Kissinger’s meetings with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, were perhaps the most momentous of his career. As a fox, the U.S. national security adviser had multiple objectives. The principal goal was to secure a public Chinese invitation for his boss, Nixon, to visit Beijing the following year.
But Kissinger was also seeking Chinese help in getting America out of Vietnam, as well as hoping to exploit the Sino-Soviet split in a way that would put pressure on the Soviet Union, America’s principal Cold War adversary, to slow down the nuclear arms race. In his opening remarks, Kissinger listed no fewer than six issues for discussion, including the raging conflict in South Asia that would culminate in the independence of Bangladesh.
Zhou’s response was that of a hedgehog. He had just one issue: Taiwan. “If this crucial question is not solved,” he told Kissinger at the outset, “then the whole question [of U.S.-China relations] will be difficult to resolve.”
To an extent that is striking to the modern-day reader of the transcripts of this and the subsequent meetings, Zhou’s principal goal was to persuade Kissinger to agree to “recognize the PRC as the sole legitimate government in China” and “Taiwan Province” as “an inalienable part of Chinese territory which must be restored to the motherland,” from which the U.S. must “withdraw all its armed forces and dismantle all its military installations.” (Since the Communists’ triumph in the Chinese civil war in 1949, the island of Taiwan had been the last outpost of the nationalist Kuomintang. And since the Korean War, the U.S. had defended its autonomy.)
China is deadly serious about taking back control of Taiwan. Perhaps more importantly it is a personal mission for Xi Jinping to achieve that goal because it will cement his name in the annals of China’s history.
I visited Taiwan in 2019. I believe an attempt at reunification is inevitable, so I was interested in seeing first-hand what life is like. What I found surprised me. The degree of complacency was startling. It’s not a topic of conversation most people want to have. Taiwan has survived this long by being unobjectionable and that sentiment runs deep. That appears to now be changing following Hong Kong’s experience with One Country Two Systems.
Taipei is a sleepy city full of industrious people who want nothing more than to get on with their lives. The domestic tech sector and culture of innovation is a marvel and is the true prize for any aggressor. A blitzkrieg type attack would place China at the top of the global semiconductor industry’s pecking order overnight.
Public estimates of 2025 seem naive to me. Why would any country wait to be encircled? If you anticipate it will take three years for your competitor to be ready to deter your advances, it makes sense to present a fait accompli before that date. The reality is we could wake up on any given morning to the headlines that China has successfully invaded.
It’s the largest asymmetric risk for markets in the world today.
Here is a section from a recent report by Kevin Rudd which may be of interest:
Although both Chinese and American war-gaming exercises suggest that China would prevail in any major conflict in the Taiwan Strait, Beijing remains cautious, seeking to avoid unnecessary political or strategic risk. After all, to fail in such an attempt, or to succeed at great cost, would potentially end Xi’s leadership and undermine the party’s legitimacy. Accordingly, any Chinese military push against Taiwan is more likely to come later in the 2020s, when Beijing thinks the military balance will have shifted even further in its favor—enough to effectively deter the United States and perhaps cause Taiwan to capitulate without a fight.
For now, all three parties—Beijing, Taipei, and Washington—have chosen to remain just within the broad parameters of permissible conduct. And while the DPP administration in Taipei is bold, it is not reckless. Still, in the current political environment, the Trump administration could choose to escalate— by, say, allowing a U.S. naval visit to a Taiwanese port. The incendiary effect of such an action would be politically impossible for the Chinese leadership to ignore. It is conceivable that China could retaliate by starting a “low-intensity” conflict centered on Taiwan’s offshore islands, such as the Dongsha Islands or Taiping Island (both in the South China Sea) or Wuqiu Island (just off the coast of the mainland).Back to top