May 25, 2023
SEOUL – Henry Kissinger’s warning of a possible US-China military conflict over Taiwan within the next 5 to 10 years is a sobering prediction for the global community, especially South Korea. Due to its geographic and strategic proximity, it could be quickly embroiled in the fighting. There are plenty of reasons to feel anxious, though publicly the situation is only addressed in measured and oblique terms here.
“We are in the classic pre-World War I situation,” says Kissinger, “where neither side has much margin of political concession and in which any disturbance of the equilibrium can lead to catastrophic consequences.” The fate of humanity, he says, depends on whether the US and China can coexist peacefully.
“We live in a world of unprecedented destructiveness,” he warns. “This is not a normal circumstance where progress often occurred in the aftermath of terrible conflict. The rivalry between China and America could be different, because of mutually assured destruction and AI. There are no limitations now. Every adversary is 100 percent vulnerable.”
AI, Kissinger says, will likely supercharge the Sino-US rivalry, leaving both parties less than 10 years to find a way to avoid a showdown.
Kissinger, the mastermind of American realpolitik based on the balance of power, expressed the views during a recent interview with the Economist, where he opined how to prevent the US-China competition from escalating to a third world war. The eight-hour conversation over two days marked his 100th birthday, falling on May 27.
The former US secretary of state and chief architect of detente with the Soviet Union and China in the 1970s also touched on the need for Ukraine to join NATO; Japan’s foreseeable move to become a nuclear power in five years; the prospect of China’s relationship with Russia; America’s domestic polarization; the success of India’s pragmatic foreign policy; and the looming threat from AI.
While recognizing that “both Washington and Beijing are convinced that the other represents a strategic danger,” Kissinger cautions against misinterpreting China’s ambitions. He doubts that China seeks global domination, though they want to be powerful. “They are not heading for world domination in a Hitlerian sense,” he says. Although he believes the two superpowers can coexist peacefully, it is not guaranteed, so the US must be strong militarily.
The urgent test is how the two countries behave over Taiwan, Kissinger says. He recalls how Mao Zedong, on President Richard Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972, talked very explicitly when it came to Taiwan. Mao said, “They are a bunch of counterrevolutionaries. We don’t need them now. We can wait 100 years. Someday we will ask for them. But it’s a long distance away.”
Kissinger believes that, after only 50 of those 100 years, Donald Trump overturned the understanding forged between Nixon and Mao, in his quest to “inflate his tough image by wringing concession out of China over trade.” Masked in liberal rhetoric, the Biden administration is upholding Trump’s policy, Kissinger says. “I think Trump and now Biden have driven over the top.”
There is no doubt that an attack on Taiwan by Chinese forces could wreak massive destruction on the island. It would also pressure other countries to take sides and therefore risk economic and diplomatic retaliation.
The Chinese public would not escape international sanctions either. It is questionable whether there is true widespread support for a Taiwan invasion. Dissension could destabilize China internally, which would have further global repercussions.
Kissinger believes that ruinous conflict can only be prevented through hard-headed diplomacy, ideally fortified by shared values. The way out of the loggerheads, he says, would be to “start by lowering the temperature, and then gradually build confidence and a working relationship.” To that end, the US should be careful as to how it supports Taiwan militarily, to fend off Beijing’s suspicion that it supports Taiwan’s permanent separation, or formal independence, from China.
The potential consequences of an armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait on Korea’s security obviously cry out for attention. Consecutive administrations, however, have considered the issue a a hot potato. An open discussion has tended to be evaded beyond assumptions that the US Forces Korea would likely join the operation, possibly emboldening North Korea to take advantage of the security vacuum and make provocations against South Korea.
The ROK-US Leaders’ Joint Statement of May 2021, by Presidents Moon Jae-in and Joe Biden, officially mentioned the issue for the first time. But it stopped at describing the principles that the two leaders “emphasize the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” and pledge “to maintain peace and stability, lawful unimpeded commerce, and respect for international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea and beyond.”
The issue certainly requires a sincere approach and detailed discussions on a set of plausible scenarios. For example, what would South Korea’s military options be if the US Forces Korea participates in protecting Taiwan or if there is an attack on Camp Humphreys? Located in the seaport city of Pyeongtaek, along the west coast facing China, the installation is the headquarters for the 8th US Army and its most active airfield in the Pacific.
Furthermore, how should the South Korean civilian and military leaders prepare for any Chinese pressure? Traditionally, Chinese generals try to shape the battlefield to their advantage. To that end, China would be expected to slowly try to neutralize Korean and Japanese involvement beforehand so it can concentrate on US and Taiwanese defenders.
The discussions must involve all the vested actors across the ideological spectrum. South Korea will thus have principles and a blueprint for crisis response crafted through informed dialogue and suprapartisan cooperation. The same procedure of consensus building may be applied to an effort to forge a settled principle for dealing with North Korea as well, upending the perennial oscillations between left and right.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. — Ed.