Yes, an Independent Taiwan is in America’s National Interest
With the recent reelection of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who has taken a strong stance against increased integration with the Communist-dominated Chinese mainland, the issue of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship has gained some small measure of the public’s attention. Beginning with the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” and continuing with Trump’s ongoing trade war with China, American strategy in East Asia is only going to grow in importance. And Taiwan will inevitably play a central role in whatever that strategy looks like.
Over the past few decades, American politicians have been wary about embracing Taiwan, for fear of scaring China away from joining the international system and the path to liberalization. However, now that it’s pretty clear China is not about to become a Western-style democracy—instead choosing the road to Nineteen Eighty-Four dystopia—there’s less fear about openly engaging with Taiwan. No small part of this stems from the fact that Trump is “the most pro-Taiwan president in U.S. history,” according to Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post. Obama did authorize around $12 billion in arms sales to Taiwan over the course of his administration, but he also blocked a $1 billion sale in December 2016 and expressed concern that Trump’s friendliness to Taiwan could upset our relationship with China. In contrast, following his electoral victory, Trump was the first president or president-elect to take a phone call from the president of Taiwan since the U.S. cut official diplomatic ties. Under Trump, arms sales to Taiwan are becoming “the new normal”; he’s approved the largest sale of weapons to the island since 1992.
As is to be expected, this policy shift has been met with different responses. The American Enterprise Institute’s Marc Thiessen has argued that the United States should deter China with “new conventional intermediate-range ballistic missiles” in East Asia. This idea is typical of the D.C. foreign policy blob. If implemented, it would mean that if deterrence failed, the U.S. would be headed for armed conflict with China.
In contrast, some advocates of a restrained foreign policy tend to fear that any increased closeness between the U.S. and Taiwan is needlessly provocative. Their fear of being entangled in a war with China is not unreasonable, especially if you look at the disastrous track record of the foreign policy establishment over the past few decades. However, that doesn’t mean the U.S. should just cut and run, ignoring the threat that China could pose to the American way of life.
We are fortunate that the United States has weak neighbors and is separated from Eurasia by two vast oceanic moats. China cannot militarily threaten America’s existence, but it can use its economic influence to attempt to curtail our freedoms here at home. This has already been going on for some time, as China attempts to blackmail businesses into enacting its preferred policies in the U.S. in exchange for access to the Chinese market. This was recently seen with the NBA and Hollywood, to name just two examples.
Such a threat should inform our understanding of the proper role Taiwan should play in American grand strategy. It’s easy to picture the dystopian horrors the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would have in store for us in a world where it successfully challenges the U.S. for economic dominance. With China purposefully weaponizing investments in order to maximize this soft power, such a situation is not out of the realm of possibility, especially if some kind of competing reserve currency were to successfully replace the dollar. As of 2018, 70 percent of countries trade more with China than with the United States. Before 2000, it was the opposite, with over 80 percent of the world trading more with the U.S. than China.
This is precisely where an independent Taiwan factors into America’s national interest. For the CCP, the reintegration of Taiwan with the mainland isn’t just a strategic play; it’s a point of burning ideological dogma that takes precedence over everything else. The CCP considers the island a breakaway rogue region that rightfully belongs under its control. Taiwan’s continued independence threatens the CCP’s claims to legitimacy and control. Reuters reported last year that China’s defense minister declared that “resolving the ‘Taiwan question’ is his country’s ‘greatest national interest’, and that no force could prevent China’s ‘reunification.’” This sentiment is very common in China and will likely grow only more fervent as the country continues down its increasingly nationalistic path. So long as Taiwan remains independent, the CCP faces a major impediment to any attempts at power projection. Not to mention, they’ll have to sink vast amounts of resources into studies and planning for a potential invasion.
An independent Taiwan, therefore, will ensure that China is effectively bottlenecked until the very likely collapse of the CCP later this century—which will stem from China’s disastrous demographic situation and centralized control of its economy.
Indeed, regarding the latter, China’s interference in its markets is loading its economy with malinvestments and resource misallocation. While the Chinese system is different than that of the Soviet Union, the end effect will be largely the same.
As for China’s demographic crisis, standard population projections that rely on figures from the Chinese government are already predicting a decrease of around 300 million people by the end of the century. However, scholar Yi Fuxian has argued that the CCP has been cooking the books even so far as this data is concerned, and that the situation is actually much bleaker. Yi recently estimated that the CCP has already overstated the Chinese population by 121 million people. He says that China’s population will likely drop by over 50 percent by 2100, with nearly a third of Chinese being 65 or older by 2050.
Far from menacing the rest of the world, in a few decades, China will increasingly have to focus inward and dedicate more and more scarce resources to caring for its aging population. It will then face economic decline due to a shrinking labor force and mismanaged economy.
However, 30 to 40 years isn’t a short period of time, and a lot of harm could be done in the meantime if China is free to run rampant around the globe. Fortunately, there’s a middle ground between forward deployment and a completely hands-off approach to Taiwan.
Taiwan is an extremely defensible island, and an invasion would require an array of formidable obstacles. It’s typical to dismiss Taiwan as doomed without American military assistance, but a closer look at the actual details make it very clear that a Chinese victory would be far from certain. Writing in Foreign Policy, Tanner Greer, a Taiwanese-based writer and strategist, lays out a convincing case for why a Taiwanese victory is entirely possible. Greer’s shorter account relies heavily on the book The Chinese Invasion Threat by Ian Easton, a very clear (yet thorough) examination of the hellish nightmare any Chinese invasion would face.
Taiwan is entirely capable of defending itself without the U.S. military there to do all the heavy lifting. Instead of continuing our strategy of forwarding deployment in East Asia, then, the U.S. should instead adopt more of what international relations theorists Eugene Gholz, Benjamin Friedman, and Enea Gjoza identify as a strategy of “defensive defense.” This emphasizes helping our partners and allies in the region to acquire and invest in the anti-access/area denial defensive technology that would deter Chinese attempts at aggression by making them maximally painful and costly. Such a posture would allow the U.S. to withdraw from the front lines and return the responsibility for their own protection back to our allies.
Trump is right to be openly friendly with the Tsai administration and to keep approving arms sales. No doubt this will continue to irk the Chinese, but if these actions are partnered with a more defensive posture that relies on allies in the region, tensions may remain at the same level or even thaw slightly.
The CCP is undoubtedly a threat to American freedoms. An independent Taiwan, then, helps to contain that threat—and is therefore in America’s national interest. It’s certainly not worth fighting a war over, but the U.S. is capable of pursuing other strategies to ensure that Taiwan remains free from China’s totalitarian clutches.
Zachary Yost is a foreign policy fellow with Young Voices and a freelance writer and researcher who lives in Pittsburgh.