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Preparing for the Big One: Should America Battle China Over Taiwan?

U.S. politicians’ responsibility is to the American people.

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Credit: pravi011

Taiwanese voters have spoken, elevating Vice President Lai Ching-te to the presidency. By selecting a candidate from the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party for the third time in a row, the island state’s 24 million people gave a collective uplifted middle finger to the People’s Republic of China, and especially President Xi Jinping.

Lai’s victory was modest: 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race, with the DPP losing its parliamentary majority. Nevertheless, the PRC exhibited its displeasure, issuing warnings against separatism and undertaking military operations nearby. More significant was China’s political counterattack, as the Pacific island nation of Nauru shifted its recognition from the Republic of China to the PRC, reducing Taipei’s diplomatic partners to just 12. 

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So far, this looks a bit like Kabuki theater—a seemingly intense battle in which no one gets hurt. Yet Beijing’s patience appears to be waning, with Xi insisting that the issue must be resolved and the People’s Liberation Army training to seize Taiwan if necessary.

Groupthink dominates Washington’s position on Taiwan. U.S. political leaders assume America’s support for Taipei irrespective of cost, which few detail. Indeed, President Joe Biden has repeatedly promised to fight for Taiwan (which his staff has equally often, but unconvincingly, repudiated). In contrast, a majority of Americans oppose the use of U.S. troops.

Some otherwise serious policymakers assume that the Chinese would scatter if Washington simply declared its intentions. Others figure the U.S. would have to win since America always wins, or at least is supposed to. 

Unfortunately, such observers are living a dream.

China has been rapidly expanding its military forces and currently deploys the world’s second most powerful navy. The PRC has embarked upon a major nuclear build-up to shrink America’s advantage in this critical area. China concentrates its forces in Asia rather than dispersing them globally. Beijing can rely on scores of mainland military bases while Washington must project power across the Pacific Ocean. 

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Finally, Taiwan matters far more to the Chinese than the American people. One reason is history: Japan seized the islands in 1895 after defeating the Chinese Empire during what was known as the Century of Humiliation. Nationalistic Chinese want Taiwan back. Security is another important concern—little different than what animated Washington’s refusal to accept a Soviet military presence in Cuba in 1962. 

Americans understandably sympathize with Taiwan. The Republic of China is a vibrant democracy, an outpost of liberty in the shadow of the world’s greatest despotism. Indeed, Beijing is moving backwards, with Xi Jinping looking more like Mao Zedong every day. Nevertheless, sympathy does not a casus belli make.

Especially when the costs of war would be so great. Any conflict would be very different from America’s recent Mideast fights. Defense Priority’s Lyle Goldstein, who long taught at the Naval War College, warned:

The military balance in the Western Pacific and especially around Taiwan has shifted decisively. U.S. Navy and Air Force units would face enormous losses in any attempt to reinforce the beleaguered island. Even the vaunted U.S. submarine force almost certainly could not prevail in such circumstances, since it has limited numbers and firepower. Moreover, Beijing has been working assiduously on decisive countermeasures to American submarines, including sea mines. Beijing would deploy its missile forces to easily gain vast superiority in the air, enabling an enormous mainland assault to go forward—spearheaded by heliborne infantry and commandos. The only thing worse than such a sad day would be either the utter defeat of American expeditionary forces at the lonely end of a 6,500 mile supply line, or the rather conceivable resort to nuclear war.

Although nothing is certain, the U.S. usually loses wargames of the potential conflict, and even victory, meaning Taiwan remains unconquered, comes at a heavy cost, with multiple carriers sunk, hundreds of aircraft downed, and thousands of military personnel killed. Moreover, escalation, including nuclear weapons, would be likely. The PRC would do whatever it thought necessary to prevent U.S. domination just off its coast. Washington would have to strike the Chinese mainland, which would force Beijing to in turn target American territory. Never have two major conventional combatants possessed nuclear weapons. 

Even the minimum expected military losses, compounded by the significant economic harm, would undercut other American defense commitments. Proposals to accelerate military outlays ignore Washington’s rising debt burden, which is approaching record levels. Americans aren’t likely to slash social programs to protect Taiwan. Finally, even victory would be temporary, with China retreating to rearm and prepare for the next round, rather like Germany after its defeat in the First World War.

Is anything at stake with Taiwan worth incurring these costs and taking these risks?

Going to war should require an extremely important interest. Going to war against a powerful nuclear-armed state should require a truly vital or existential interest. None is present in Taiwan. The Taiwanese people deserve to decide their own political future, and virtually none identify with the PRC. Protecting that right, however, is neither an obligation of the U.S. nor worth risking America’s future.

Talk of democracy versus autocracy is meaningless boilerplate. Washington cares little about liberty when it overthrows democracies that it dislikes and embraces autocracies that it favors. Just watch President Joe Biden grovel before the Saudi royals. Freedom House ranks their loathsome regime even lower than the PRC. Anyway, democracy in America should be the highest priority for U.S. policymakers. 

Nor is Taiwan’s dominant semiconductor chip industry reason for war, which would disrupt global supplies. China would blockade the island and combat could flatten the factories. Indeed, such facilities would not likely survive no matter who won. Washington probably would destroy them rather than allow them to fall into China’s hands. Fear of over-dependence on Taiwanese chip facilities should lead to production and supply diversification, not military intervention. (Oddly, former president Donald Trump equivocated on defending Taiwan because, he believes, it created its chip industry at America’s expense.)

U.S. officials also insist that Washington must preserve an autonomous Taiwan to inhibit Chinese naval operations further into the Pacific. Yet Beijing has greatly expanded its geographic reach without holding the island. Moreover, every time American policymakers announce that they want to protect Taipei to reinforce US domination of the Asia-Pacific, they intensify Chinese determination to regain Taiwan. It makes no sense to go to war with China to control a territory that is supposed to prevent China from starting a war.

Hawks who insist on fighting every war big and small to maintain “credibility” warn that America’s Pacific allies would lose confidence in Washington if it did not combat Beijing over Taiwan. Yet the U.S. formalizes security commitments with defense treaties. Congress has not done so with Taipei for a reason. All great powers set priorities and make choices, just as Washington is not defending Ukraine. In contrast, America proved its willingness to defend South Korea, at great cost.

Moreover, none of America’s allies have committed to go to war with the U.S. on Taiwan’s behalf. The treaties with Japan and South Korea are supposed to be “mutual.” These nations have much more at stake in Taiwan than does America. Why should Washington commit if they won’t? Indeed, constantly reassuring allies against every contingency discourages them from doing more for their own defense. Both Seoul and Tokyo have long lagged in defense efforts since they can rely on America. In practice, Washington promising to do more means they will do less.

Ultimately, it is not in the interests of the American people, on whose behalf Washington is supposed to operate, to battle Beijing over Taiwan. However, that doesn’t mean the U.S. shouldn’t do anything. To start, Americans should help arm Taipei. The latter needs to do a much better job defending itself, in both staffing its military and deploying the right weapons, especially anti-ship missiles. There is much that the Taiwanese should learn from the Russo-Ukraine war. The U.S. and Taipei should even have discreet discussions about the latter’s interest in possessing nuclear weapons. Proliferation is undesirable, but still might be the least bad option. Better nations at risk deter China than rely on America.

The U.S. also should work with allied and friendly states, in Asia and Europe especially, to prepare economic penalties should the PRC use force against Taiwan. This won’t be easy, given how such nations benefit from Chinese trade. Nevertheless, war in Northeast Asia would have catastrophic regional and global impacts. One study estimated the likely economic cost at $10 trillion. The best way to deter Chinese military action would be to ensure that the denizens of Zhongnanhai counted the cost before they embarked on war.

Finally, the U.S. should seek to reassure the PRC. That might seem counterintuitive, but few Chinese want to go to war. They hope to force Taiwan to agree to some form of unification without fighting. Despite his increasingly tough rhetoric, even Xi realizes that military failure would be catastrophic for China and him personally. His ongoing military purges suggest that he is not confident in the PLA. Nothing is foreordained.

However, warn three China scholars, war is more likely “if Chinese leaders believe that the United States will take advantage of their restraint to promote Taiwan’s formal independence.… Beijing may determine that refraining from an attack would mean it would forever lose the possibility of unification or would allow the United States to restore something akin to a defense alliance with Taiwan. And if China comes to that conclusion, then Washington’s focus on beefing up military power in the region may still fail to prevent a war.”

Analysts broadly agree that a Taiwanese declaration of independence likely would trigger a Chinese military response. Unfortunately, Beijing appears to believe that recent behavior by both Taipei and Washington indicates that Taiwan’s objectives have shifted toward independence, with Washington’s support. In fact, several Chinese officials have told me that there is no returning to the status quo ante because they believe that means eventual separation. What matters is not what the U.S. and Taiwan intend, but what Beijing believes they intend.

Thus, it is essential not to stoke Chinese paranoia. Politicians determined to use Taiwan to score partisan points risk spurring a catastrophic conflict with horrendous consequences. The best hope to avoid war is to convince Beijing that the peaceful status quo remains in its interest. That requires convincing the PRC that the peaceful status quo truly is the status quo. Negotiations for the U.S., China, and Taiwan to all step back from political contention and military conflict might offer the best hope to reduce the likelihood of conflict. 

Unfortunately, the Taiwanese people live in a bad neighborhood and must adapt to local realities, meaning a potentially aggressive China. This may be unfair, but life is unfair. Washington’s duty is to protect Americans, not Taiwanese, however sympathetic the latter’s cause. The U.S. should firmly rule out military intervention while pursuing other policies designed to dissuade China from loosing the uncertain furies of war.