As tensions continue to rise between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, analysts and officials warn of a growing risk of military conflict, which could potentially draw in the United States. How worried should we be about a war in the Taiwan Strait?
Scott L. Kastner sheds new light on the prospects for cross-strait military conflict in his new book, War and Peace in the Taiwan Strait. He examines several key regional trends that have complex implications for stability, including deepening economic integration, the shifting balance of military power, uncertainty about the future of U.S. commitment, and domestic political changes in both the PRC and Taiwan. While the risks of conflict are real, they should not be exaggerated.
In an interview conducted by Jessica Chen Weiss on January 11, 2023, Scott Kastner argues that several distinct pathways could lead to the breakout of hostilities, yet war is not inevitable.
MARGOT LANDMAN: My name is Margot Landman, and I am deputy vice president for programs at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. I am pleased to introduce our speakers for today’s interview.
Scott Kastner is a professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park. His book, War and Peace in the Taiwan Strait, recently published by Columbia University Press, is the very timely subject of our conversation today.
Moderating for us is Jessica Chen Weiss, the Michael J. Zak Professor for China and Asia-Pacific Studies in the Department of Government at Cornell University. From August 2021 to July 2022, she served as senior advisor to the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. State Department on a Council on Foreign Relations Fellowship. Both Scott and Jessica are fellows of the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program.
Jessica, the floor is yours.
JESSICA CHEN WEISS: Great. Thanks so much. And Scott, what a pleasure to be able to read your new book. I just I learned so much. I highly recommend it. I know it couldn’t be more timely and important and really bringing a great deal of rigor and strategic insight into the many dynamics that are making the Taiwan Strait so dangerous.
At the same time, while understanding some of the causes of the rising tensions also, I think hopefully pushes back against the sense of inevitability without being necessarily rosy-eyed either. And so, I just can’t recommend this book highly enough. And it’s really a treat to be able to talk with you about it and to process some of its insights.
SCOTT KASTNER: Thanks. Thanks, Jessica. It’s great to be here and really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about the book as well.
WEISS: Absolutely. Let’s dive in. So first, I think you bring forward some really valuable insights from theories of bargaining in war, which is chiefly that even in a zero-sum relationship, both sides—in this case, Beijing and Taipei—both sides have an interest in avoiding war, and I think that includes United States. And so that implies that there is some peacefully arrived at solution that is always preferable. But the question is, can that be located? And even separate from locating [a solution], all these years there has been no war, although there have been many crises. And so, does that mean that a bargain exists, or at least implicitly? And what are the characteristics of the status quo? And I think that you have provided a very helpful diagram on what the status quo is, and what are the sort of pressures for moving away from it.
So maybe could you describe, first of all, what is the status quo, how has it evolved and what are some of the dynamics and pressures that are contributing to increasing tensions in the Taiwan Strait?
KASTNER: Sure. The status quo is clearly somewhat dynamic, and it changes over time in terms of how the two parties think about the current status quo in the cross-strait relationship. I think broadly speaking, you think of the current status quo as largely a situation where Taiwan enjoys de facto independence and de facto autonomy from the PRC (People’s Republic of China), but where it lacks most of what we would think of as the pieces of international legal recognition: very few states have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it’s not able to participate in most international organizations, and so forth. And it’s a status quo where Taiwan, even though it enjoys de facto independence, meaning, you know, obviously has its own government, which is democratically elected, it has its own military and so forth, it still calls itself formally the Republic of China, and it still has a constitution that dates back to the time when the Republic of China was based on the mainland. So it’s this ambiguous situation where Taiwan enjoys this legal or de facto independence but lacks some of the trappings of legal recognition and independence.
WEISS: Great. Then can you talk a little bit about how the status quo has been in some ways redefined or moved? And looking at the various administrations on Taiwan and as well as what might be China’s shifting preferences.
KASTNER: Yeah. I think the way that the Taiwan government under various administrations has defined its relationship and thought about its relationship with China has changed over time. For years after the end of the Chinese Civil War, the Republic of China government viewed itself as the legal government [and] the rightful government of all of China and viewed the PRC as a completely illegitimate regime on the mainland.
This all really changed pretty dramatically as Taiwan democratized. And increasingly there is robust debate and open debate in Taiwan about whether Taiwan should be thought of as part of China in this way. And whether it should think of itself as the rightful government of China in this way.
And so, we’ve kind of seen movement away from that where under Li Deng-hui, for example, and then in the 1990s, the Taiwan government basically outlined a position where it conceptualized both sides as being sovereign equals. We talked about the relationship being a state-to-state relationship or at least a special state-to-state relationship. And you saw similar formulations under the Chen Shui-bian administration in the 2000s. When the Nationalists (Kuomintang Party, a major political party in Taiwan) came back to power under Ma Ying-jeou from 2008 to 2016, there was some acceptance of this idea that Taiwan should be thought of as in principle at least a part of China, although ambiguously. And then the current government has not been willing to endorse this formulation, this idea that Taiwan should be thought of in principle as a part of China.
WEISS: Great. Thanks so much.
I think it’s very helpful background. And we are, of course, heading into a new presidential election season in Taiwan, [and] Tsai Ing-wen is term-limited. I think there’s a big question around, what will the future evolution of Taiwan’s own conversation about its status and its sovereignty? What form will that take in the context of an election campaign?
In the book, you look at two sort of sources of potential conflict looking at first, the two parties here. So there’s the “Taiwan revisionism,” and you have PRC revisionism, and you take those two in turn. And I think that’s a really elegant way of slicing into the many challenges that arise on both sides.
So let’s take first the question of “Taiwan revisionism” because I think it follows nicely from our discussion here of these shifting conversations. You argue here that Taiwan could inadvertently cross Beijing’s red line for reasons largely due to excessive optimism that somehow the PRC is bluffing or that war might even end with a positive outcome for Taiwan—like maybe they could finally get de jure independence in the in the context of a war. And you said that this scenario was relatively straightforward to prevent, because it’s rooted in what we call information problems, or this insufficient information about Beijing’s true willingness to fight. And it could be relatively simply or straightforwardly addressed through costly signaling by Beijing and efforts by Washington to deter this kind of adventurism in the first place.
I wanted to ask you, while the logic is straightforward, I have questions about whether or not we can count on such costly signals by Beijing to be interpreted accurately. So in the wake of Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, we saw a series of exercises and missile tests, and I think those were largely understood as, okay, this was not about a precursor to an invasion—this was about deterring or responding to what they thought they perceived as a provocation. But in the future, could we how well will we be able to distinguish between efforts to deter and punish rather than precursors [or] preparations for an invasion?
KASTNER: Yeah, so that’s a that’s a good question. I think part of the answer to that is, it’s important to look at the context of what the PRC is doing at a particular time. And so in this case, that the PRC was largely reacting to something that happened. To the degree that you see the PRC reacting to events, it suggests an effort to signal some sort of view about those events. In this case with the Pelosi visit, [this reaction] is an effort to signal that there’s a lot of concern about where the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is going. And this is an especially high-profile episode that served as a little bit of a focal point for expressing some of that dissatisfaction. I’d be more worried if we saw a significant change in what the PRC was doing in the absence of some obvious event or series of actions like [Speaker Pelosi’s visit].
So I think that’s one way of thinking about it. But in reality, it can be hard. And I think that military experts argue that there are certain things that would probably have to occur for there to be a credible invasion scenario that would likely be noticeable. You’d see some kind of significant mobilization of forces and so forth. So there’s stuff like that. But I think in general, it can be hard to differentiate between when the PRC is seeking to signal dissatisfaction with what Taiwan and the U.S. are doing and play to its status quo goal of preventing Taiwan independence, versus PRC efforts to advance its own revisionist goals of unification.
WEISS: Great. And then I think the second piece of preventing this red line scenario you suggested was Washington discouraging Taiwan revisionism. I wonder whether and to what extent you think we can count on Washington to play that role of deterring rather than supporting it?
KASTNER: Yeah, I think that it’s somewhat unclear looking forward, given the nature of where things have gone in the U.S.-China relationship and where things have gone politically in the United States with regard to the U.S. relationship with China.
If we look back, for example, to the Chen Shui-bian administration in Taiwan, where you had some pretty clear signaling coming out of Washington that there was really a lot of dissatisfaction with some of the things that the Chen government was doing that the U.S. saw as being symbolic steps to highlight Taiwan’s otherness from China in a way that didn’t accomplish anything concrete in terms of improving Taiwan’s security. There was concern at the time that Taiwan’s actions were contributing to tensions that could escalate and that could involve the United States ultimately. And so the United States became increasingly critical of the Chen government and increasingly openly.
That was a time where I think there was a widespread sense that that the U.S.-China relationship was not only a priority, but that there were a lot of positives to this relationship. And there was a lot of cooperation between the two sides on a range of international issues, things like the North Korean nuclear issue. I mean, you could go on. And there were concerns about the implications of a sharply deteriorating U.S. China relationship for other U.S. goals, like the war on terrorism.
In today’s world, it’s the U.S.-China relationship has really deteriorated so markedly, and there’s so much less clear cooperation between the two sides on a range of issues. And there’s this sense in the United States that that we’re moving into a Cold War type environment where I’m not sure that there’s that same counterbalance, where there’s this belief that it’s important to maintain stability in U.S.-China relations and to not let the Taiwan issue become something that leads to a great deal of instability in U.S.-China relations.
So I’m a little bit concerned, looking to the future about whether the U.S. would act as a constraint in the same way that it did, say, during the Chen Shui-bian administration.
WEISS: Let’s turn now to the PRC revisionism, which I think is on a lot of people’s minds in Washington. A question is whether or not Beijing believes that time is or is not on its side. And officially, the rhetoric is that, yes, the wheels of history are moving on toward unification.
Nonetheless, I think that there is a great deal of understanding that political trends and demographics on Taiwan make the idea of a peaceful process and uncoerced process toward unification, extremely unlikely. Interestingly, I found that you argue that despite this pessimism about trends on Taiwan and on U.S., the trajectory of U.S., Taiwan relations, PRC leaders may not necessarily decide that they need to act sooner than later. And I thought that was a really novel argument, and maybe you could say a little bit about why you’re less pessimistic than others.
KASTNER: There’s a couple of reasons for my, I would say, lack of extreme pessimism, but still, let’s say, concern about this possibility. But I don’t view it as is inevitable by any means that you see conflict arise as a consequence of a sense in Beijing that trends aren’t on China’s side.
The couple of reasons are, one, that I think trends are somewhat ambiguous if you just look at them in the aggregate. So yes, on the one hand, there are a number of trends that are very worrisome from looking at it from Beijing’s perspective here. And these include trends in Taiwan’s society and politics, where there’s clearly very little interest in Taiwan today in anything resembling unification with the PRC. There is growing Taiwan centric identity on the island, where in public opinion polls or surveys, the large majority of respondents self-identify as Taiwanese rather than as Chinese or even as having dual identity.
And there’s also concern there’s concern about the long-term viability of the Nationalist Party in Taiwan, which has typically been more willing to accommodate PRC views, at least to some degree, on sovereignty issues. And there are concerns about the evolving U.S.-Taiwan security relationship, where there is worry that that the United States is moving closer toward a more significant informal security relationship with Taiwan.
These are all things that would contribute to a sense in Beijing that maybe time isn’t on China’s side, that Taiwan might be slipping away politically and socially, and that a closer U.S.-Taiwan security relationship might over time preclude the possibility of coercing Taiwan into unification.
On the other hand, there are other trends that are clearly in China’s favor. And the most obvious, I think, is the shifting balance of military power in the region. There’s debate about whether that’s going to continue into the long term. Not being a military expert, I don’t want to get too into the weeds on that. But certainly, there has been a pretty sharp shift in the balance of military power. And to the degree that China is at least somewhat confident that its relative military capabilities are going to improve in the future, then that certainly gives a reason to be patient. So I think there’s some ambiguity in trends.
And the other reason I’m not totally pessimistic about this scenario is that in order for it to make sense for Beijing to act sooner rather than later, Beijing has to be confident that a military solution is actually going to improve things and resolve these concerns about long-term trends in the Taiwan Strait. Unless Beijing is very confident that it would prevail in a cross-strait conflict and be able to successfully unify Taiwan as an endpoint of that conflict. It’s more likely that an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait would make the things that Beijing worries about worse from Beijing’s perspective. So it would even further erode any interest in unification with a PRC government that’s willing to actually use military force against Taiwan. I think it would intensify some of the social and political trends that we see in Taiwan. And it would likely be reason for the United States to step up its security commitments to Taiwan as well.
So absent a very high level of confidence in Beijing that it could actually succeed at unifying Taiwan by force, I don’t think that use of military force resolves these concerns about long-term trends in the Taiwan Strait.
WEISS: I find that very persuasive. And also, it suggests that Beijing is more likely to engage in costly signaling, even using military means, but that is different from a full-fledged assault or an invasion.
WEISS: But I think that there’s a question as to whether or not Beijing faces a similar challenge, even using military means short of invasion. You write that if voters on Taiwan elect a more revisionist leader, Beijing will have itself to blame, at least in part because despite Tsai Ing-wen’s relatively cautious stance, at least in comparison to her past DPP predecessor, Chen Shui-bian. She still has moved the status quo incrementally further away from Beijing’s preferred outcome, particularly by declining to endorse the 1992 consensus or a one China framework. So you had this sustained campaign by Beijing, that in many ways—I think that you write that voters and in Taiwan may conclude, what’s the point of being cautious? It only brings more punishment. And similarly in Washington, there’s a sense that most of what the United States is doing now is a response to Beijing’s sustained campaign to isolate and pressure Taiwan.
I wonder here then again, looking at the strategic dynamic from Beijing’s perspective, could you say a little bit more about the challenge that Beijing faces in signaling resolve, but also trying to make credible its efforts to assure voters in Taiwan and the world, frankly, that Beijing remains committed to a peaceful reunification or unification process that would preserve Taiwan’s autonomy? In other words, this sort of duality between the importance of making credible threats, but also then in turn undermining efforts at credible reassurance, which are both necessary to deterring changes to the status quo.
KASTNER: Yeah. No, I think that’s a great way of putting it. And I don’t think I could state the dilemma that Beijing faces better than you just outlined. And it’s a fundamental dilemma that Beijing has faced for a long time in its dealings with Taiwan. How can Beijing credibly signal to Taiwan that it’s committed to this idea of peaceful unification, where some level of Taiwan’s interests would be protected in the context of some sort of negotiated settlement, when it also feels like it needs to signal strongly that it’s prepared to use military force if Taiwan moves away from China and tries to formalize its independence?
And so that suggests that at the end of the day, Chinese interests are such that it’s willing to kind of crush Taiwan if necessary. I think there’s a recognition [in Beijing] that this dilemma exists and that there’s no easy way to resolve it. I do believe that there’s a sense that the threat of use of force is really critical because there’s a recognition that in Taiwan, most people would support formal independence if they believed it could be achieved peacefully. And this really drives Beijing’s dilemma in this regard: if there isn’t this underlying threat to use military force against Taiwan, Taiwan would probably move toward formal independence, and public opinion surveys in Taiwan are pretty clear about that. So I don’t think there’s an easy way out of this.
WEISS: So I want to raise the question of symbolic politics, which doesn’t play a great role in your story, and a frequent critique, which I frankly have also been subject to, is that these sort of rationalist models kind of overweight the rationality as compared to other factors. And I think that you deal well with the challenge of the symbolic nature of the goods here in dispute.
Nonetheless, I think that there’s a question as to, in the context of domestic politics and election campaigns, both in Taiwan and the United States, whether or not these symbolic gains can really be safely assumed to not trump the pragmatism and the strategic stances that might make sense if you were to look at it in the way that you have.
I wonder how we might think about what’s to come in terms of Taiwan’s own politics. You spent a little bit of time talking about Vice President William Lai, who’s considered the front runner for the DPP nomination, who previously called himself an independence worker, but of course, has been more moderate sense.
What role might this play? Are you optimistic that the strategic pragmatism will be able to rein in these kinds of efforts to stand on principle, frankly? Rather than as we saw in the run up to Speaker Pelosi’s visit, that the right thing to do is to stand up to Beijing. And if that’s if those are the terms on which these policies are discussed, it creates very little space for symbolism to be subordinate to pragmatism.
KASTNER: Yeah. No, I think that’s well put. I’ll just begin by noting that I certainly don’t dismiss the possibility that you could get a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and that would ultimately be rooted to a considerable extent in these kinds of symbolic disputes that you describe because symbolism is really important, and identity is really important. A conflict that’s rooted in Taiwan’s efforts to move further away from the PRC, that would be ultimately a decision that’s rooted in a sense of identity in Taiwan that Taiwan’s not a part of China. And to the extent that you have a conflict that’s rooted in a PRC effort to advance unification coercively against Taiwan, that would be a conflict that’s ultimately rooted in this idea that that Taiwan should be part of China. And that’s very much an identity-type or a symbolic-type issue. I do view this as by far the most dangerous issue in the U.S.-China relationship. And it’s dangerous because at its core lies this sovereignty dispute that is intractable in large part because of these symbolic and identity issues.
I don’t by any means want to diminish to the degree to which this is a dangerous dispute, and it’s one that certainly you can imagine either side—all three parties—doing things for largely symbolic or domestic political reasons that intensify the prospects for conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
WEISS: So following the 20th party Congress, which gave Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term, we’ve seen signs of recalibration in Beijing’s diplomatic posture, one that’s much more interested in stability and improving previously strained relations. So given those dynamics and the strategic logic you’ve laid out, do you see any signs that Beijing is interested in lowering the temperature across the Taiwan Strait?
KASTNER: It’s hard for me to say. My sense is that Beijing does not want near-term conflict in the Taiwan Strait. I don’t have any inside information about this, but just reading the situation in China right now, I think that I that the Chinese government is dealing with a lot of pretty significant challenges, especially with the ending of zero covid and some of the economic challenges that China is facing right now. I don’t think that there’s a desire to see this issue further aggravating or adding to the range of challenges that that the CCP leadership is dealing with right now.
So, yeah, I think there there’s a desire to see some stabilization of the U.S.-China relationship. And it would be desirable, I think, from Beijing’s perspective, to see some lowering of the temperature relating to Taiwan.
WEISS: So maybe before we wrap up, I could just ask you quickly then, if you agree that a conflict in the Taiwan Strait is not inevitable, what are some specific policy recommendations that could help avoid avert a tragedy?
KASTNER: Looking at it from a U.S. perspective, I think that it’s a balancing act—even you’ve written about this in some of your writing as well, Jessica—there’s a need to balance deterrence with reassurance. And in this case, on the one hand, I think it continues to be important for the United States to have a robust presence in the region so that any effort to resolve the Taiwan issue using military force by the PRC as a way of accomplishing the goal of unification is something that’s seen as being a very, very risky proposition from Beijing’s standpoint, something that would be both very costly but also have significant probability of failure. So deterrence is really important, and that that means not only robust U.S. presence in the region, but it also means reaching out to and strengthening regional alliances and encouraging Taiwan to invest robustly in its own defense capabilities.
But the flipside of this is that I think Washington wants a world where China also has some stake in a peaceful status quo. And I think you don’t want that a world where leaders in Beijing believe that the status quo is so intolerable that there’s really not that much to lose from pursuing conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
I do think it’s important, and even though it’s been challenging with Xi Jinping’s China, given some of China’s own foreign policies in recent years, I think it’s important for the United States to seek cooperation where it’s possible in the U.S.-China relationship and to resist some of these calls for more serious confrontation in the U.S.-China relationship, such as more widespread, scorched-earth decoupling of the two economies and so forth, because I think that ultimately would mean that Beijing has less to lose from a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
So I think it’s a two-sided coin where deterrence needs to be paired with reassurances, but also efforts to make sure that that Beijing’s getting something from a peaceful status quo.
WEISS: Well, Margot, I don’t know about you, but I benefited so much from this conversation. Thank you, Scott, for writing this book, for sharing your wisdom with the world, and for tackling such a thorny but important issue.
KASTNER: Great. Thank you, Jessica. I enjoyed the conversation.
LANDMAN: Thanks so much to both of you. I don’t know whether to be optimistic, pessimistic, pessimistically optimistic, optimistically pessimistic. Definitely a challenging situation. We really appreciate your sharing your thoughts and insights with us today. I’d also like to thank the NCUSCR staff members behind the scenes who’ve made today’s interview possible. We hope that those who have tuned in found the interview interesting and informative and that you will join us for future National Committee programming. Thanks again and goodbye.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.