National security planners in the Pentagon and elsewhere get paid to look ahead. What threats and challenges will the United States face in the years ahead that require serious preparations now and in the near term? There is a list, and at the top of that list is a place few Americans even think about — Taiwan.
When the Chinese civil war ground to a bloody conclusion in 1949, Mao’s communist armies forced the defeated Nationalists (Kuomintang) to retreat to the large island of Taiwan 90 miles off the China coast. Mao prepared for a final attack across the Taiwan strait, only to be frustrated by the outbreak of the Korean War and the introduction of U.S. naval power off the China coast. The United States had long maintained close ties to the Kuomintang regime and for the next 25 years recognized it as the legitimate government of all of China. This diplomatic fiction was abandoned in the years following Nixon’s opening to China.
The United States formally recognized the People’s Republic of China and policy toward Taiwan settled into a peculiar gray zone. As part of Nixon’s understanding with Mao, the United States agreed that there was only one China and Taiwan, in an abstract sense, was part of it. But the United States would not sanction China’s takeover of Taiwan. And, in fact, the United States treated Taiwan as if it were an independent state with a de facto embassy in Taipei and robust economic ties with the increasingly prosperous island. Moreover, Washington continued sales of military equipment to Taipei. The key question was whether the United States would help defend Taiwan if it were attacked. The answer was deliberately obscure; there was no formal commitment, no treaty, but lots of hints that, if necessary, America might come to Taiwan’s rescue. The fact that Taiwan had become a vibrant democracy added to that expectation.
China liked none of this and repeatedly and loudly reaffirmed that Taiwan was an “inalienable” part of China and Beijing was determined to “reunite” Taiwan with the “motherland” by military means, if necessary.
For 70 years this strategic standoff has not crossed the line into military conflict. There have been two major reasons for this. First, Beijing has clearly calculated that a war could be very costly, and it might not win. Second, there seemed to be another way. China’s booming economy had attracted massive investment from Taiwanese companies while trade grew dramatically. It looked like the increasingly dense network of economic ties might eventually persuade officials on Taiwan that reunification with China just made practical sense. Shared economic interests would ultimately dictate political choices. As part of this peaceful unification strategy, Beijing pointed to Hong Kong where the “one country; two systems” formula allowed Hong Kong extensive autonomy (and prosperity). Until quite recently, it appeared that Beijing would continue to be patient in the belief that Taiwan was a ripe fruit soon to fall from the tree of its own accord. This, in turn, allowed U.S. officials to treat Taiwan as a low-priority issue.
However, in the last year or two, events seem to have changed China’s thinking. First, public opinion on Taiwan has shown growing support for Taiwan’s de facto (or even de cure) independence. Most Taiwanese are ethnic Chinese, but when asked, they do not identify themselves as Chinese. Economics are not determining politics and Beijing’s bet that time is on its side seems to be a losing one. Second, political sentiment in the United States has turned sharply against China and that sentiment is one shared by both Republicans and Democrats. Third, China’s massive investment in naval, air and missile forces has given Beijing reason to believe that it can fight and win a war for Taiwan. Military experts at the Pentagon and in think tanks have conducted multiple “war games” regarding the defense of Taiwan. Without exception, they show a Chinese victory and U.S. defeat. One naval participant estimates that Taiwan would fall to invading Chinese forces with a week.
Meanwhile, legislation with bipartisan support has been introduced in both houses of Congress that would end the “strategic ambiguity” around U.S. policy toward Taiwan. The Taiwan Defense Act would require the Pentagon to “delay, degrade and ultimately defeat” any attempt by China to “use military force to seize control of Taiwan.” Behind this is a growing recognition that if China were to gain control over Taiwan, the entire strategic landscape in Asia would change fundamentally — for the worse. U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea would be greatly weakened and the Chinese navy would be in a strong position to force the United States out of the South China Sea and even the broader western Pacific.
All this suggests that the administration assuming office in January will face some very demanding questions. America has increasingly vital interests — economic, political, and security — in the future of Taiwan. But can the United States and Taiwan defend those interests against a Chinese attack? If the answer now is negative, what will it take to produce a different answer? Is a different answer even feasible?
Most military experts believe that there are weapons and technologies available that could be deployed to defend Taiwan effectively. But those weapons are much different than the showy platforms — aircraft carriers, advanced fighter jets — beloved by today’s military leaders. The systems that will be required are: anti-ship cruise missiles, sea mines, mobile artillery, mobile air defenses, long-range (out of area) missiles and huge numbers of unmanned underwater and aerial vehicles (armed drones). All of this will be needed in vast quantities.
Washington is going to have to decide — and soon — whether it wants to assume the costs and risks necessary to defend Taiwan. The dollar costs of such a commitment will be in the many billions of dollars. The costs of not doing so may well be incalculable.