Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 15 October 2020


What the Korean War can teach us about Taiwan

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke
Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

Beijing has been making a show of hostility toward Taiwan. Last week China released footage of “real combat” it conducted last month in Taiwanese airspace. A Chinese invasion would present the greatest threat to global peace in a generation. The U.S. would confront an agonizing dilemma: risk an armed clash between two nuclear superpowers or abandon a free people to communist tyranny. But there’s an alternative—deter the threat by committing to oppose it, by force if necessary.

Deterrence rests on a paradox: The best way to prevent war is to threaten war. The history of the 20th century illustrates what successful deterrence can accomplish. Deterrence enabled West Berlin to survive as a free city despite a political status even more ambiguous than Taiwan’s and a truly indefensible military position. Cold War history also illustrates a corollary: A failure of resolve can invite catastrophe. The Korean War was preventable if the U.S. had made clear beforehand that it would forcefully oppose North Korean aggression.

Soviet documents released in 1995 reveal that North Korea’s first dictator, Kim Il-Sung, visited Stalin in March 1949 and proposed invading South Korea. Stalin, concerned that American troops “will interfere in case of hostilities,” rejected the idea.

  • Sebastian Smith

But by 1950, U.S. combat forces had left Korea based on the stated belief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that “Korea is of little strategic value” and a commitment to use military force in Korea would be “ill-advised and impracticable.” Gen. Douglas MacArthur endorsed that view publicly in a March 1949 interview, as did Secretary of State Dean Acheson in a January 1950 speech.

But Moscow’s thinking changed after China fell to the Communist Party in October 1949. According to the documents, that demonstrated to the Soviets the “weakness of Asian reactionaries” and their American “mentors,” who “left China” without daring “to challenge the new Chinese authorities.”

Stalin invited Kim back to Moscow to discuss a possible invasion. A summary of those discussions—which historian Kathryn Weathersby calls “the clearest expression that we have about Stalin’s reasoning” on the invasion—shows that even after America’s withdrawal, his primary concern remained that an attack might prompt a U.S. intervention and drag the Soviets into a direct conflict. Since “the U.S.S.R. was not ready to get involved in Korean affairs directly, especially if the Americans did venture to send troops to Korea,” the documents said, Stalin required Kim to get Mao’s approval.

With the additional reassurance from Soviet intelligence that the “prevailing mood” in the U.S. was “not to interfere,” Stalin unleashed Kim Il-Sung on South Korea and started a horrible war.

North Korean leader Kim Il Sung making a radio broadcast in 1950.
North Korean leader Kim Il Sung making a radio broadcast in 1950.

Stalin’s spies weren’t wrong in their assessment of the American “mood.” Before the invasion, U.S. political and military leaders didn’t want to defend South Korea and considered an invasion unlikely. But a surprise attack by seven well-equipped North Korean divisions advancing rapidly down the peninsula changed both the strategic and political calculus.

Since 1979, when the U.S. normalized relations with Beijing and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington’s relations with Taipei have been based on ambiguity. Yet an unambiguous deterrence commitment would be fully consistent with the longstanding U.S. position that differences between Taiwan and the mainland need to be resolved peacefully, without the use or threat of force and with no unilateral declaration of Taiwanese independence. Painful though it may be for the Taiwanese to live with their ambiguous international status, preserving peace in the Taiwan Strait and freedom for the Taiwanese people is much more important.

“Peaceful resolution” seems like a remote prospect today, but the world—and the Chinese people—should be reminded that it is Xi Jinping who has made it more remote by eviscerating the concept of “one country, two systems,” which Deng Xiaoping originally intended for Taiwan as well as Hong Kong.

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The Taiwan Relations Act provides that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” will be considered a threat of “grave concern to the United States.” To make that part of the law meaningful, the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries need to coordinate planning so that an attack wouldn’t overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses before help can arrive. It will also require what has been called “thinking more creatively” about nonnuclear options that might cause Mr. Xi to recalculate the costs of an attack.

Soldiers wearing face masks amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic listen to an address by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan.
Soldiers wearing face masks amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic listen to an address by Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen during her visit to a military base in Tainan, southern Taiwan.

Unfortunately, economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure are unlikely to be sufficient to force such a recalculation, given how little impact such measures have had in Xinjiang or Hong Kong. The world should do more to compel Mr. Xi to honor China’s promise of autonomy for Hong Kong. But if the U.S. stands aside and allows Taiwan’s autonomy to be crushed by force, it would shake the foundation of security and stability in East Asia.

We can’t know how Mr. Xi would react to a credible red line (or to the failure to draw one). Historical analogies are always imprecise; the Korean scenario was complex, and Taiwan’s situation differs from both Korea and Berlin. And there’s no denying that such an approach entails significant risks. But continued ambiguity in the face of Mr. Xi’s escalating rhetoric and provocative movements by his armed forces in the Taiwan Strait presents the greater risk of a confrontation as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis. That leaves us with the credible threat of military force as the best hope of avoiding war.

Mr Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific (1982-86), U.S. ambassador to Indonesia (1986-89) and deputy defense secretary (2001-05).

The Wall Street Journal

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