The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1328es on Asia

September 28, 1999

September 28, 1999 | Executive Summary on Asia

Executive Summary: Tensions Across the Strait: China's Military Options Against Taiwan Short of War

The risk of an accidental or deliberate military clash between China and Taiwan is higher than at any time since March 1996, when China attempted to intimidate Taiwan with ballistic missile tests. This July, tensions escalated after Taiwan's President asserted that China and Taiwan should deal on a "state-to-state" level. China vehemently protested this formulation, interpreting it as a move by Taiwan toward independence.

China recently conducted military exercises in Fujian Province, across the Taiwan Strait. Even more provocatively, China has flown fighter aircraft sorties near the informal "centerline" that divides this waterway. These actions are troubling in light of China's steadfast refusal to rule out the use of force if Taiwan moves toward independence.

Although in the near term an outright invasion appears improbable, China has several other military options. China could conduct more provocative invasion exercises, wage information warfare, harass merchant shipping, test-fire more ballistic missiles near Taiwan, or seize one or more of Taiwan's offshore islands. Even limited aggression could pressure Taiwan politically, rattle its financial markets, risk a wider conflict, and test U.S. resolve to assist Taiwan.

China-Taiwan tensions will likely ebb and flow in the coming months, but there will almost certainly be more Taiwan crises. U.S. policymakers would be wise to consider carefully China's military options against Taiwan well in advance.

To increase the likelihood of a peaceful resolution to the China-Taiwan problem, the United States should unequivocally state its determination to defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese military aggression; maintain a robust military presence in the Pacific; increase surveillance of potentially threatening military activity by China; offer to sell Taiwan more defensive weaponry, including missile defense systems; and exercise its right of free passage by sailing U.S. naval vessels through the Taiwan Strait on a regular basis.

James H. Anderson, Ph.D., is a former Research Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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