War over Taiwan among five likely conflict scenarios with PLA, US think tank says

  • A bid to forcibly unify Taiwan, or escalations in the South China or East China seas, among scenarios seen as likely to trigger a major war
  • Analyst in Beijing calls reading ‘simplistic’, while fellow observer says report could inspire the building of guard rails to avoid such conflict

Beijing and Washington could go to war over Taiwan, or if four other scenarios in Asia came to pass, a US-based think tank said in a recent report.

Mainland Chinese observers, however, said US ties in their current state hardly heralded imminent conflict, and the two sides were expected to manage potential risks well.

The report by Stacie Pettyjohn, senior fellow and defence programme director at the Washington-based Centre for a New American Security, says other than any attempt to forcibly unify Taiwan or “less risky military approaches to try to compel a union” – escalations in the South China Sea or East China Sea, or a sudden collapse of the North Korean regime could trigger a possible “major war” with the People’s Liberation Army.

But none of the five scenarios to start a war would appeal to Beijing, thereby giving the United States and its allies time to ward off actual conflict, the report asserts.

“China’s theory of victory is that it could gradually subordinate Taiwan through a series of small gains or fait accompli, and that Chinese punishment and intimidation would eventually inflict enough pain and psychological stress that Taiwan would capitulate to Beijing’s rule,” Pettyjohn said in her report published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies in its bimonthly journal Survival, and released online last week.

“None of the wars that China might intentionally start are very attractive from Beijing’s perspective. This provides the United States and its allies with time to strengthen deterrence, thereby reducing the probability of war.”

However, the five scenarios “should concern American defence officials”.

“A challenge is that the United States needs to demonstrate that it has the capability and willingness to stop Chinese aggression without accidentally precipitating a conflict,” the report warns.

This comes as tensions spiked on Tuesday over the latest US arms sales to Taiwan, with Washington approving US$100 million worth of equipment and services for the self-ruled island to “sustain, maintain, and improve” its Patriot missile defence system.

Beijing, which sees Taiwan as breakaway territory to be reunited by force if necessary, hit back angrily – vowing to take countermeasures “to resolutely safeguard our sovereignty and security interests”.

However, despite the five likely scenarios for a major US-China war, the greatest risk in the near term was inadvertent or accidental escalation caused by misperception or miscalculation, according to Pettyjohn’s report.

The US Department of Defence should take steps to mitigate such risks by creating communication mechanisms and establishing norms for military competition with Beijing, she said.

But Liu Weidong, a US affairs analyst at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, disagreed with this “simplistic” view, saying it overestimated the security risks.

A war brought by miscalculation was not likely, Liu said, as both Beijing and Washington were very clear on the factors leading to potential confrontation and thus would be very careful in interpreting each other’s messages.

“If there was to be any military confrontations, I think those would be pertinent to China’s core interests, like territorial issues,” Liu said.

“If an issue relates to a third country, say North Korea, it is very difficult to say whether it’s [within] Beijing’s core interests or not … So I think the scenarios in the report are a bit simplistic,” he said, pointing out that a lot of similar predictions in the past had been proven wrong.

US-China relations have suffered fresh lows in recent years, first over the trade and tech wars, as well as Beijing’s alleged “coercive” ways in the region and its human rights record. However, both sides have taken steps to calm tensions in recent months.

Author: Kristin Huang, SCMP

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