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No American Lives Should Be Lost to Defend Taiwan

A hot war with China over the island would be a military, historic, and strategic disaster for the United States.

With the U.S. presidential election in full swing over the summer and fall, Americans could be excused for hardly having noticed the rising tension across the Taiwan Strait on the other side of the planet. Recent developments, however, threatened to bring a simmering pot up to a full blown kitchen fire and maybe even a three alarm blaze. A Taiwan news outlet breathlessly announced that U.S. Marines were in Taiwan to train their counterparts. This could well be the first time in four decades that Washington has committed forces to the island claimed by China. Such exercises may have previously occurred in secret, but this is the first time these alleged activities have been revealed to the public. Though a denial was subsequently issued by the Pentagon, sparks relating to this public relations blunder may portend the real possibility of a superpower military clash over Taiwan, possibly even in the coming months.

Allowing the U.S. to be drawn – sleepwalking, as it were – into a major conflict over Taiwan would be an error of epochal proportions by the U.S. foreign policy establishment for three basic reasons: military, historic, and strategic.

On the military side, there is a high likelihood that China could subdue Taiwan in just two weeks. Even more gravely for Americans, there is the distinct possibility that U.S. forces could suffer a major defeat. The logic is simple and involves primarily geography. Taiwan is just 90 miles from Mainland China, but over 6,000 miles from the American mainland. That vast asymmetry means that that the Chinese military can bring far greater firepower into the fight at an early point against U.S. forces at the end of an exceedingly long and tenuous logistics chain.

True, amphibious invasions are inherently difficult, but China has had decades to plan, practice, and prepare its forces. New investments in missiles, rocket artillery, drones, attack aircraft, helicopters, paratroopers, and special forces now make the invasion fully feasible. A very credible blockade option exists as well. U.S. forces would be held in check, such as by anti-ship ballistic missiles. Even the vaunted U.S. submarine force would be confronted by myriad Chinese countermeasures, including sea mines.

Certain ideologues might still argue that all of America’s strength should be deployed, up to and including nuclear weaponry, to save Taiwan. Such an argument could plausibly be made for the Philippines, a beleaguered country that the U.S. attempted to colonize during the early 20th century and one in which tens of thousands of Americans were sacrificed to defend in WW2.

Actually, Taiwanese fought on the side of Japan in the Pacific War. However, there are other critical historical points that Americans need to understand to see why the 1955 Alliance Treaty with Taiwan was later abrogated. Most importantly, they need to realize that Taiwan was formally incorporated into Fujian Province, as part of China, in 1684 – nearly a century prior to the American Revolution. Two centuries later, the island was conquered by the Japanese, which explains how the Taiwanese people ended up on the wrong side of WW2. But President Harry Truman was crystal clear in his 5 Jan 1950 explanation of U.S. policy: “The U.S. has no predatory designs on Formosa [Taiwan], or on any other Chinese territory.”

Taiwan did indeed become a protectorate of the U.S. during the 1950s, for a time, including with the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons to the island. However, these were wisely withdrawn along with all other American soldiers after the Vietnam War, as part of the US-China normalization process. Indeed, the withdrawal of U.S. forces formed the primary condition for normalization. Thus, the reinsertion of U.S. forces onto the island represents a major retrograde step back into the intense and dangerous Cold War of the 1950s. Only this time, China is not an impoverished basket case, but rather an ascendant superpower.

Today, the formal name of Taiwan’s government remains the Republic of China. The Palace Museum in Taiwan holds many of China’s most famous treasures. An American re-intervention in China’s unfinished civil war not only risks military defeat and violates prior historical commitments made under multiple U.S. presidents, but it would also constitute a disaster for U.S. strategy, draining Uncle Sam’s coffers for dubious ends. Contrary to the view of many American strategists, Taiwan is neither the “cork in the bottle” of Beijing’s maritime aspirations, nor the vital lynchpin that holds together U.S. alliances in the Asia-Pacific. In fact, American alliances will be strengthened by more realistic and feasible defense lines. The “cork in the bottle” – once described as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” off the Chinese coast is simply no longer feasible or wise. In actuality, this cork is set to explode with disastrous consequences for the region and for U.S. security if American forces are deployed.

At present, China does not represent an aggressive power. Beijing has not resorted to the major use of force in more than 40 years. It has built a single base overseas. Still, one cannot rule out altogether that China might develop into a more bellicose form. America must hedge against this possibility – even if it is rather remote. When the Union cavalry officer, John Buford, surveyed the hills outside of Gettysburg in mid-1863, he concluded it was “good ground” to fight on. If it somehow comes to a war with China, Taiwan is emphatically not “good ground” – quite the opposite.

Lyle J. Goldstein, PhD is Research Professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.  He was the founder of the China Maritime Studies Institute there and is also an affiliate of the college’s Russia Maritime Studies Institute. The opinions in the article are entirely his own and do not reflect any official assessment of the U.S. Navy.

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