More On: Taiwan
On the day Russia invades Ukraine, Taiwan scrambles fighter fighters as nine Chinese aircraft reach its air defense zone
It is a political crime to expect Americans to embrace the expenses and risks of full-scale combat with the PRC without debate.
The following are the repercussions of a US-China war over Taiwan: A president who has a fit of verbal diarrhea regarding political infighting is a source of shame. It is risky for a president to make rash comments regarding international issues.
President Joe Biden announced a new US policy toward Taiwan for the third time, only to have his officials assert that nothing has changed. While this may appease the populace, other countries, particularly the People's Republic of China, are not fooled.
The president's statement roiled the area during his trip to East Asia, which was supposed to persuade friends and allies that Uncle Sam can walk and chew gum at the same time. "Yes," he said when asked if he would defend Taiwan, adding, "it's a commitment we made." His statements whizzed across the world at breakneck speed, appearing to condemn Washington's doctrine of "strategic ambiguity," in which the US declined to state its position on a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Since the Carter administration severed diplomatic connections with Taiwan, which was then known as the Republic of China, and recognized the People's Republic of China, America's defense ties with Taipei have been murky. Washington maintains unofficial diplomatic relations with the island nation and is legally obligated to sell it defense weaponry. Taiwan, on the other hand, has neither a defense treaty nor any other formal military commitment, like Japan and South Korea do. Making American policy a simple "maybe."
Strategic Ambiguity as a Strategy
The risk of losing US assistance is expected to dissuade Taipei from dangerously pushing Beijing, according to theory. At the same time, the PRC is expected to refrain from military action in the event that the US decides to intervene. And there you have it: America has the best of both worlds. However, the inverse outcome is also possible. Taiwanese citizens may feel that eight decades of collaboration in war and peace indicate that the United States will act on their side. Furthermore, the Chinese may conclude that no sane American president would sacrifice Los Angeles in favor of Taipei.
In reality, strategic ambiguity appears to be a way to delay making a decision. As long as policymakers are not required to deliver a clear yes or no, they are not required to make a clear yes or no decision. They can also simply pray that the contingency never occurs.
China is unwavering in its support for reunification
This technique, however, is becoming increasingly unworkable. Although there are no signs of immediate Chinese military intervention, Michael Swaine of the Quincy Institute notes that "this possibility cannot be ignored in the longer term if current trends persist." Beijing's patience looks to be wearing thin: Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned against the issue being "passed down through the generations." The People's Republic of China has increased diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan, while the government of Xi Jinping appears to have abandoned using Hong Kong as a model for negotiating consensual reunification.
Furthermore, China's time may be running out. The PRC is grappling with major demographic, economic, and political issues, which are being exacerbated by the Xi regime's zero COVID policy. Pro-PRC sentiment in Taiwan is vanishingly small, especially among the young, according to Beijing officials. Finally, among the numerous lessons that Russia's war on Ukraine could teach Xi, the need of a swift victory may be the most significant.
Is it Time for the US to Take a Stand?
As a result, policymakers in the United States should be aware of their thoughts. They must be prepared to retaliate if China takes action. This might imply a global mobilization of diplomatic and economic strength against Beijing. This might include undermining Chinese interests indirectly, for as by prohibiting trade with and flying travel to the PRC. In the most catastrophic case, this may imply intervening directly against Chinese armed forces. In any scenario, Washington should be prepared to respond, or not act, in order to avoid being taken off guard if Beijing attacks.
Most importantly, the issue needs to be addressed right now. Within the Beltway, the largely unspoken consensus appears to be that Washington should, of course, act. It is unthinkable to most foreign policy experts that America would not respond militarily. The key point of contention recently has been whether strategic uncertainty should be addressed with strategic clarity – as the president appeared to do – by expressing a clear military commitment.
Is the United States Prepared for Strategic Clarity?
However, starting today, the American people should be consulted, according to ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul. "I'm not sure how many Americans would want to fight over a tiny island they've never heard of," he remarked. And if they fully comprehended the cost of defending Taiwan from China — the risk of conventional loss and nuclear catastrophe — they could be adamantly opposed.
If a crisis arises, the president must be ready to act and Congress must be ready to vote. Most crucially, it should carry out its constitutional duty and debate a declaration of war, which is required for a presidential decision to intervene militarily. A well-informed citizenry is required for such a significant decision.
Aside from safeguarding the mainland, Taiwan is China's most significant strategic goal. Most Chinese, even younger generations — who I've found to be deeply nationalistic even when otherwise liberal — feel Taiwan is part of China. Japan took the island from the decaying Chinese empire in 1895 and returned it after the latter's defeat in 1945. The Chinese Communist Party destroyed the ROC government in 1949, forcing the Nationalist Party to flee to Taiwan. The ROC maintained a separate existence, backed by the US military, but eventually lost the diplomatic game as the rest of the world, including America, legally accepted just "one China" and recognized the PRC.
Reuniting the two — i.e., subordinating Taiwan to the PRC — is the ultimate stage for the mainland leadership in ending "the Century of Humiliation," during which China was subjected to foreign invasion and occupation. The American Civil War, in which northerners refused to accept secession, is the only analogous American event in terms of nationalism at its most raw level. Following the eleven southern states' secession over slavery, the national government fought over the union, resulting in the deaths of 750,000 Americans (approximately eight million in today's figures).
Policymakers in the United States want to believe that America will triumph. Some, like former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta, believe that simply threatening to interfere will be enough to defend Taipei and that the PRC will back down. All the US needs to do now is declare its willingness to act, and the Chinese leadership will retire to Zhongnanhai, heads bowed, and accept American suzerainty for the rest of their lives.
Others either believe America will win or refuse to consider the potential of defeat. They disregard the potential repercussions because they believe Washington must intervene. Everything must simply work out.
Fighting the People's Republic of China for Taiwan, however, would be nothing like America's recent military experience. Iraq and Afghanistan were walkovers in comparison to the high-intensity fight against the well-armed and highly motivated People's Liberation Army, which was armed to the teeth with missiles and a growing nuclear weapons. At its worst, air and naval conflict between the United States and the People's Republic of China would transport Americans back to the Pacific War of World War II, which no one wants to replay, with a nuclear twist if such weapons were deployed against America.
Beijing also appears to be prepared to go to war if required, despite the fact that this is not its preferred option. Taiwan's submission should be discussed, according to the PRC. Some PRC leaders do not believe the US will engage in a conflict, leading to the famed taunt that America would not risk Los Angeles for Taipei. And based on any typical balancing of interests, that is a reasonable assumption. Taiwan is significantly more important to China than the United States. Imagine the People's Republic of China declaring its readiness to defend Cuba from US assault. That would be similarly absurd to Washington, especially after witnessing the Soviet Union's collapse in a similar situation six decades ago.
Most Chinese authorities, on the other hand, appear to be more pragmatic, ready for American action. Beijing benefits from the tyranny of distance: Taiwan is just around 100 miles from the mainland, about the same distance as Cuba is from the United States. Taiwan, on the other hand, is almost 7,000 miles from the US mainland and around 1.700 miles from Guam, the closest US territory. Because it is easier and less expensive to discourage than it is to project power, Washington is at a huge disadvantage. Surprisingly, the United States frequently loses war games involving a Taiwan conflict.
Despite the fact that Washington is developing tactics to counter the PRC's anti-access/area denial capabilities, even with access to NATO bases in the region, the US would struggle to win. Missile assaults would put ground facilities and naval forces at risk. Furthermore, despite Tokyo's harder stance against China and Seoul's new conservative leadership, no country is guaranteed to join the US if war looms. This would transform them into military targets and assure the PRC's hatred for the foreseeable future. If the allies believe Washington is at least largely to blame for the crisis, they will be much more hesitant to act.
Escalation appears to be unavoidable. Guam, a US possession with military installations, and Okinawa, a Japanese island with American bases and soldiers, were both targets for China. The US would almost certainly target mainland sites, with a few hundred of them potentially being deployed to support an invasion of Taiwan. Both sides would be under a lot of pressure to retaliate. According to a recent wargame, Beijing would most certainly use nuclear weapons early in any battle, with potentially fatal repercussions.
In the end, the United States may find itself committing a large portion of its military budget – at a time when the country's population is aging and deficits are quickly increasing - to combating a rising, distant opponent in its own neighborhood over critical interests. And by doing so, the United States would be risking a higher risk of nuclear war than even during the Cold War. To put it another way, the American people may find themselves facing national bankruptcy and ruin in order to deal with this single contingency: defending Taiwan from China.
Taiwan's more than 23 million people have earned the right to control their own destiny. They have established a democratic government, a market economy, and a thriving community. Risking their homeland, on the other hand, is a high price for Americans to pay, far too high. Personnel have been killed, planes have been shot down, ships have been sunk, and bases have been bombed in the war with China. In a war with China, nuclear-tipped missiles may be launched at American cities. Even a U.S. victory would be fleeting, as China might retreat and prepare for a new round, as Germany did between World Wars I and II.
It's preferable to negotiate a regional agreement that assures Taipei avoids declaring independence and maintaining military ties with other countries, while Beijing decreases military threats and endorses peaceful reunification.
Arming and training Taiwanese soldiers, preparing global sanctions in the event of an attack, and devising asymmetric military responses are all lessons learned from Ukraine. The idea should be to place the most responsibility on Taiwan while increasing the price for China rather than America.
The president's inability to keep his mouth shut is quite perilous. Ignoring the real implications of a fight with China over Taiwan is far worse. It is also a political crime to expect Americans to embrace the expenses and risks of full-scale combat with the PRC without debate. Before the Taiwan Strait becomes the world's latest catastrophe, the Biden administration should handle all three challenges.