Artwork for podcast Trending Globally: Politics and Policy
How Taiwan became “the most dangerous flashpoint in the world”
10th May 2023 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
00:00:00 00:29:46

Share Episode


This Spring, visiting professor at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs’ China Initiative Lyle Goldstein made his first trip to China in five years. He met with military strategists, government officials and scholars to try to better understand China-Russia relations in the wake of the war in Ukraine. 

He left more concerned about another part of the world just 100 miles off the coast of China—Taiwan. 

As he described the current tension between China, Taiwan, and the U.S. to Dan Richards on this episode of Trending Globally, “This case, in my view, is extremely dangerous. I would argue that [it’s] the most dangerous flashpoint in the world, by a good margin.”

On this episode – our third in our “Escalation” series – you’ll hear from Goldstein about why Taiwan has become a global flashpoint. It’s not the first time a potential crisis in Taiwan has caused alarm, but as he explains, this time is different – it’s much more dangerous. 

Listen to the other two episodes on our “Escalation” series here and here.

Learn more about Watson’s China Initiative 

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts 


DAN RICHARDS: This past spring, Lyle Goldstein did something he hasn't done in a long time, well, a long time for him. He made a trip to China.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Now it's my first time to Asia in five years.

DAN RICHARDS: Lyle is a visiting professor of international and public affairs at the Watson Institute's China Initiative. He's an expert on both China and Russia. And the reason for this trip was to learn more about the state of China-Russia relations right now and how the war in Ukraine has affected these relations.

And even before Lyle gets to China, he starts to notice compared to his last trip to the country--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: A lot of things feel strange and different.


DAN RICHARDS: Even the flight was a reminder to Lyle that we're in a very different world than we were five years ago.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Flights used to fly directly into China. They would fly over Russia actually and right over the North Pole.

DAN RICHARDS: Most commercial flights have been banned from Russia's airspace since the war in Ukraine began.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Now you see most of the flights are flying through Japan or Korea and flying considerably longer and farther to the south. So I mean, that to me is a sign of the new world we're in.

DAN RICHARDS: A new world which also has echoes of the past.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Flying Korean Air, I couldn't help but remember that terrible tragedy where a South Korean airliner was shot down by the Soviets in-- I believe it was Nineteen Eighty-Seven with huge loss of life and really fomented all kinds of tensions. But flying right over that area made me think about the tragedy of Cold War and how that seems to be spreading once again.

DAN RICHARDS: But according to Lyle, unlike during the Cold War, the biggest threat to our planet today isn't to be found somewhere between the United States and Russia. The real danger lay in a different relationship. His cabdriver once he landed in China seemed to agree.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Coming into Shanghai, getting in the cab, the first question out of the cabdrivers mouth after he asks where I'm from, he says, so is there going to be a war between our two countries?


DAN RICHARDS: And while neither Lyle nor anybody else can answer that questions, he does feel confident that he knows where it would start if it were to happen, an island roughly the size of Maryland about 100 miles up the coast of mainland China.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: The most dangerous flashpoint in the world by a good margin.

DAN RICHARDS: On this episode, the third in our Escalation miniseries from Trending Globally, why a military conflict between the US and China over Taiwan is closer than it has ever been, why it's such a terrifying prospect, and what might be done to avoid it.


As Lyle put it--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: US-China conflict over Taiwan did not seem probable 10 years ago.

DAN RICHARDS: So before we look at what's changed in the last 10 years or so and why the danger of this crisis is so great right now, let's take a quick refresher on how this island became such a fraught territory in the first place. You could fill libraries on the subject, but we'll keep it brief. Let's start back in Nineteen Forty-Nine.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: The People's Republic came into existence in Nineteen Forty-Nine. It was at the end of the Chinese Civil War.

DAN RICHARDS: The communist regime known as the People's Republic of China, or the PRC, won that civil war and came to rule the country. The United States, however, had supported the other side in that war, the previous ruling government of the country known as the Republic of China.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: The civil war was resolved by the regime that the US had supported for decades and had a lot of close ties with fleeing to Taiwan.

DAN RICHARDS: The communist PRC has ever since then claimed that Taiwan is a territory of their country. A significant part of Taiwan's population, though, sees it differently, not just that they are independent from the PRC, but that they are in fact the true Chinese government. Now, in the nineteen-seventies, there were a series of breakthroughs in this fraught triangle between the PRC, Taiwan, and the United States.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: When President Nixon arrived in China after a period of war and extreme tension and resolve many issues-- that was back in Nineteen Seventy-Two-- almost all of the negotiations in that sensitive period from roughly Nineteen Seventy-One all the way through Nineteen Seventy-Nine, almost all those very delicate negotiations revolved around Taiwan status.

DAN RICHARDS: In the process, China made a few things crystal clear that it would require from other countries as it relates to Taiwan.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: One aspect of China's red line is any stationing of foreign troops in Taiwan is a violation of Chinese sovereignty. That's how they put it. Other aspects of this would be if Taiwan were to declare independence formally.

DAN RICHARDS: And outside of these red lines, the political and legal murkiness around Taiwan has persisted to this day. The United States, along with most other countries in the world, doesn't officially recognize Taiwan as a country. Doing so would ruin any country's relationship with the PRC. That said, the US and many other countries do have close economic and informal political ties with Taiwan. As Lyle puts it--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: In effect, the United States has been caught up in the Chinese Civil War. You could argue that really persists to this very day.

DAN RICHARDS: And with some regularity, every once in a while, the murkiness around Taiwan status and the tension behind it bubbles to the surface.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: There have been now many Taiwan crises going back to Nineteen Fifty-Four, Nineteen Fifty-Eight, Nineteen Ninty-Six. These are all instances in which the US and China very well could have come to blows over Taiwan.

DAN RICHARDS: This past year, tensions around Taiwan flared up again. But this time, according to Lyle, is different from all the others.

This is where we get into the bigger picture because there are a number of overlapping events and trends that have made this current moment feel so dangerous to observers like Lyle. The first thing, starting, oh, six years ago or so, you might have noticed that a lot of rhetoric coming from the US towards China got a little more antagonistic.

DONALD TRUMP: I'm going to instruct my treasury secretary to label China a currency manipulator. We can't continue to allow China to [MUTED] our country. And that's what they're doing. We built the greatest economy in the history of the world. We were forced to close it because of the China plague that came in. And I've been as nice as I can as long as I can. But we got to get some balance.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: The precipitous downturn in US-China relations, I would say-- I would date that really to the Trump administration.

DAN RICHARDS: And thus far, his successor, President Biden, hasn't made repairing these relations much of a priority. So that started China and the US down a slightly rocky road compared to where they had been in the years prior. And then in Twenty Nineteen, something happened that shook the relative stability that had existed between China and Taiwan.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: One more piece here that I think is worth understanding in the Taiwan context is the shadow of the Hong Kong crisis.

DAN RICHARDS: In Twenty Nineteen and Twenty Twenty, residents in Hong Kong started to protest Mainland China's efforts to change extradition laws between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Protesters saw it as an overreach of China's authority on the Island.

The PRC put down the protests at times violently. And according to Lyle, this marked a change in how China viewed their relationship to Hong Kong, which then had implications for Taiwan. And that's because for decades, China had used a similar template for both islands in relation to the PRC government.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Formally, China's policy had been this-- what we say in Chinese [NON-ENGLISH], one country, two systems. And that was the formula that Deng Xiaoping had come up with to resolve all of these problems.

DAN RICHARDS: All of these problems being different territories.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Different territories, right, which China wanted back. And these involved not just Taiwan and Hong Kong but interestingly also Macau. That formula was to allow a good measure of autonomy but still under the larger tent of China.

DAN RICHARDS: But after the crisis in Hong Kong--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: The sense was in Beijing that this formula, which they hoped, I think, would work would allow peaceful unification has in their view fallen apart completely. And that would leave much more forceful options for them.

DAN RICHARDS: And in Taiwan--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Tensions built up considerably after that. People on the island changed their calculations in many ways. They became much more frightened of Chinese power. And I think that caused them to take some more radical steps away from the Mainland's embrace, let's say.

DAN RICHARDS: Steps which China was loathe to accept, which then brings us to a third factor that brought us to this current moment of crisis, one that has gone on sort of in the background of all of this that's been occurring over the course of decades.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Everybody knows China is rising, has risen . It's a much stronger country. When the US and China faced off over Taiwan in the nineteen-fifties, Chinese power could not compare, not even close. Even that was true, I think, in the '70s and even really in the '90s. Well, things have really changed in the last couple of decades.

DAN RICHARDS: According to Lyle, it might not be so much that China's views towards Taiwan have changed recently as has China's sense that they now have the ability to act on those views.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: As I observe Chinese pressure on Taiwan, it's been pretty consistent. And over the years, it would maybe be ratcheted up, maybe pulled back occasionally. But with China's increasing power, we've seen more exertions, more exercises, more constant presence of Chinese military aircraft in the aerial zones around the island. And that's the major change.

DAN RICHARDS: Whether China's feelings have changed or just their ability to express them, this escalation has made lots of experts like Lyle very concerned.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: And the rhetoric, I would say because I monitor this very closely in Chinese sources, but you have this, I would say, steadily increasing really since Twenty Sixteen. And reaching some pretty vitriolic levels, I would say, I think most Americans are probably quite unaware of this because it doesn't enter into the Western media. But if you follow Chinese media as I do, it really is extremely disturbing.

DAN RICHARDS: But what really brought the China and Taiwan tension to the front of many American minds was something else that occurred thousands of miles away.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: The Ukraine crisis.

DAN RICHARDS: The war in Ukraine reminded the world that countries we think we understand can still transgress in surprising ways. Many people started to wonder if Taiwan would be. Quote, "the next Ukraine." But the war in Ukraine has done more than just suggest some parallels. It has literally drawn China and Russia closer together.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: China has certainly thrown Russia an economic lifeline and tried to make sure that the Russian economy is relatively intact, which it does seem to be.

DAN RICHARDS: And farther from the West--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Xi Jinping generally is much more favorable toward Russia. Here I would point out that for over a decade, the top military cadres in China have been training in Russian military academies. So I mean, I think they imbibe a lot of Russian culture and Russian strategic thinking.

DAN RICHARDS: For many in China, all of this combined--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Creates substantial sympathy for Russia's plight. They feel like Russia is unrelenting Western pressure. And from their point of view, China is under similar pressure.

DAN RICHARDS: Ukraine, Russia, China, Taiwan, these four places symbolically and materially have become more linked.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: There's one Chinese strategist who put it to me in Beijing a few weeks ago. He said, if Russia were to collapse or to be defeated, all that pressure would be transferred to China. And then the pressure against China would be that much worse. So the strategist made the case that it's not so much that China needs Russia to win, it's that China needs Russia not to lose.

DAN RICHARDS: To be fair, Lyle also saw on his trip that just like in the United States, there isn't one monolithic view of the war in Ukraine.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: You have hawks in Beijing. And you have doves. The doves, they are very important people in China. I should emphasize that. They're well read. They travel in the West. They often have Western friends. We can summarize their perspective by saying that China should steer clear of Russia, should disassociate to the extent that it's possible, and should really focus on its links with the West and repairing them after the pandemic and other tensions over Hong Kong and so forth. So that's one perspective.

DAN RICHARDS: Unfortunately for those doves--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: The alternative perspective, I think, we could say still has the upper hand.

DAN RICHARDS: China's economic and military growth, America's distancing from China, the crisis in Hong Kong, the war in Ukraine, it's taken countless things to bring us to this moment. But the end result is this. Over the last decade--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I guess you could say the calculations have changed in Beijing, in Taipei, and in Washington.

DAN RICHARDS: Lyle saw signs of these changes in countless meetings and conversations while he was in China.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: The atmosphere in US-China relations and in particular the Taiwan issue cast, let's say, a dark cloud over the trip in the sense that I was-- on almost every occasion, I was getting all kinds of warnings. And people looked truly distraught and worried about the future course of US-China relations. I had one very prominent strategist in Shanghai tell me that-- I asked him why China is building up its nuclear forces so rapidly. He said because China is preparing for the worst case.

DAN RICHARDS: And by worst case--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I feel somewhat compelled to spell that out for people. Even a conventional military conflict between the US and China would involve I think probably tens of thousands of American casualties, perhaps more, something like what we suffered over a decade in Vietnam. But it could be significantly worse.

There seems to be a broad acceptance, both among American and Chinese strategists, that not only is it somewhat likely that there will be some kind of military conflict and that conflict could quite plausibly involve the use of nuclear weapons.

Then we are talking about hundreds of thousands of dead, maybe even millions. People are actively discussing this. But let's face it. Nobody knows. And that could get out of hand. And we're talking about a war between two nuclear armed superpowers. And that has never occurred before. That could be literally the end of the planet.

DAN RICHARDS: And unfortunately, the news somehow gets worse. That's because these threats, Lyle doesn't think they're 10, 20, 30 years away. They could just as easily materialize very soon.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Almost anything could start this. And you have to realize now that there are dozens of interactions every week here between both Taiwan and Chinese military aircraft, let's say, ships at sea, but also US and Chinese. So these is going on in areas proximate to Taiwan. By the way, not just in Taiwan but also in the South China Sea and in the Yellow Sea area.

So I mean, if you iterate these interactions over and over, you probably get some kind of accident. And of course, we've had this already. But that posits a kind of accidental war or war by misperception or something like that. But that's not necessarily how this would go down.

It's quite clear to me there is a possibility-- I don't think it's a high possibility, but I think it's there, that China would convince itself that it seeks reunification. I mean, we know that there's absolutely no ambiguity there but that it would move forcefully in the near term.

DAN RICHARDS: How near? Well, no one knows. But there are worrying signs coming across Lyle's desk every day.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Minutes ago, just before this interview, I was just looking at a Chinese article that was very disturbing because the article said this. It said, "China has seen that the United States has sent massive amounts of weaponry to Ukraine." It knows that it has plans in place. In fact, the orders are set to send similar vast quantities of armament to Taiwan. But here's the catch.

This article in Chinese identifies very clearly that these shipments are massively delayed. So does that mean that there is a window here of maybe two or three or five years where some of this very advanced weaponry is on order but has not yet arrived. And therefore, China decides to move up its timeline and to attack tomorrow. And to my estimate, the Chinese military is more or less ready for that should it get the order.


DAN RICHARDS: Whether this month or later this decade--

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I don't believe there's some sort of date that has been set. That's not my sense, although it is conceivable. But Xi Jinping has made it clear that this is a problem for China that he does not want to pass down through the generations, implying that he wants this resolved. We had better take his words seriously.

DAN RICHARDS: Lyle fears that instead of de-escalating this tension. The US might be accelerating it.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: And as we've understood from various journalistic reports, there are US troops now in Taiwan. Now they may number in the dozens. They may number in the hundreds according to the last report. So if one takes a legal interpretation of the Chinese words, then you could say that the red line has been crossed.

I hope that's not the case. I fear that it might be the case that probably has triggered a set of countermoves on China's part. Whether it means that we're already spooling up for war, I couldn't say. There are signs of that.

DAN RICHARDS: It's easy in these conversations to Zoom out to the global implications of everything and the grand strategy of it all. And that sort of stuff does, of course, matter. But Lyle also wants people not to forget that there is a real place with real people at the center of this crisis. And it's there, Lyle thinks, that we might start to find some clues for a different direction this all could take. On his way home from China this spring, Lyle made a stop in Taiwan.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Visiting Taiwan, I had some the Island definitely gave me some deep impressions. I mean, first of all, the beauty, as I'd been told, is truly astounding. One other impression I took from it was in Taipei, there's a very famous museum called the National Palace Museum. And it has a stunning collection of Chinese antiquities.

I think they have tens of thousands of these extraordinary pieces. To me, at that moment, one truly understands how all-encompassing Chinese civilization is and how many in Taiwan take great pride in that. That's the whole point of that museum. It's not really about Taiwan culture at all. It's about Chinese civilization and all its achievements.

So I mean, to me, I think it would be useful for my fellow Americans to visit that museum and take in the sense that the island does have clear affinities. There may be a more on the soft culture side. But this may encourage creative thinking in how Taiwan and China can-- as it were functioned together, maybe that's more in the cultural linguistic areas, but that they can have very close ties that can persist whatever arrangement they come to to govern themselves in their relationship.

DAN RICHARDS: Lyle thinks we can also find clues for how to de-escalate this tension in another place, Ukraine, specifically the lessons that the US has learned from the war there.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I think skillful diplomacy could have avoided the war in Ukraine. I know that's a very controversial point. But I think the war could have been avoided. And I think the war with China over Taiwan can also be avoided.

How? Well, one of the things I think that we can learn from what happened in European security is that we allowed a situation to escalate and escalate over time. And it became a situation where there was NATO on one side and Russia on the other and began to regard one another as grave threats, as an enemy.

And the problem at the root of it is a security architecture for Europe that had Russia on the outside that was designed to isolate and contain Russia. And to me, that was a setup for war at the most fundamental level. The same thing is going on in the Asia-Pacific.

And I think if we continue in this course, we will arrive at the same result. And the consequences could be much, much worse actually. So we need to have a different security architecture for the Asia-Pacific. And that security architecture should be inclusive of China. It should not create a kind of Asian, NATO when we have to engage with China.

And we have to encourage engagement within the system that is between the key players. We should want Japan and China to reconcile. We should want good relations between Philippines and China or Australia and China. From what I see in American diplomacy, it's inclined toward the opposite, meaning every kind of bit of bitterness in these relationships redounds to the US benefit.

We get better basing. We get more access, whether it's in Tokyo or in Manila or Canberra. We're trying constantly to fold the Indians into our anti-Chinese alliance structure. This is a mistake. I think we need to take a different tack, pursue engagement, try to be inclusive, and use clever diplomacy here. And force should be the last resort.

DAN RICHARDS: Why do you think that view that you just explained, why do you think that that isn't the dominant view among policymakers and strategists regarding all this? Like given the incredible risks involved of an escalation with China, why are there still being steps taken that seem to escalate it further?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I can't quite explain why this has come about. But a number of us in the field have recognized that back in the Cold War, people glimpsed the possibility of the apocalypse in Nineteen Sixty-Two. And we got a very powerful and very scary perspective on that. And we were all too close.

And as we know now, we were much closer even than people thought we were. And that seems to have had a huge impact on a generation of American decision makers even within military circles. And that caution lasted, I think, for a period of decades. But as I've observed with some colleagues, we just don't see that caution anymore.

It seems to have dissipated almost entirely. And we see a lot of reckless behavior on all sides. That is one reason I'm so disturbed about the evolution, the current trajectory of this crisis is a casual dismissing of the risks, which, as you pointed out, are almost unfathomable. But we still have to talk through them and take appropriate measures. I mean, we only have one world, to put it very bluntly.

DAN RICHARDS: What did you tell that cab driver back when he asked if these two countries were going to go to war?

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: I told him that the American people want peace and that it's a delicate situation. And I and others are working hard to prevent that. And I think that hopefully it will not happen.

DAN RICHARDS: As Lyle sees it, the threats are very, very real. But they are not a foregone conclusion.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: We need to maintain a military deterrence in the sense that we should maintain strong armed forces. I worked for the Navy for 20 years, so I am on board with that. I've seen the details of that. I've made recommendations to ensure that we maintain a strong navy and so forth.

But we need to balance that with very thoughtful diplomacy and cautious diplomacy, which seeks for compromise. And there are compromises to be had. People often forget that, like I said, a decade ago, Taiwan's relations with the Mainland were in a very positive place. People forget that. We can get back to that. We just have to be thoughtful about it.

DAN RICHARDS: Lyle Goldstein, thank you so much for coming on at Trending Globally.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Thanks for having me, Dan. My pleasure.


DAN RICHARDS: This episode of Trending Globally was produced by me, Dan Richards. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield, additional music by the Blue Dot Sessions. If you like the show, leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. It really helps others find us. And even better, tell a friend about us.

If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for guests or episodes, send us an email at That's all one word, We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.





More from YouTube