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Washington has strategic, economic, and normative reasons for safeguarding the island from Chinese coercion.
Amidst talk of U.S.-China competition, Taiwan too often devolves into a policy football, a subset object at the prey of larger geopolitical forces. Calls to make an explicit security guarantee for Taiwan, maintain the status quo, or even abandon the island cannot exist apart from U.S.-China competition. While reducing a vibrant island of 23 million to a policy point may be an invariable fact of statecraft, Taiwan is not simply an entry onto the balance of power ledger. Nor are simple Cold War analogies able to frame American interests in Taiwan vis-a-vis China in light of U.S.-China trade and modern competition.
Below we seek to rectify this simplification by analyzing what exact interest the U.S. has in Taiwan and how such interest should compute in U.S.-China statecraft, especially over the next critical decade. We conclude that Taiwan’s geopolitical position and economy, while important, are not critical to American interests in East Asia. However, Taiwan’s status as a vibrant, autonomous democracy is critical and an American interest.
Although the 1980 Taiwan Relations Act aimed to cushion Washington’s derecognition of the Republic of China in 1979, Taiwan has struggled to maintain relationships with other states, a challenge exacerbated by China’s growing power. The resulting absurdity leaves 23 million Taiwanese able to trade, travel, and negotiate – even to compete at the Olympics under the name “Chinese Taipei” – without enjoying the privileges of statehood. Taiwan is effectively a permanent, island-bound diaspora. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) treats Taiwan as a province – mainland maps depict Taiwan as such – whose inevitable return is strictly a domestic issue. The PRC foreign minister says Taiwan’s return is part of the “arc of history” and describes any declaration of U.S. support for Taiwanese independence a “red line.” PRC President Xi Jinping states reunification with Taiwan is critical to China’s national “rejuvenation.”
Beijing increasingly sees itself safer in a world fundamentally different from order(s) built by the West. Even within a softening of trade and travel policies, however, Beijing has long “sought to isolate Taipei internationally,” using diplomatic and economic means, including large-scale investment/infrastructure packages, to entice small states to abandon Taipei for Beijing as it has done in recent years with El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Panama. Beijing even coerced global airlines to display Taiwan as part of the mainland. The result of U.S. derecognition in 1979 and the modern PRC dissuasion campaign is that Taiwan has diplomatic relations with only 15 of the 193 United Nations states – and just one in all of Africa.
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For its part, Taiwan’s population increasingly supports decreasing cultural ties with the mainland. Surveys conducted in 2019 revealed that most Islanders consider themselves Taiwanese, as opposed to Chinese, though the split runs starkly along age and party lines. However, Taiwan’s embrace of self-identification has not been met by commensurate increases in its defenses. Taiwan’s army remains ill-prepared to defend the island, though its air force and navy are better equipped, due to the fact that conscription ended in 2012 and recruitment has lagged since. It is troubling that Taiwanese identity has risen concurrently with decreasing defense readiness, even as PRC coercion grows. However, an American security guarantee could create a moral hazard by underwriting Taiwanese declarations or, even worse, reducing Taiwan’s military preparedness still further.
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This may already be the case. The Tsai Ing-wen government’s failure to meet enlistment goals, its reticence to expand conscription, and several recent high-profile military accidents all reveal a lackadaisical attitude toward China and/or a presumption of a U.S. security guarantee. Consequently, an explicit embrace of Taiwan could engender reckless behavior, as occurred in the 1950s. Nor is a small commitment of force to Taiwan likely to change the PRC’s calculus.
China must already consider U.S. or Japanese involvement in its Taiwan plans. Thus a small force, far from acting as a “tripwire,” is more likely to imperil allied options by creating a force in need of rescue or a moral hazard that discourages an effective Taiwanese defense and causes over-expectations of U.S. support. Ultimately, buck-passing is a major concern for a partner more than 11,000 kilometers from U.S. shores; the U.S. cannot care more about Taiwan’s security than the Taiwanese. Any deployment of forces or use of diplomacy must therefore be in concert with U.S. interests.
The U.S. faces a toxic asymmetry of interests in Taiwan along with contradictory and escalatory pressures. Juxtaposed against the PRC’s techno-authoritarianism, Taiwan provides a proximate and culturally similar counterpoint to PRC propaganda, which depicts democracy as unable to deliver sustainable growth. Altogether, China’s combination of military strength, economic weight, and global ambition threatens U.S. interests because the PRC offers an apt counter to the American-led liberal order by offering a non-Western model that (potentially) demonstrates that democratic processes and open markets are not prerequisites for economic growth. Whether U.S.-PRC competition is rooted in ideological or geopolitics, there is a robust U.S.-PRC ideological divide that must be considered. China can discredit American influence not only through supporting authoritarian governments but also by skewing “global standards for trade and investment in its favor to the disadvantage of its competitors.” In this model, China’s success is implicitly America’s loss. Accordingly, U.S. policymakers must consider ideology, especially regarding the U.S.-PRC-Taiwan nexus.
To inform our assessment we first consider the implications of a PRC-controlled Taiwan. Considering the geopolitical value of Taiwan is useful because doing so illuminates if or when the U.S. would consider Taiwan worth fighting for. Rather than having to consider a rear-area threat, a PRC-controlled Taiwan would serve as a forward base, extending its aircraft and missile ranges another 150 nautical miles (nm) to the east. This would enable PRC interdiction of air and sea routes in the East China Sea and increase China’s ability to strike at targets in Japan or Guam. Conversely, U.S. and allied forces would be pushed further afield, with their bases under even greater threat of PRC missile or aircraft attack. However, while Taiwan offers a platform to project power onto the Chinese mainland, placing forces on the island makes them exceedingly vulnerable absent aerospace dominance.
Economically, taking Taiwan would give Beijing control over its fifth-largest trading partner. Beijing would also gain access to its high-tech industry, including world-class semiconductor factories, adding to its considerable industrial base. Though Taiwan’s impressive $600 billion GDP would fall under PRC control, the degree of cut largely depends on how Beijing gains the island. A mutual reconciliation may minimally affect GDP whereas conflict may curtail trade entirely.
Conversely, a sober analysis shows that Taiwan trade is not vital to the American economy, certainly not relative to U.S.-PRC bilateral trade. Taiwan is the U.S.’ 10th largest trading partner ($85 billion), a paltry sum relative to trade with China ($635 billion) or Canada and Mexico ($500 billion each). Decoupling the world’s largest economies solely to preserve Taiwan would be self-destructive, and access to Taiwan is not essential to U.S. power projection. Nor is the island critical for projecting military force. Consequently, Taiwan’s importance differs relatively. To the U.S., Taiwan is a critical link, if replaceable, in the First Island Chain, while to the PRC the island acts as a “cork in the bottle” of China’s ability to project power in the East China Sea.
And therein lies the rub: though pure self-interest reveals that Taiwan’s political alignment or control is not vital for the U.S., how that alignment comes about is. Had the PRC controlled Taiwan since 1949 as it does Hainan Island, U.S. interests would not be at stake. However, a PRC attempt to forcibly retake the heretofore independent Island would be such a significant breach of international norms as to become a vital American interest.
The U.S. has a stake in ensuring the island’s unique status. Indeed, during the Cold War, the U.S. did not consider democratic solidarity a distraction to maintaining a favorable balance of power but rather a means of doing so. While the U.S. worked with authoritarian regimes toward some policy goals, its closest partners were always democracies. The loss of Taiwan through overt PRC action would have a detrimental effect on American credibility and global values-based policies, thus striking at the core of the U.S.-PRC ideological competition. Therefore, the manner of any potential Taiwanese transition is of vital interest to Washington.
Bad as it is, maintaining the awful status quo is the only reasonable forecast as other solutions may be unattainable for generations. Despite PRC claims – and its growing capabilities – the critical trend lines favor Taiwan. Its people view themselves as independent and the island’s economic heft and leadership have helped secure its place in the world, particularly when contrasted with China’s state-directed economy and bilateral coercion. Moreover, there is increasing evidence that the region is becoming hostile to China’s coercion and diplomatic bullying, ranging from Australia’s trade war with the PRC to Japan’s calls for Taiwan’s defense to growing regional antipathy toward China.
Likewise, regional powers such as the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and longtime PRC nemesis Vietnam, are becoming more vocal about opposing PRC actions in the South China Sea and embracing calls for regional solutions along with increased military exercises with the U.S., Japan, and Australia. These regional responses have come concurrently with the deployment of British, German, and French naval forces to East Asia.
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So, what course should American Taiwan policy chart? Of course, not everything is a vital interest. A nation that considers the world as its own is bound to be disappointed. Critics of the Biden Administration’s “Democracy Agenda” rightfully point out, democracy is a continuum rather than a binary choice between authoritarianism and liberalism. But as detailed, Taiwan is economically important (if not crucial) to American trade in the region and offers the best political counterpoint to the PRC. More broadly, supporting an isolated democracy from external threats is implicitly beneficial to the normative standards the U.S. supports.
Maintaining the status quo, however, does not imply that American policy should remain static. Effective cross-strait deterrence remains precarious and increasingly dependent on credible American force projection capabilities in the region. In short, “American capabilities need to change, not policy.” Maintaining the status quo is only a surface-level continuity. Below the waterline it requires skillful diplomacy, enhanced military capabilities, and private signaling to the PRC – similar to the “adroit and vigilant application of counterforce” advocated by George Kennan 70 years ago. Whether American statecraft can walk the difficult line between competition, deterrence, and war remains an open-ended question.
This article represents the authors’ personal views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, nor the U.S. government.
John Bolton is a U.S. Army Officer attending currently pursuing a PhD in International Relations at Johns Hopkins SAIS. A graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s Art of War Scholars Program, he holds degrees in military history and mechanical engineering. He has served in various command and staff assignments throughout his career including multiple combat deployments. He is an AH-64D/E aviator and Mandarin speaker.
Derik R. Zitelman serves as a policy analyst and strategist for Booz Allen Hamilton where he has helped military clients improve medical plans and operations for the past eight years. Mr. Zitelman managed the production of the U.S. military’s first Joint Medical Estimate, identifying Department of Defense operational medicine gaps and shortfalls with mitigation strategies to regulate risks. He currently supports the Joint Staff and oversees the development of forward-looking strategic documents that identify future military medical requirements and capabilities for large scale combat operations.
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