Defending Taiwan and Deterring China
“I believe the United States will fight to defend Taiwan if China invades Taiwan. In my opinion, it’s unthinkable that the United States would stand by and allow China to conquer Taiwan.” These are not the words of a wide-eyed Wilsonian or a neocon hawk. Rather, they come courtesy of John Mearsheimer, perhaps America's foremost realist foreign-policy scholar. If we accept Mearsheimer's assessment as a given—and there's no reason not to—the next step of the given would be trying to fend off such an attack or, even worse, trying to liberate a conquered Taiwan, which raises a crucial question: If it's unthinkable that America would allow the PRC to conquer Taiwan, wouldn't it be less costly and more prudent to do all we can now to deter Beijing from taking that step?
This is not a theoretical question. Beijing’s words and actions suggest it is ready to move against Taiwan.
In 2015, Beijing released a military strategy describing “the Taiwan issue” as key to “China’s reunification and long-term development” and declaring “reunification…an inevitable trend in the course of national rejuvenation.”
In 2019, PRC strongman Xi Jinping proposed (more accurately, demanded) that Taiwan unify with the Mainland under a “one country, two systems” approach. Xi has made clear that one way or another, democratic Taiwan “must and will be” absorbed by the communist Mainland. "We make no promise to abandon the use of force and retain the option of taking all necessary measures."
These are troubling and problematic words. The PRC has never ruled Taiwan, so "reunification" is inaccurate. In a very real sense, a Taiwanese nation—culturally, politically, economically distinct from the PRC—has been built over the past 70 years. That explains why 67 percent of Taiwan’s population identifies as “Taiwanese” (up from 17 percent in 1992), only 2.4 percent of the population identifies as “Chinese” (down from 22.5 percent in 1992), and more than eight in 10 Taiwanese oppose Beijing’s idea of unification.
Indeed, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen calls Taiwan’s island democracy “a sovereign independent country.” Yet Xi considers Taiwan the PRC’s 34th province.
In short, Taiwan’s struggle is a struggle for freedom—a reflection of America’s values. But it’s also a struggle for America’s interests. Even a brief war between Taiwan and the PRC would directly affect America’s third- and ninth-largest trading partners, and it would disrupt one-third of global shipping, including $208 billion in U.S. trade.
Then there are the second-order effects. "If we didn't defend Taiwan, it would have devastating consequences for our relationship with Japan, South Korea, and our other allies in East Asia," Mearsheimer concludes. Indeed, failing to come to Taiwan's defense would create a deep chasm of doubt among key treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific—Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia. Beijing would exploit those doubts to great effect. And some of those allies might then feel compelled to develop their own nuclear deterrent. A six-state nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific isn’t in anyone’s interests.
Moreover, Taiwan's conquest would give Xi reason to believe he can move against other places with impunity. Xi has already broken international agreements related to Hong Kong’s independence, and he has flouted an international tribunal’s ruling rejecting PRC claims in the South China Sea. Plus, China has territorial disputes and territorial-waters disputes with more than a dozen nations, including India, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea and Indonesia.
Given that the lesson of Munich is that appeasement only whets a dictator’s appetite, now is the time to draw the line—and that line runs through the Taiwan Strait.
So far in 2020, China has flown fighter-bombers across the median line in the Taiwan Strait (twice), conducted provocative naval exercises near and around Taiwan, practiced large-scale amphibious assaults, sent heavy bombers into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zone, and test-fired a barrage of missiles in the South China Sea. Throughout 2019, Beijing interfered in Taiwan’s presidential election. In 2018, a package of PRC bombers and fighters menaced Taiwan with encirclement flights. Similar incidents in 2016 saw Beijing send bombers, fighter escorts and spy planes into the skies around Taiwan, and a PRC aircraft carrier circle the island. In 2015, satellites snapped images of PRC military-training grounds featuring mockups of key infrastructure in Taiwan—the presidential complex, Taichung Airport, the foreign ministry.
According to the Pentagon’s 2020 China report, the PRC has 412,000 ground troops, six amphibious brigades, five air assault brigades, five airborne brigades, 257 warships, 250 bombers, and 600 fighter-jets based in the Taiwan region. In addition, the PRC has some 1,600 missiles opposite Taiwan, up from 200 in 2000. Taiwan has 88,000 active-duty ground troops, 109 surface ships (including coast guard vessels), and 400 fighter-jets—total.
Since the end of World War II, America has premised its national security on deterrence.
President Truman called NATO “an integrated international force whose object is to maintain peace through strength.”
“Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action,” President Eisenhower explained, “so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk its own destruction.”
President Kennedy vowed to “strengthen our military power to the point where no aggressor will dare attack.” President Reagan steered the Cold War to a peaceful end by promoting “peace through strength,” noting that “none of the four wars in my lifetime came about because we were too strong.”
However, deterrence only works if the enemy believes the costs of aggression are greater than any potential benefits of aggression.
Regrettably, the United States isn’t doing enough to deter Xi from attacking Taiwan. A first step in correcting this is updating or replacing the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA calls “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” a “grave concern to the United States” and pledges that America will maintain “the capacity...to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan.”
There’s nothing in these lawyerly words that guarantees Taiwan’s security or obliges the U.S. to come to Taiwan’s defense—nothing like the North Atlantic Treaty, U.S.-Philippines treaty, U.S.-Japan treaty, or U.S.-South Korea treaty—all of which require signatories to take action in response to an attack. As a result, neither side of the Taiwan Strait knows exactly what Washington would do in the event of war. This policy of “strategic ambiguity” may have served a purpose in the past, but it’s a recipe for disaster today.
There's a reason the U.S. crafted mutual-defense treaties with allies in Europe, Japan, Korea and the Philippines, a reason U.S. forces were based in West Berlin and Japan during the Cold War, a reason U.S. forces have been on the 38th Parallel since 1953. It's the same reason Beijing wants the U.S. out of the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Australia, and the South China Sea today: Attacking a U.S. treaty ally means you're going to war against the U.S. military—no ambiguity or doubts about the consequences. That certainty of response—the promise that the costs of aggression will be greater than the benefits—is the essence of deterrence. And it works.
The ambiguity that characterizes the TRA, on the other hand, could lead to miscalculation, which has often led to war in the past. The antidote is clarity plus strength. Washington must make clear to Beijing—by word and deed—that China will not be permitted to absorb Taiwan.
Some in Washington recognize it’s time to shift from ambiguity to clarity. The recently introduced Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA) would authorize the use of military force “to secure and protect Taiwan against…direct armed attack by the military forces of the People’s Republic of China, the taking of territory under the effective jurisdiction of Taiwan” and the “endangering of the lives of members of the military forces of Taiwan or civilians within the effective jurisdiction of Taiwan.”
Updating the TRA with the TIPA would check the “clarity” box. As for “strength,” Taiwan in late 2019 announced its biggest defense-spending increase in a decade. As long as Taiwan remains committed to a peaceful status quo, the U.S. should help Taiwan help itself by providing tools tailored to defending the island—anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft batteries, and anti-missile systems to deter an invasion, non-digital communications systems in the event of a PRC cyber-siege, rapid-deploy naval mines to blunt an amphibious attack, VTOL aircraft in the event of PRC attacks on airfields and airports. “Such aid is not an act of war, even if a dictator should unilaterally proclaim it so to be,” as President Roosevelt observed. FDR understood that deterring aggression does not constitute aggression.
In addition to a robust military assistance package and a clear security commitment to Taiwan, America must invest more in its own military. Given America’s mushrooming debt, that won’t be easy. Today’s defense budget is 3.1 percent of GDP, half what it was for most of the Cold War. A House bill proposes $6 billion for an “Indo-Pacific Deterrence Initiative.” That’s an important step, but it’s just one step.
By definition, naval power is a prerequisite for deterrence in a maritime domain such as Taiwan’s neighborhood. America’s overstretched Navy is doing its best to deter Beijing: Freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea and transits of the Taiwan Strait have significantly increased this year. For the first time in three years, summer 2020 saw the U.S. simultaneously surge three aircraft carriers into the Pacific. But at just 296 ships, America’s Navy is simply too small. “For us to meet what combatant commanders request,” according to former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert, “we need a Navy of 450 ships.” Recall that when President Bill Clinton dispatched two carrier battle groups to smother Beijing’s temper tantrum in the Taiwan Strait, the fleet totaled 375 ships. At the height of President Reagan’s rebuild, the Navy boasted 594 ships.
Deterring an attack on Taiwan won’t be easy, but it’s preferable to trying to claw back a conquered Taiwan—or letting Xi absorb a free people. Yes, Taiwan is relatively remote; yes, it’s in the crosshairs of a military juggernaut; yes, that juggernaut has conventional military advantages in the theater. But each of these factors applied in West Berlin, which was literally surrounded by Soviet bloc armies. President Kennedy called it “a defended island of freedom.” It remained free only because it was defended.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose.