buruma173_SAM YEHAFP via Getty Images_taiwan SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

Taiwan and the Ghosts of History

It may be that in today’s world, when a superpower conflict could destroy much of mankind, China and the US will avoid a war over Taiwan. But the two sides are engaged in a game of chicken, which can escalate quickly and unpredictably, with fear of humiliation making it difficult to back down.

NEW YORK – Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? President Joe Biden laid out his vision clearly last week. He sees the rivalry between the PRC and the US as a global conflict between democracy and autocracy, and the ROC is unquestionably one of Asia’s most successful democracies.

In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons after China shelled a rocky islet near Taiwan’s coast, when the ROC was still a military dictatorship. But things were different then. The US was treaty-bound to defend Taiwan. This changed after 1972, when President Richard M. Nixon agreed that Taiwan was part of “one China,” and President Jimmy Carter nullified the defense treaty in 1979. Whether the US would still fight a war over Taiwan has become a question subject to what Henry Kissinger long ago termed “strategic ambiguity.”

As a result, American military commitments in the East China Sea are very peculiar. A defense treaty with Japan obliges the US to defend a few uninhabited rocks called the Senkaku Islands (or the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese), but not democratic Taiwan and its 23 million people.

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