Magazine December 20, 2021, Issue

The United States Should Defend Taiwan

(Roman Genn)

The costs of not doing so would be even greater.

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The costs of not doing so would be even greater

The United States should defend Taiwan if China attacks it. Not out of altruism — although it would benefit Taiwan for us to do so — but out of self-interest. Our enlightened self-interest, surely, but self-interest all the same. It is important to understand clearly why this makes sense, because if defending Taiwan is to be a reasonable course of action, we need to be much better prepared, and remedying the deficits in our defenses will require substantial and sustained political support. Building that support will not be easy, since it is far from obvious why defending a small island lying just a hundred miles off the Chinese coast against the enormous might of the People’s Republic is in Americans’ interest.

The fundamental reason is, counterintuitively, China’s awesome power, and the very real danger that this power, if allowed to expand too far, will pose to Americans’ prosperity and freedom. The United States should defend Taiwan because it is important to deny China hegemony over Asia, by far the world’s largest market area. If China could dominate Asia, as it has made increasingly clear it seeks to do, Beijing would determine the terms, tempo, and distribution of global economic power. This would have the most profound and direct implications for Americans’ economic fortunes and, because our economic security is tightly linked to our freedom, it would ultimately endanger our liberties. A China dominant over Asia would have the power and wealth to dictate to Americans, fundamentally altering — and undermining — our national life.

That China would do this is highly probable. Indeed, it’s what Beijing is doing to Australia right now: attempting to use its leverage as Canberra’s chief export destination to compel Australia to suppress free speech within its own borders as punishment for having the audacity to call for an independent investigation of the origins of COVID-19. Nor is Australia an outlier. China has used a similar playbook against Canada, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, Norway, the Philippines, South Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Bear in mind as well that China has already created a panopticon social model within its borders, using big data, surveillance, and coercion to engineer domestic political control. And that’s against its own people; imagine what famously nationalistic China will be prepared to do to others. Indeed, it has already begun exporting many of its instruments of social control to other countries, while also developing various forms of leverage over them.

Now just contemplate what a far more powerful China, one hegemonic over the world’s largest economic area, could do. We can foresee the results, not least because Beijing has been quite clear about what it wants to achieve. Beijing seeks to shift the commanding heights of global economic activity away from the United States to China, making our already painful deindustrialization just a preface. In Beijing’s aspirations, the yuan would replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, with grave consequences for the livelihoods of ordinary Americans. Regulators in Beijing, not Washington or U.S. state capitals, would set the terms of global economic activity. The result of this would be an America diminished in economic vitality, with many of our freedoms increasingly at the mercy of Beijing.

How do we avoid this outcome, one so poisonous to our national life as a free and prosperous people? The key is to assemble and sustain a coalition of nations that, regardless of the source of their motivation, share our resolve to prevent Beijing from dominating Asia.

This collaboration is essential because the only way China can be prevented from dominating Asia is through a coalition. While the United States is a superpower, its economy is roughly comparable in size to China’s, and it is, of course, located across a vast ocean from the economic centers of Asia. Power and influence naturally tend to attenuate over distance, and so America simply is not strong — let alone resolute — enough to confront China alone in Asia. Instead, an anti-hegemonic coalition is needed to prevent this outcome. This grouping can be very ecumenical; it should involve any country willing and able to stand up to Beijing’s desire to dominate the region. With the uniquely powerful United States by necessity in the lead, it could naturally include countries such as Japan, India, Australia, South Korea, Vietnam, perhaps others — and Taiwan.

Critically, the vital life force of this coalition is confidence — confidence in America’s willingness to stand strong alongside these states in the face of Chinese pressure or assault, and especially alongside those states to which Washington has specifically pledged itself. Without this confidence, states in the region will naturally fear being isolated and punished by a China with the reason and ability to penalize them most severely, and will thus be compellingly inclined to cut a deal with Beijing before they are subjected to its mighty ire. 

What matters for this confidence is not some generalized credibility; instead, what counts is more differentiated perceptions of how America will behave — countries’ judgment of how America will act in their particular context based on more directly relevant factors. Thus countries in Asia haven’t been particularly troubled by the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; in fact they may well be encouraged if it allows America to focus on Asia. But if one western Pacific archipelago — say, the Philippines — saw America fail to defend Taiwan (its neighboring archipelago), Manila would quite reasonably doubt America’s resolve to stand up for it. And given how narrow the regional balance of power is, if this failure of confidence shifts even a few important states toward China, Beijing may be able to assemble a strong enough coalition of its own to force the issue and establish its hegemony over Asia. With confidence in America’s commitment, however, enough states can stand together, checking China’s domineering aspirations.

With this critical strategic context in mind, Taiwan’s role is significant for three reasons.

First, Taiwan is directly linked to perceptions in Asia of American willingness to defend fellow coalition members against China. Whether we like it or not, American differentiated credibility in Asia is tied to Taiwan, and the key audiences who will decide whether their countries should stand up to China are watching with the most searching attention how Washington treats Taiwan.

This is not an accident or unreasonable. Decision-makers in capitals such as Manila, Seoul, and Tokyo, not to mention Hanoi and Jakarta, are carefully following America’s behavior toward Taiwan, where Washington has staked its credibility, because it is a good way of getting a sense of how they will likely be treated once China’s darkening shadow falls on them. If America were to fail to defend Taiwan, or to do so only fecklessly, these audiences could quite reasonably take the lesson that they will receive similar treatment from America when the chips are down. If Washington, despite all its soaring rhetoric, is willing to cut off Taiwan, why would the Philippines, let alone Vietnam, be treated differently? If this assessment took hold widely and firmly enough, it could very well cause a “run on the bank” of America’s reputation for standing strong against China, collapsing the anti-­hegemonic coalition.

It is important here to dispel a legalistic counterargument. It is true that Taiwan is not a formal U.S. treaty ally. But international politics is not a court of law; it’s an anarchic and potentially lethal arena in which countries need to make their best judgments without recourse to an omnipotent umpire, knowing that the wrong course can lead to disaster. And the fact is that the United States does not need to have a treaty to have its credibility on the line.

Meantime, the United States has made very clear over the last 40-plus years that it will fundamentally oppose any attempt by China to forcibly subjugate Taiwan. The cornerstone Taiwan Relations Act makes clear that the United States opposes Beijing’s coercing the fate of the people of Taiwan, and Washington has layered on top of that declaration multiple policies and statements, such as the so-called Six Assurances, to underline the point. Indeed, the Biden administration has, if anything, strengthened the U.S. enmeshment with the island, repeatedly stating that America’s commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid.” In light of this, key states in the region regard U.S. credibility as being on the line even though Taiwan is not a U.S. treaty ally — and this (reasonable) perception is what matters. The United States’ failure to effectively defend Taiwan would therefore cast serious doubt on its ability or willingness to defend the other states, thereby dramatically weakening the confidence upon which an anti-hegemonic coalition must be founded.

The second reason Taiwan is important is the island’s strategic and military significance to the U.S. and thus the anti-hegemonic coalition’s position in Asia. The western Pacific area is critical because most of the important countries in the Pacific, such as Japan, South Korea, and the southeast Asian states, are clustered along its western shore. The United States, as the coalition’s irreplaceable leader, therefore cannot pull back to the empty expanses of the central Pacific without in effect forfeiting Asia to China. It and they therefore must defend forward. And Taiwan is located smack in the middle of the natural forward position that geography dictates in the western Pacific: the first island chain running from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan to the Philippines.

Seizing Taiwan would greatly improve China’s ability to dominate this crucial area. With the island under its heel, Beijing would remove any hindrance Taiwan itself would present to projecting its military power beyond the first island chain. Even more, China would indubitably use Taiwan as a springboard, expanding and strengthening its military’s reach; this would improve Beijing’s ability to project dominating power against U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Advocates for abandoning Taiwan argue that it is 100 miles from the Chinese coast, but so too is South Korea. Likewise, the Philippine island of Luzon is 100 miles from Taiwan. Go much farther beyond those distances and there is only empty ocean. The reality is that America’s defense perimeter without Taiwan would therefore likely be in key respects as challenging to defend as the line that includes Taiwan.

Meantime, if China subordinates Taiwan, Beijing will have broken through the obstructing line presented by the first island chain. Once through it, Beijing could focus attention and resources farther afield, including into the central Pacific to deny America’s ability even to reach the Pacific’s western shores. A Chinese military undergirded by one of the world’s two super-economies would now contest more effectively for advantage in places with names that call to mind the Second World War, such as Guam, Palau, and Yap. America’s military task would now be more desperate: ensuring that U.S. forces could get to the region in sufficient strength to matter in defending its core allies in Asia.

In sum, with Taiwan in any anti-hegemonic coalition, China’s military is confined or at least restricted inside that first island chain, and it must focus on dealing with Taiwan. With Taiwan under Beijing’s control, by contrast, China’s military has largely unimpeded access to the central Pacific and Southeast Asia, and it can focus on further developing the power-projection forces (such as aircraft carriers, satellites, marines, and nuclear-powered submarines) to impose its will well beyond.

The third reason why defending Taiwan is worthwhile is that the alternatives to it are worse. Many of the more realistic-minded arguments for cutting Taiwan out of our defense perimeter assume that the United States will be able to redraw its line behind Taiwan without too much commotion. Yet the reality is that the situation would almost certainly be far more dynamic — and demanding.

This is because Taiwan’s loss would require compensation in two key respects. Washington’s abandonment of Taiwan, even if deftly done (which cannot be presumed), would inevitably cause alarm in other important capitals, such as Manila, Seoul, and Tokyo, that they too would be on the chopping block if things got too hairy for America. In order to allay these well-grounded fears, Washington would very likely need to take dramatic steps to show its resolve and staying power, steps that might be ill advised. Because of this, abandoning Taiwan might end up requiring a more aggressive and dangerous approach than seeking to defend it.

At the same time, the loss of Taiwan, one of Asia’s top ten economies, to Beijing’s pro-hegemonic coalition would demand balancing by the addition of some other major state or states to the anti-hegemonic grouping. Otherwise, the coalition might be too weak to resist Beijing’s domineering ambitions. But those states that would still consider joining the coalition following Taiwan’s loss might well demand a security guarantee from the United States to take the risk of becoming so involved. This, in turn, would increase rather than diminish our degree of entanglement in the region.

Moreover, the states most likely to be willing to participate actively in such a coalition are those that are afraid of China because they are vulnerable to it, which means any such state is likely to be even more vulnerable to Beijing than Taiwan currently is. For instance, Vietnam has shown willingness to stand up to China, but it is highly vul­nerable to Chinese assault along their long shared border. Meanwhile other, less immediately threatened countries, such as Indonesia, that would make more attractive coalition members are the least likely to want to join any anti-hegemonic coalition; their preference, not unreasonably, is to free-ride. At the same time, as an island, Taiwan plays to America’s longtime advantages in aerospace and maritime warfare; potential replacements such as Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand are vulnerable to Chinese land attack, in which America’s military is by no means clearly superior. There is good reason that Americans have repeatedly found wisdom in the adage that anyone who wants to get in a land war in Asia should have his head examined. None of our choices for confronting China in Asia is easy, but holding the line at Taiwan is better than the realistic alternatives.

It’s important to emphasize what isn’t on this list. Taiwan is important to blunting Beijing’s ambitions to dominate Asia and, from that position, intrude in our national life. This is not because Taiwan is a democracy or a free-market economy. These facts rightly elicit our sympathy and admiration, but they are not crucial for American interests. Contrary to what we have heard for much of the last generation, Americans can in fact be secure, free, and prosperous without everyone else being free. It is important to say this forthrightly because of the stakes involved: a full-scale war with a nuclear-armed superpower of comparable national strength. This risk should be countenanced only for stakes that are sufficiently valuable to Americans, and Taiwan’s internal politics do not rise to that level. What does rise to that level, however, is Taiwan’s importance to any plausible anti-hegemonic coalition in Asia.

None of these three reasons is itself existential for Americans. But they add up to a compelling basis to defend Taiwan. The key, though, is to ensure that our ability to defend Taiwan is consistent with the level of our interest in its defense. Our interests in Taiwan aren’t existential, so our defense strategy can’t require existential sacrifices for its defense alone. We can’t, for instance, predicate a defense of Taiwan on large-scale nuclear first use against China, which would both be immoral and call forth a matching strike on our homeland. Nor can we tank our economy in hopes of forcing China to its knees. That almost certainly won’t work, and even if it might, it is not rightly proportioned to the stakes for us.

Fortunately, we don’t need to do these things. What we must be able to do is deny China’s ability to invade or truly strangle the island — a “denial defense.” If China can’t do these things, it likely won’t be able to muster enough force to get Taiwan to give up. Things might not be pleasant on Taiwan, but our job isn’t to make our allies perfectly secure. Our job is to make it possible for Taiwan to stand up to China in order to uphold the anti-hegemonic coalition and thus deny Beijing dominance of the world’s largest market area. If we can reach that denial defense standard, China will face a very bad choice: try to escalate its way out of failure in ways that will almost certainly catalyze our own “righteous might” and elicit international support for Taiwan’s defense, or give up (formally or not). The results of this strategy might not be as satisfying as sailing into Tokyo Bay, but it’s enough. And against a superpower such as China, enough is a lot.

Our overriding purpose now must be to achieve that level of defense for Taiwan, through our efforts and Taiwan’s own. Bewilderingly, though, both we and Taiwan are failing to do this despite its being well within our power. The time is long past for dilatoriness. We must drop everything else and ensure that we and the Taiwanese themselves procure and deploy the military forces and systems needed for Taiwan’s effective defense. If we don’t, our future countrymen will very likely ask why we failed to take such modest steps to avoid catastrophic defeat — and worse.

Editor’s Note: Read Patrick Porter’s response, here.

Elbridge A. Colby — Mr. Colby is a principal at the Marathon Initiative and the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.

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