore, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be seriously affected by the fallout from the US-China clash over Taiwan, especially because the US might use all means possible to "destroy" the SAR and weaken China.
But despite Hong Kong not having any means to change the course of events concerning Taiwan, both the SAR government and residents have to closely monitor the Taiwan situation and take steps to minimize the adverse impact of the cross-Straits crisis on Hong Kong. It goes without saying that concerted planning and action by the central and Hong Kong governments are indispensable to it.
The author is a professor emeritus of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.
The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.