Chinese rhetoric over Taiwan is getting more strident all the time. It’s hard to believe the Chinese will go beyond the kind of big talk we’ve been hearing since Chiang Kai-shek fled there with his defeated forces before the victory of Mao’s Red Army on the mainland in 1949, but the shrill nature of Chinese intimidation there and elsewhere is cause for mounting concern.
The implications are clear. If China were to move militarily against Taiwan, the United States and Japan would get involved. The United States has no troops, no advisers and no defense pact with Taiwan, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations. But, we may be sure Americans would enter the war initially as advisers. In a real showdown, the United States might also provide air support from bases in Okinawa and Guam, as well as aircraft carriers, while rushing in billions of dollars’ worth of supplies as it is doing for Ukraine.
Ominously, from the viewpoint of nations worried about a resurgence of Japanese military power, the Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be just what Japanese conservatives need to nullify Article 9 of Japan’s “no war” constitution, drafted in 1947 during the American occupation, barring Japanese from waging war beyond Japan’s immediate borders. The Japanese could then rename their “Self-Defense Forces” as simply their armed forces and double the military budget from 1 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, expected to exceed $5 trillion this year, to 2 percent.
War for Taiwan would give members of Japan’s long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party a boost based on which they could fantasize about Japan again becoming a military force in Asia. The prospect of Japan’s military revival arouses distinctly mixed feelings among other Asian countries, especially South Korea.
Yes, Japan could provide much-needed support if the flames of war leaped from Taiwan to the Korean Peninsula and North Korea attacked the South. With memories of the colonial past under Japanese rule and many difficulties since then, however. Koreans would have reason to fear whatever the Japanese might do on the Korean Peninsula, North and South.
As war clouds loom over Taiwan, the chances are high that the fighting would spread first to the Senkaku Islands, not far from Taiwan. The Japanese zealously hold this uninhabited island cluster, defending it with coast guard vessels capable of firing water cannons on Chinese “fishing boats,” laden with electronic surveillance gear when they come too close and sending planes in hot pursuit when Chinese aircraft violate the Senkaku air space. The Chinese claim the islands, which they call Diaoyu, as assiduously as they claim Taiwan. It’s not difficult to imagine Japan or China setting up a military base on the largest islands. For that reason alone, the Japanese see them as worth fighting for — too valuable to abandon.
Chinese ambitions extend to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and beyond. So far there appears no way to talk the Chinese into yielding to their absurd view that the entire South China Sea belongs to them. As American warships and planes regularly intrude into China’s self-declared space, a war for Taiwan could just as easily spread southward. The Chinese are already looking for bases in the South Pacific, striking up deals with some of the small island nations occupied by Japan before the Americans drove them out in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
Just as easily, the fighting could flare northward from the initial flashpoint, Taiwan. The dark forces unleashed by war across the 100-mile-wide straits between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland would quickly reach the Korean Peninsula. The atmosphere in South Korea, for now, appears tranquil and peaceful, but the rhetoric from North Korea resembles that of Chinese claims to Taiwan.
It’s difficult to imagine another Korean War. Kim Jong-un, however, could go on the offensive, beginning with an artillery barrage across the Demilitarized Zone or an attack on the small islands held by South Korea in the West or Yellow Sea not far from North Korea’s southwestern shores. Or he could launch his dreaded missiles, pummeling American and South Korean bases.
Might nuclear war be next? Anything’s possible as the Chinese edge closer to war for Taiwan than they’ve ever done previously. We have to hope they’re only bluffing, as they’ve done so often in the past.