Risking Los Angeles for Taipei
Members of the blob should honestly engage the American people, who say they back Taiwan but oppose sending troops.
Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives are usually masters of the adage, “all politics is local.” They tend to be extremely skilled at manipulating local voters and buying congressional elections (legally, of course). Few pay much attention to international affairs and even fewer spread rumors of wars, let alone start real, deadly, shooting wars.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, expected to lose her office after the November midterm elections, nearly sparked just such a conflagration with the People’s Republic of China. That wasn’t her intention, of course, but her recent visit to Taiwan triggered a near-hysterical reaction in Beijing. Chinese officials, with a major party congress upcoming, grow incensed at any hint of foreign support for Taiwanese independence aspirations.
In fact, the Chinese never came close to shooting anyone. But their frenzied military maneuvers likely inaugurated a new normal. The PRC will place increasing pressure on the roughly 24 million Taiwanese, and with Washington poised to respond in kind, tensions could rise as the waters and airspace around the island grow dangerously crowded.
While Washington’s long-standing policy toward a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan has been strategic ambiguity, that doesn’t mean there is serious doubt about what the U.S. would do in such a scenario: the vast majority of the foreign-policy establishment would push for war. The “ambiguity” is directed at Taipei, lest America’s erstwhile military client take U.S. support for granted and act as recklessly as Pelosi, perhaps by declaring independence, which likely would trigger a Chinese military strike.
Taiwan, to be sure, is a valued friend. But is it worth nuclear war?
Although no one in Washington wants conflict with the PRC, current U.S. policy risks just such a conflict. In a representative democracy, that should suggest that policymakers and, more importantly, the American people, believe the price is worth it. Yet, no serious public debate has ever occurred over the issue. Indeed, many officials appear to believe that if Washington makes its demands clear—typically called “leadership” in the nation’s capital—then Xi Jinping & co. will scurry back to Zhongnanhai, never to be heard from again. If the president goes further and waves his pinky finger, the Chinese will abandon their hostile plans forever.
This is a dangerous fantasy disconnected from reality.
For the PRC, Taiwan is an issue bound up in a virulent nationalism that attracts popular as well as elite support. The island, barely 100 miles off the mainland, was seized by Japan in 1895, during what the Chinese call “the century of humiliation.” European nations, Japan, and America ruthlessly carved out territories and concessions from the decrepit empire and weak republic. Hong Kong, too, was a spoil of war. Since the United Kingdom returned the latter in 1997, Taiwan has become the last major land on the agenda, the final step in what China sees as its return to greatness.
The wishes of the Taiwanese people, who have formed what amounts to a country despite its lack of formal recognition, are of little concern in Beijing. The PRC has offered a “one country, two systems” model, as has long been practiced in Hong Kong. However, the brutal crackdown on that special administrative region, which suppressed almost all civil and political liberties, has destroyed that arrangement’s attractiveness to the Taiwanese people, especially the young. As one Chinese diplomat told me, what mattered was what the PRC’s 1.4 billion people wanted, not Taiwan’s 23 million.
Almost certainly, the Chinese leadership with the backing of its people are willing to fight if necessary to eventually reincorporate the island. There wasn’t much they could do immediately after establishment of the PRC. But the People’s Liberation Army is a much more potent force today. That doesn’t mean Beijing wants war. Rather, it hopes to coerce surrender negotiations. But to the Chinese the issue is vital, even existential, going to their very sense of nationhood.
Not so for the U.S..
The American people have little reason to fight over the fate of the island. It is a humanitarian and human-rights issue, and a majority of Americans support providing aid if it is attacked by China. However, they do not want to go to war on behalf of Taiwan. They have no reason to risk Los Angeles for Taipei, as one Chinese general chillingly put it. Why would U.S. policymakers do so?
The island is of no intrinsic value to America’s defense. Imagine the PRC insisting that it had to protect Cuba to preserve Chinese security. Denying Taiwan to China would inhibit Chinese military activities in the Asia-Pacific. But it is difficult to argue that such an indirect impact on American interests warrants war with Beijing, a rising nationalistic and nuclear-armed power.
The U.S. would not have seen a conflict of comparable violence since at least the Vietnam War, if not World War II. Yet in neither of those wars did America’s opponents possess nuclear weapons. Washington’s wars over the last two decades collectively would barely qualify as a skirmish in comparison to a Sino-American war. Sinking just one U.S. carrier could take several thousand sailors to their deaths.
And Washington would fight such a conflict with severe disadvantages. One of those disadvantages is the tyranny of distance—it is far more expensive to project power several thousand miles away than to deter use of power nearby. Another is the absence of air superiority, something which America’s military takes for granted. In contrast, Beijing could rely on mainland bases while operating 100 miles from home. Even access to allied facilities would not offset China’s inherent edge.
Most Americans probably assume that Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, Washington’s most important nearby allies, would support the U.S. in any such war. But supporting America would make those countries immediate military targets. China would become their enemy forever, ready to exact revenge.
Although both Seoul and Tokyo have begun to acknowledge the importance of stability in the Taiwan Strait, their officials caution that such commentary remains far from a commitment to go to war. Japan and South Korea have had dependent militaries focused on defense for decades. To confront their great-power neighbor would ensure future Chinese enmity with no guarantee of future U.S. support. They would face short-term cost and long-term risk. Disaster would be a possible, even likely, outcome.
In contrast, though Washington would pay a hefty price—such a conflict would knock five percent off the U.S. economy, a roughly $1.2 trillion hit, according to one estimate—Americans could walk away in defeat with their distant homeland still largely undisturbed. A well-publicized recent wargame gave the victor’s nod to Washington, but only at very substantial cost, including the loss of half of the U.S.'s Air Force and Navy aircraft. Other war games show the U.S. losing a conflict over Taiwan. Some have involved the use of nuclear weapons and other WMDs. And there is no reason to believe that the PRC would give up if defeated. The disparities in history, geography, interests, and fervor would drive Beijing toward a rematch, rather like Germany’s response to World War I. In contrast, Washington’s’ commitment is more likely to wane given America’s increasing fiscal travails and military recruiting difficulties.
Moreover, the costs of such a conflict would reverberate worldwide. Disrupting production and transportation in the world’s most important economic region would create global chaos. Over the last two years the world’s peoples have suffered from the impacts of a pandemic and peripheral European conflict. Imagine if the world’s two economic behemoths, both linked commercially to the rest of the world and long engines of global growth, engaged in full-scale warfare. Now imagine if they resorted to the use of nuclear weapons, as some Chinese officials have threatened.
The latter result would be by no means certain, of course. But two nuclear powers with nation-killing arsenals have never fought a conventional war. There would be serious potential for escalation—whether from anger, misjudgment, a mistake, desperation, or by accident—which could yield catastrophic consequences.
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Of course, just as the U.S. would not want to risk Los Angeles for Taipei, presumably the PRC wouldn’t want to risk Shanghai for Taipei. But Taiwan matters more to China, and its leaders are likely to take greater risks in its pursuit. It would be one thing for Washington policymakers to gamble distant territories, such as Guam and the Commonwealth of Marianna Islands. It would be quite another to put the homeland—and millions of lives—in play.
Rather like Ukraine, the U.S. should support Taipei in the event of Chinese attack. Washington should help arm Taiwan for its defense now, since doing so would be exceedingly difficult if the island was blockaded and under attack. It should impose economic sanctions against Beijing in response to any assault. Building upon the present cooperation with Europe and allied states in Asia against Russia, the U.S. should seek agreement with those states now over what to do then—and warn the PRC accordingly.
If U.S. policymakers are intent on defending Taiwan, they should understand that they may well be called upon to act on that promise. Given the island’s importance to not just the PRC but the Chinese people, deterrence may be likely to fail. The cost of the resulting conflict could prove higher than any other in U.S. history.
Members of the blob should honestly engage the American people, who say they back Taiwan but oppose sending troops. The question they should ask: is Taiwan worth a destructive Pacific war that could reach the U.S. homeland?