Korean Nuclear Crisis vs Taiwan Missile Crisis: the greater threat to East Asian security?

North Korea’s decision to restart its Yongbyon nuclear reactor is the latest development in a seemingly escalating crisis in Northeast Asia which has led to grave words of warning from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Mr Ban has tried to avoid direct interference in the North Korean nuclear crisis, given that his South Korean nationality would likely lead to calls of impartiality from the North and its allies. Therefore, for Mr Ban to speak out is testament to the growing concern felt by the international community regarding events on the Korean Peninsula.

Similar concerns were felt during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-6, also known as the Taiwan Missile Crisis.

After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overthrew the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Chiang’s Nationalists fled to the island of Taiwan where they re-established their government. The CCP has viewed Taiwan as a renegade Chinese province ever since, despite the island’s separate development and well-entrenched democratic political system. After normalising relations with China in 1972, the Americans had implicitly accepted the CCP as the rightful representatives of China, not the Kuomintang of Taiwan.

Nevertheless, the American government of Bill Clinton infuriated the Chinese by accepting a visit from Taiwan’s head of state, Lee Teng-hui, in 1995. Allowing the visit of Lee, an outspoken leader who called for greater moves towards outright independence, was adjudged by the CCP as an American statement of support for an independent, democratic Taiwan.

Lee Teng-Hui's visit to Cornell University in 1995 severely strained Sino-American relations
Lee Teng-Hui’s visit to Cornell University in 1995 severely strained Sino-American relations

The Chinese responded by conducting a series of missile tests and live firing exercises in the Taiwan Strait, less than a hundred miles from the Taiwanese mainland. Not only was this a signal that China would resist any efforts by a Taiwanese leader to break the “one-China policy” the CCP holds so dear, but it was an attempt to call America’s bluff. The latter failed and in the Spring of 1996, Bill Clinton authorised the sending of two US Carrier Groups to international waters off Taiwan.

The deployment of the USS Nimitz during the Taiwan Strait Crisis was a clear warning against Chinese aggression
The deployment of the USS Nimitz during the Taiwan Strait Crisis was a clear warning against Chinese aggression

America had shown itself willing to counter any potential Chinese aggression, although the Clinton administration refrained from throwing its full support behind an independent Taiwan. Whilst Chinese military capabilities were far inferior in 1996 than they are today, there was nonetheless global concern that a Sino-American war might erupt, dragging in to any conflict the other states of East Asia.

North Korea’s current belligerence is concerning but the fact that the country’s aggressive rhetoric regarding nuclearisation is not linked to any specific policy makes it little more than scaremongering. Possibly an attempt by Kim Jong-un to prove himself as a strong military leader, possibly part of an internal power struggle within the upper echelons of the People’s Army, possibly an attempt by the North Koreans to draw significant aid concessions in return for de-nuclearisation, the current bluster is unlikely to lead to war. Only a gross miscalculation by one of North Korea’s enemies or a sudden collapse of the Kim dynasty could force this eventuality. Quite simply, for North Korea to engage in a “first strike” scenario (which it may not even be capable of) would be tantamount to state suicide. Realistically, Kim and his generals will know this and are likely to avoid all-out-war at any cost.

American military drills off the Korean Peninsula are helping prompt North Korea rhetoric
American military drills off the Korean Peninsula are helping prompt North Korea rhetoric

The Taiwan Strait Crisis was slightly different. China has been consistent in pursuing the “one-China policy” which determines Taiwan as part of the mainland. This will not change and had Lee Teng-hui not calmed his own rhetoric regarding Taiwanese independence – largely forced upon him by US influence and a dramatic fall in Taiwanese stocks – it is conceivable that China would have conducted military strikes against Taiwan. This in turn could have prompted a response by a resolute US and such a scenario could be repeated in the future.

The US retains strong arms ties with Taiwan as a means to hedge against the rising military might of China in the region. The current Taiwanese administration of Ma Ying-jeou is pro-Chinese and will not upset Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland. Should a future administration adopt Lee’s pro-independence stance, however, or nationalist elements within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) agitate for a takeover of Taiwan, the potential for a Chinese attack on the island is not inconceivable. The subsequent possibility of a Sino-American war, either fought directly or through opposing allies, would therefore greatly increase.

With the Chinese always able to act as a final check on North Korean aggression, and the North’s leaders not stupid enough to risk the destruction of their own country, the potential for the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula to escalate into conflict is low. It is the potential consequences of increasing Chinese confidence and aggression, coupled with American desire for regional superiority, that offer a greater long-term security threat for the East Asian region.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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