Deterring China Demands Unambiguous Support for Taiwan

Written by: Pranav Krishnan

The American-led, liberal-world order has ushered in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity around the globe. It can not subsist, however, without free and democratic states knowing that they need not take exorbitant measures to arm themselves or align with autocratic powers to preserve their sovereignty. Thus, the United States must demonstrate an unwavering and unambiguous commitment to upholding the territorial integrity of democratic states abroad. Perhaps, nowhere is this more important than in Taiwan, a thriving and legitimate democracy that remains an enduring symbol to the Chinese people of an alternative to authoritarian rule under the Chinese Communist Party. 

As the CCP takes an increasingly adversarial stance toward its neighbors and the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) expands unabated, it is becoming increasingly evident that China is both a revisionist and revanchist power that aspires for regional hegemony. This is exemplified by Xi Jinping, who has been furthering authoritarian and nationalist rhetoric, denying the sovereignty and agency of the Taiwanese people, and claims that reunification is “inevitable” and that Beijing “reserves the option of taking all necessary measures” to bring it about. Additionally, former four-star Admiral Phillip S. Davidson, who served as the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, contended in 2021 that an invasion may occur within the next six years. In light of leading experts warning that an attempt to take Taiwan by force may come sooner than widely believed, the United States must seriously consider what role it would play if such an invasion were to occur. 

In addition to the clear and compelling moral imperative to defend the freedom and self-determination of nearly 24 million people, the United States has an overt security interest as well. If Taiwan were to fall, China would absorb their industry and gain a near-monopoly on semiconductor fabrication and control of shipping lanes in the South China Sea. Such control would provide China with immense coercive economic leverage against its adversaries. Despite this, detractors of American interventionism continue to argue that Taiwan alone is not worth an American security commitment and that the United States should effectively concede Taiwan to China in the hope of fostering peace in the region.

However, this strategy of appeasement has been attempted before, from Chamberlin’s accommodation of the German occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938 to the West’s attempts after the 2014 annexation of Crimea to not provoke Russia into further invading Ukraine. Yet, British and French appeasement in the 1930’s only led to rapid German conquests across Europe, and with Russian forces currently in the midst of a brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the futility of this strategy of appeasing expansionist and authoritarian states has been made apparent. Similarly, Chinese aggression would not be limited to Taiwan in the face of American restraint, and it is probable that China would continue to threaten its neighbors in South East Asia following an unhindered annexation of Taiwan. 

Confronted with an occupied Taiwan, American defense obligations to South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines would potentially become untenable, leaving Chinese expansion unchecked and undermining both stability and nuclear nonproliferation efforts in the region as nuclear-latent powers such as Japan would race to develop independent nuclear programs to protect themselves. In light of the growing threat and the vital security interest in defending Taiwanese sovereignty, the United States must adopt a multi-faceted political and military posture that can effectively deter an increasingly powerful and assertive China. 

The U.S. must not only expand its efforts to augment American and allied naval and air assets in the South China Sea but also renounce its long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity,” in which no commitment is made to intervening in the event of an invasion of Taiwan. Instead, the U.S. must enact a policy of strategic clarity that makes it abundantly clear that China will incur severe military, economic, and political consequences in the event of an invasion. Therefore reducing the odds of an invasion or a war between the United States and China by precluding a Chinese miscalculation that the U.S. would stand by on the sidelines if China were to invade Taiwan. If China understands that it will be unable to attack Taiwan unimpeded by American involvement, it will be forced to account for the much higher costs it will inevitably bear and be far more likely to decide against military aggression. 

Strategic clarity is especially needed in the wake of the Trump administration, which relentlessly subverted long-standing American alliances and strategic partnerships abroad. His advocation for withdrawals from NATO, Germany, Iran, Syria, and South Korea, in conjunction with his unfettered praise for authoritarian leaders ranging from Putin to Kim Jong Un to Xi Jinping, has significantly undermined U.S. credibility abroad. With the Republican party remaining firmly behind Trump and the possibility of him, or a like-minded Republican, once again assuming the American presidency, China may see a chance to exploit America’s perceived refusal to uphold its international commitments and invade Taiwan, presenting the U.S. with a fait accompli before the next administration could respond. It is then imperative that the United States unequivocally rejects the rhetoric of isolationism and xenophobia propagated by the Trump administration. Instead, the U.S. must utilize a policy of strategic clarity to reaffirm American commitment to multilateral cooperation with our allies in the South Asia Pacific and to defending democracy abroad.

Additionally, proponents of strategic ambiguity have long held that it prevents a unilateral Taiwanese declaration of independence, which China has made clear as its red line for war. However, today, it is Beijing and not Taipei that will take the risk of unilateral action, and this archaic view does not reflect contemporary Taiwanese attitudes. In stark contrast to Xi Jinping’s inflammatory statements and persistent orders of unprovoked acts of intimidation, Taiwanese Prime Minister Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the historically pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, has stated that “We don’t have a need to declare ourselves an independent state,” and only a mere 1.5% of the Taiwanese public advocate for immediate independence. Further, American commitment would not be unconditional. Instead, it would maintain the “One-China” policy as well as make explicit American refusal to formalize diplomatic relations or come to Taiwan’s aid if it were to declare independence unilaterally. 

Critics will undoubtedly argue that upending strategic ambiguity would be a drastic perversion of the status quo that would provoke China into war. On the contrary, however, a policy of strategic clarity would be perfectly consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, the basis of current U.S.-China relations. This act makes clear to “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means […] as a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States”. Additionally, the policy of strategic ambiguity has always been a unilateral American one and not a result of bilateral negotiations or an agreement that the U.S. has any obligation to uphold. Strategic clarity would maintain the One-China policy and all existing treaties between the U.S. and China while dynamically defending the status quo of an independent Taiwan in response to an increasingly belligerent China.

Additionally, despite the U.S.’ official position of strategic ambiguity, strategic clarity would not represent an abrupt change in American foreign policy but instead align policymakers and strategists with the assumptions that the American public, leadership, and allies seemingly already work under. A majority of Americans support a formal alliance with Taiwan, and President Biden expressed that the U.S. has a “commitment” to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked. Similarly, as early as 2001, President Bush remarked that the United States had to do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. Our allies in the region have pursued the same rhetoric, from the Japanese Deputy Prime Minister, who declared that “Japan must defend Taiwan,” and the Australian defense minister’s claims that it would be “inconceivable” not to join an American military defense of Taiwan. Similarly, support for Taiwan has been met with enthusiasm across Congress. Enacting a formal policy shift toward strategic clarity would only orient the American diplomatic and defense establishments with the working policy of American political leadership to create a more cohesive and consistent foreign policy.

Of course, words alone will not meaningfully dissuade China. As the PLAN rapidly expands, American naval supremacy can no longer be taken for granted, and strategic clarity must be paired with a bolstered military approach. While Chinese military expenditures may lag behind in nominal figures, adjusting for purchasing power parity indicates that Chinese military spending may be equivalent to about two-thirds of America’s spending. A dangerous figure when considering China’s lack of military obligations in Europe and the Persian Gulf and the vastly cheaper costs of projecting power in their own backyard as opposed to the United States, which must send its forces across vast oceans and maintain logistics and supply chains across thousands of miles. 

In light of China’s ascending military potency, the U.S. must act decisively to protect thousands of vulnerable personnel in overseas territories such as Guam and Samoa as well as in bases on the Korean Peninsula and Japan by investing in desperately needed air and missile defense systems, precision-guided munitions, anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and hardened aircraft shelters. This would also ensure that these bases can not be eliminated by a conventional preemptive attack and could continue to combat Chinese aerial and naval campaigns in the event of a conflict. The American presence in South East Asia could also be strengthened by forging new security arrangements with friendly states in the region – for example, by restoring naval access to Subic Bay in the Philippines. 

These efforts should coincide with dramatically expanding American programs to arm and train Taiwanese armed forces to be resilient in the face of Chinese aggression. Legislators and experts have raised deep concerns about the state of Taiwanese armed forces and the subversion of their political and intelligence apparatus by China. Taiwanese armed forces must rapidly acquire asymmetrical defense capabilities such as anti-ship and aircraft missiles, naval mines, and uncrewed combat aerial vehicles. The cost-effectiveness and utility of these asymmetric capabilities are being made evident as they are currently being used to devastating effect by Ukrainian armed forces against an ostensibly vastly more powerful Russia. 

By taking a bold and uncompromising stance on American commitment to Taiwan’s independence, bolstering American and Taiwanese defense capabilities, and renewing collaboration with nations in the Indo-Pacific, the U.S. can provide a meaningful deterrent to overt Chinese aggression by making unambiguous that the United States will not stand idly by in the face of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and will instead impose an intolerably high cost. Doing so will help prevent a larger war and bring about an Asia safe for democracy and free from intimidation by despotic regimes.