And The Lion
Shall Lie Down With The Lamb:
The Taiwan Straits War Averted
By Chris Oakley
It was a short but catastrophic war that touched all of Asia and left much of it forever uninhabitable. In five tragic days, many of the continentís greatest cities were annihilated by nuclear weapons; entire countries collapsed into ruin in the wake of the US-Chinese nuclear conflict. Even the United States was not spared a measure of these horrors, as the gaping craters where Seattle and Los Angeles once stood will attest.1 The Taiwan Straits War had painful political, environmental, and economic consequences reaching far beyond the scope of the battlefield where the first shots were fired in the late hours of September 27th, 2035. Now, as we prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of that terrible conflict, weíll look at key moments in the chain of events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities and speculate on how history might have been altered if those moments hadnít happened at all or happened in a different fashion from the way they did in our own history.
#1)What if the US Navy had cancelled or postponed its Ocean Sentinel í35 live-fire exercise in the Taiwan Straits?
Many factors are cited as having contributed to the outbreak of the Taiwan Straits War, but there is little doubt that one of the biggest causes of the conflict was the Jiang Mexu governmentís hysterical overreaction to the Ocean Sentinel í35 live-fire maneuvers held by the US Navyís Pacific Fleet just two months before the war started. Mexu was one of the paranoid men ever to serve as a head of state, and he was convinced that Ocean Sentinel-- despite President Siegelís insistent assertions to the contrary --was a prelude to a preemptive attack on China by the United States. It didnít help matters much that the exercise was based on the premise of the US and Taiwan defending against an invasion from China by sea. Mexu saw Ocean Sentinel as a sign of things to come and revised his foreign policies accordingly, cutting ties with the United States and setting his country(and the world) on the path towards nuclear Armageddon.
But was it inevitable that Ocean Sentinel í35 would be the match which lit the fuse for the nuclear holocaust that left half of Asia and one-third of the United States an empty radioactive desert? Not necessarily. Recently declassified Siegel Administration papers from the time of the Taiwan Straits War reveal that there was a move afoot among some of Siegelís defense advisors to have the Ocean Sentinel exercises rescheduled or scrapped. Secretary of State Rachel Cortland, who resigned her office on the third day of the war and committed suicide within hours of the resignation, is known to have argued with the Joint Chiefs of Staff about the timing of Ocean Sentinel í35; the papers declassified under the Freedom of Information Act include a series of internal memos by Secretary Cortland warning US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Stearns about Mexuís tenuous mental state and urging Stearns to either scrub the exercise, push it back a few months, or hold it somewhere further from the Taiwan Straits in order to minimize the risk that it might be misinterpreted as a threat to China. Unimpressed of Cortlandís warnings, and sure that Mexuís deputies could restrain the Chinese leader from getting too far out of hand, Admiral Stearns ordered that Ocean Sentinel í35 proceed at the time and place originally scheduled for it.
But suppose Stearns had taken her advice? Itís hard to say how Mexu would have responded-- he and most of his senior advisors perished in the American missile strikes that vaporized his emergency bunker. But those who knew him either by reputation or(more rarely) by personal relationship with him suggest that a rescheduling or cancellation of the exercise might have had a calming effect. Mexu himself, in one of his final public statements before the Taiwan Straits War broke out, suggested that if the United States were to modify its stance on the Ocean Sentinel exercises, it might make a difference in his attitudes toward Washington.2
#2)What if someone other than Jiang Mexu had been ruling China at the time of the Ocean Sentinel í35 exercise?
Of all the unpredictable factors that contributed to the outbreak of the Taiwan Straits War, perhaps the most unpredictable of them all was Jiang Mexuís rise to power. He hadnít always been the fearsome overlord we know and remember today; in fact, just three years before the war erupted analysts both in and out of China were writing his political obituary after his first bid to replace Zhun Libao as CPC general secretary collapsed. A year later, however, the political winds in Beijing had shifted dramatically in Mexuís favor and Libao was voted out of power at the next3 CPC party congress in Beijing.
But what if Libao had succeeded in fending off Mexuís second try at seizing the reins of the Chinese government? Or if Libaoís second-most powerful political rival at the time, Wen Xu, had bested both Libao and Mexu to become the CPC general secretary? There might still have been some unpleasantness between Beijing and Washington, true, maybe even a fairly intense conventional conflict, but itís unlikely that the hostilities would have escalated into anything even close to the nuclear holocaust that ravaged so much of the world as a result of the Taiwan Straits War.
Indeed, if Wen Xu had been in power at the time of the Ocean Sentinel í35 exercise itís likely any disputes between Beijing and Washington could have been settled at the conference table; Xu, who was out touring farms in the Szechuan region when the Taiwan Straits War broke out and died under tragic circumstances shortly after the war ended, was widely known among diplomats on both sides of the Pacific for his ability to defuse the thorniest of international tensions. In fact, in our own history Xu made countless attempts to dissuade Jiang Mexu from engaging in strategic nuclear confrontation with the United States, the last of these attempts coming just minutes before the US missile strikes that destroyed Mexuís emergency bunker.
#3)What if President Siegelís VP hadnít died of a heart attack barely three months before the Taiwan Straits War broke out?
Throughout Aaron Siegelís tenure as commander-in-chief at the White House, his vice-president David Burns was a conciliatory influence in Siegelís cabinet, smoothing over tensions between cabinet members and playing devilís advocate when the situation required. His death from cardiac arrest one month before the Ocean Sentinel í35 exercise and three months before the Taiwan Straits War broke out may have dealt a crippling blow to Siegelís attempts to resolve the dispute between Admiral Stearns and Secretary of State Cortland over the timing of the Ocean Sentinel exercise; it certainly threw a monkey wrench into US efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the tensions between America and the Jiang Mexu regime, given that Vice-President Burns was one of the few American officials who could talk to Mexu on a relatively cordial basis. Without Burns at his side, President Siegel was more or less at sea in his desperate and ultimately fruitless efforts to avert hostilities with China.
The irony is that Vice-President Burns had never shown any signs of heart trouble during the 2028 or 2032 Siegel presidential campaigns. Indeed, by all rights Burns, only 46 when he passed away, should have outlived his president by at least a decade. The stress of trying to avert war with China and preserve diplomatic ties between Washington and Beijing may have been a contributing factor to the cardiac arrest that killed him, but we can never know for sure since most of the VPís medical records were destroyed in the Chinese nuclear strike against New York City and those that were left after the war had ended were somewhat fragmentary.4
One thing that can be suggested with a reasonable degree of certainty is that if Burns had lived longer, the war might have been averted.
#4)What if Russian premier Anatoly Biletnikov hadnít been assassinated in the midst of attempts by his government to mediate a diplomatic solution to the Mexu-Siegel standoff?
The assassination of Russian premier Anatoly Biletnikov just 45 days before the Taiwan Straits War broke out is both one of the unsolved mysteries and great tragedies of the 21st century. Biletnikov had been working on a diplomatic resolution to the conflict between the United States and China at the time he was shot; his murder dealt yet another crippling blow to already seriously disrupted efforts to prevent armed hostilities between Washington and Beijing. But rather than get bogged down in the seemingly endless parade of conspiracy theories that have been trotted out to explain his untimely demise, letís concentrate on the matter of how the course of the past half-century might have been changed if Premier Biletnikov had survived his wounds.
One obvious answer is that Moscow, the Siberian industrial city of Magadan, and the Pacific port of Vladivostok wouldnít have been wiped out by Chinese nuclear attack. Anatoly Biletnikov had long made it a major priority of his foreign policy to maintain cordial relations with Beijing; additionally, he and Jiang Mexu generally got on well personally and shared the desire politically to maintain peace along the Sino-Russian border. Biletnikovís successors followed a more confrontational tack where China was concerned, and Mexu took this change of attitude as a personal insult; when Mexuís intelligence advisors told him Russia might increase troop levels along the Sino-Russian frontier as a precautionary measure in response to the start of the Taiwan Straits War, an infuriated Mexu, convinced the troop surge was directed against him personally, ordered punishing ICBM strikes against Russiaís Siberian territories that were answered by equally punishing Russian ICBM retaliatory attacks on cites and PLA bases in northern China.
Not only were some of Russiaís and Chinaís most historic cities wiped out in this missile exchange, but the missile strikes had devastating environmental consequences for the Siberian taiga and the plains of northern China. 90 percent of the plant and animal species that lived in those regions before the Straits War are now extinct, and leading biologists have estimated that most of the remaining 10 percent will probably have ceased to exist by the year 2100. Water shortages are a fact of everyday life in what remains of China and Russia; much of the water supply in both countries was poisoned by radioactive fallout from the wave of ICBM strikes that ravaged both countries during the five days that the war raged.
Much, if not all, of this horror might have been prevented if Anatoly Biletnikov had lived. The world might also have been spared the grim spectacle of seemingly endless waves of refugees trudging through the uncontaminated sections of the Asian interior; out of all the terrible political, economic, social, and environmental aftereffects stemming from the Taiwan Straits War, few have had a more lasting or painful impact on humanity than the refugee crisis that confronted the worldís major powers after the war ended.
In our next chapter, weíll deal with the intriguing possibility that the Korean Union might not have stayed neutral in the Taiwan Straits War and the lingering controversy over whether President Siegel should have ordered a pre-emptive strike on China when his top intelligence advisors told him the Chinese were getting ready to launch their ICBMs on the US.
To Be Continued...
1To name just two targets of the initial Chinese ICBM strike.
2Before the Taiwan Straits War, the Ocean Sentinel exercises had been an annual event and the subject of frequent diplomatic protests by the Mexu government and its predecessors (although itís safe to say few of the Chinese governments prior to the Mexu era were very likely to have seen Ocean Sentinel as sufficient cause for starting full-scale nuclear war).
3And last, as it turned out.
4Vice-President Burns had been adopted by a Staten Island family at the age of four and never knew that his biological father had a pre-existing heart condition going back at least three generations. That man, a resident of Victoria, Texas, succumbed to cardiac arrest just two days after the VP himself died; there was a brief rumor that the manís death had been a suicide, but the post-mortem autopsy squashed that rumor.