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In the past, a US-Chinese war over Taiwan seemed a real possibility, but no more than that. Today, a growing number of experts believe that a US-China conflict is not only possible, but likely, the Financial Times writes.

"On our current course some kind of military confrontation between the US and China over the coming decade now looks more likely than not," says James Crabtree, Asia director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Senior Western officials are too cautious to say so publicly, but many share Crabtree's pessimism privately. US thinking began to lean this way in 2021, when Admiral Phil Davidson, the retiring US commander in the Indo-Pacific, told Congress that he saw a clear threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the next six years.

The Chinese government's rhetoric is decidedly nationalistic and bellicose. Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the United States, reacted to Nancy Pelosi's controversial visit to Taiwan last week by tweeting a video of the People's Liberation Army during an exercise, with rockets going off, explosions, sirens and soldiers singing. The message was clear and without subtlety.

The fear of impending war has been fueled by changes in China, the United States, and Taiwan itself.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, Beijing's foreign policy has become markedly more aggressive. China has built military bases in the South China Sea, and Chinese troops have killed Indian soldiers in clashes in the Himalayas. China's relentless military build-up means that it now has more warships than America.

Unlike his predecessors, who seemed ready to wait for a possible "reunification" with Taiwan, Xi called the issue a historic mission that "cannot be passed down from generation to generation." Popular expectations were so high that some Chinese nationalists seemed disappointed that the People's Liberation Army did not shoot down Pelosi's plane.

Attitudes in the US have also changed. The one issue on which there seems to be cross-party agreement in Washington is that China is becoming an increasingly dangerous rival that must be confronted. The Trump era tariffs on Chinese goods were supported by the Biden administration. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have expanded their ties to Taiwan.

Biden has stated three times that the United States would fight to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, a departure from the official US policy of "strategic ambiguity." His officials' insistence that their boss misspoke has become less and less convincing each time.

Biden's repeated suggestion that the U.S. would start a war over Taiwan stands in stark contrast to his clear statement before Russia invaded Ukraine that America would not get directly involved in military action.  This reflects a widespread belief in Washington that, for strategic and ideological reasons, the fate of Taiwan will be determined by the balance of power in the 21st century.

Tensions might not have reached boiling point, however, had it not been for changes in Taiwan itself. In 2016 and again in 2020, the island elected President Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, traditionally considered independent. Although Tsai has avoided formal steps toward independence, it is clear that Taiwan's younger generation increasingly sees their future separated from the mainland.

China's use of force would be a tragedy not only for Taiwan, but for mainland China itself. It would lead to mass casualties on all sides, a permanent alienation between Taiwanese and mainlanders, and a global economic collapse that would endanger decades of Chinese growth. Above all, it would risk direct conflict with the United States and World War III.

But just because an invasion of Taiwan would be reckless and immoral does not mean it will never happen. As the war in Ukraine shows, nationalism, authoritarianism and discontent, and American power can be a powerful and dangerous combination. Reflecting on the conflict over Taiwan, Beijing and Washington feel obliged to speak out and act decisively. Each side hopes that the other is bluffing. It remains to be hoped that they are both right.

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