Is the Taiwan Strait Still a Flash Point? Rethinking the Prospects for Armed Conflict between China and Taiwan - CWP Alumni Scott Kastner

Monday, Apr 17, 2017
by dsuchens

Scott L. Kastner is Associate Professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Abstract: After decades of tension, relations between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan have improved dramatically in recent years. How durable is this détente? To what degree is armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait a continued possibility? Answering these questions requires grappling with the impact of several different trends in cross–Taiwan Strait relations, including a rapidly shifting balance of military power, deepening China-Taiwan economic integration, and changing Taiwanese views on sovereignty and identity issues. Taken together, these trends help to stabilize the cross-strait relationship. Nevertheless, this relationship has not been fundamentally transformed, and future trends could evolve in a way that again increases the danger of military conflict. In particular, a changing balance of military power in the Taiwan Strait has the potential to be highly destabilizing if it overtakes other trends such as economic integration.


Before 2008, the Taiwan Strait was widely viewed as a dangerous flash point for conflict. The issue of Taiwan's sovereign status was a persistent source of tensions in U.S.-China relations, leading one of the most prominent U.S. experts on Asia to refer to Taiwan as “the only issue in the world today that could realistically lead to war between two major powers.”1 Since 2008, however, relations between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and Taiwan have improved dramatically. Officials from the two sides have engaged in frequent dialogues, resulting in numerous cooperative agreements (including, most notably, the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement). Given this unprecedented period of détente, does it still make sense to view the Taiwan Strait as a flash point for conflict? To what degree is a China-Taiwan military conflict a continued possibility? Are the risks of armed conflict likely to increase or decrease in the years ahead? What are the implications for U.S. policy in the region?

Analysts differ on the degree to which the Taiwan Strait remains at risk of armed conflict. Some scholars point to factors such as deepening cross-strait economic exchange, frequent high-level contacts, greater institutionalization of the cross-strait relationship, and pragmatism in both Beijing and Taipei as reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for continued stability in the Taiwan Strait.2 Other analysts, however, are less sanguine about the future of China-Taiwan relations. Those who are more pessimistic about the relationship tend to highlight trends such as the PRC's rapidly growing military capabilities (which increasingly call into question Taiwan's capacity for self-defense), social and political trends in Taiwan that suggest little appetite for further cross-strait economic liberalization or political integration, and the continued presence of a fundamental underlying sovereignty dispute dividing Beijing and Taipei.3 Part of the reason for these disagreements is that the cross-strait relationship is characterized by complex, and at times competing, trends. Economic integration and increased institutionalization across the Taiwan Strait should contribute to stability. In some ways, public opinion in Taiwan seems to push toward stability (most Taiwanese, for example, are relatively pragmatic on sovereignty issues and oppose formal independence if it were to trigger conflict with China). In other ways, however, public opinion in Taiwan highlights the continued intractability of the underlying dispute (support on the island for unification continues to drop even as the PRC continues to view unification as an important national goal). Growing PRC military power increases the feasibility of Chinese coercion against Taiwan, but it could also make Chinese leaders more confident about long-term trends and less inclined to act rashly. What is needed, in short, is systematic analysis that considers how these different trends fit together in shaping the prospects for conflict and peace in the Taiwan Strait.

I aim to provide this type of analysis. To do so, I first consider three plausible conflict scenarios that frequently worried analysts of cross-strait relations in the turbulent years prior to 2008. I then consider how fundamental trends in cross-strait relations, such as rapidly growing Chinese military power and deepening cross-strait economic exchange, are affecting the likelihood that any of these scenarios will emerge as future concerns. To preview, my analysis suggests that these trends are, on balance, stabilizing. Although the relationship will continue to be characterized by periodic tensions, the risk of armed conflict has been declining and is likely to continue to decline in the years ahead. At the same time, however, the cross-strait relationship has not been fundamentally transformed. Military conflict remains a real possibility, and I emphasize in particular that a rapidly shifting balance of military power has the potential to be highly destabilizing if it comes to dominate the effects of other trends such as economic integration. I conclude the article with policy implications for the United States.

Cited by

2017. Bibliography. Contested Memories in Chinese and Japanese Foreign Policy259-280.

International Security

Winter 2015/16, Vol. 40, No. 3, Pages: 54-92

Posted Online February 10, 2016.


© 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.