Recently, Admiral Philip Davidson, Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command suggested that China may invade Taiwan within the next 6 years. While this still seems improbable, the chance that China will invade at some point in the coming decades is significant and should be taken seriously. While the US does not officially recognise Taiwan, the two nations broadly entertain a cordial relationship whereby Taiwan is considered one of the United States’ main regional partners. It seems clear that a Chinese invasion would be contrary to the US’s regional interests. This thus prompts the question of how the US should best respond the Chinese risk.
The importance of Taiwan
The island of Taiwan is extremely important to China. Its conquest would represent the fulfilment of China’s ‘One China Policy’ and enshrine Xi’s place among the pantheon of all-time great Chinese leaders. Some commentators have even suggested it would be, much like the Suez crisis in 1959 for Britain, the event which signals the end of an era for a waning American power and ushers in a new age of Chinese dominance.
Such an invasion of Taiwan would have extensive strategic value for China, eliminating a potential assembly point for foreign adversaries and ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ right at its doorstep. Due to Taiwan’s importance in the semiconductor industry, China would also gain significant control over global supply chains which it could potentially utilise to its advantage.
Due to demographic changes on the island, it also seems to be the case that China may be incentivised to invade sooner rather than later. Taiwanese is increasingly becoming a distinct national identity, with 83% of those under 30 not self-identifying as Chinese. This may give China a greater sense of urgency when considering invasion.
It is also evident that America has a lot at stake when regarding the defence of Taiwan. Taiwan represents one of America’s most important partners in the Indo-Pacific region, and the invasion of Taiwan could potentially signal to partners that the US is no longer able to defend its allies. To the most hawkish of commentators, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could represent an evisceration of America’s position in Asia. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would also give China, through its control of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), extensive control over American supply chains involving semiconductors and, to some commentators, would also pose a military risk.
An unconditional guarantee?
The contrasting Chinese and American interests over the island have led several observers to suggest that the United States should offer Taiwan an unconditional guarantee of its independence. This policy would theoretically benefit America’s in two ways. Firstly and most importantly, such a guarantee could deter a Chinese invasion due fear of the spectre of war with America. A further benefit is that, in the event of a Chinese assault, an unconditional guarantee would help prevent Taiwan from actually being defeated, as a joint American-Taiwanese coalition could launch a more robust defence of the island than Taiwan could hope to alone.
However, it seems to be the case that such a guarantee would be a grave mistake. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the importance of Taiwan to America’s interests has often been exaggerated. The island is of limited importance to the US strategically, as a Chinese takeover would not give China substantially improved capacity to attack America or its allies. Due to the substantial costs of invading Taiwan and presumable increase in military spending of other nations near China in the event of an invasion, such an invasion could weaken China’s position militarily in the region, not strengthen it.
Moreover, it seems possible that an unconditional American guarantee of independence would be insufficient to prevent a Chinese invasion. If America even enters talks concerning a guarantee, it is very feasible that China would immediately before such as agreement came into force. The zealous passion which the consolidation of One China garners on the mainland means that China may be willing to risk a direct conflict with the USA over the island of Taiwan even if the US does offer an unconditional guarantee.
The chance of Chinese invasion is made especially likely by the fact that it seems increasingly likely that, if not now then in the coming decades, China may be able to win a war with the US over the island of Taiwan. China has several unique advantages in the event of war. Firstly, China has the advantage of proximity, allowing the more extensive use of short-range weaponry (e.g. short-range missiles). Secondly, as the Chinese economy continues to mature, it seems possible that Chinese defence spending and military strength may overtake America’s in the coming decades. A triumphant Chinese military may have little to fear from the American Indo-Pacific forces. Most importantly, however, it seems that China, both due to its autocratic government and strong national interest in the island of Taiwan, would be willing to commit itself more fully to a Taiwanese War than the US. Considering that only a minority of the population in the US believes that the US should support Taiwan in the event of war and that Taiwan represents only one of the US’s numerous global commitments, it is likely that the US would not have the stomach for a prolonged conflict with China.
If China were to defeat the US militarily, America’s position in Asia would truly be eviscerated. Firstly, America’s military would be substantially weaker in the years following a conflict. Current reports indicate that it would take 5-50 years to replenish American stockpiles of weapons that could be used up in such a conflict. This would in turn hurt America’s ability to project power elsewhere or to be relied on by allies.
Indeed, the confidence of America’s allies would be eroded by such a conflict. Most American allies would prefer an American ally that refuses to involve itself in Taiwan than one which runs the risk of self-immolation, as was illustrated by the first 1954-55 Taiwan strait crisis. Finally, such a conflict would be extremely expensive in terms of both American lives and money. The defence of Taiwan does not strategically warrant such a costly toll for the US.
Even more important than the immense toll which such a conflict could have on America is the fact that an American war over Taiwan would lead to a direct conflict between two nuclear powers (China and the US). It is little exaggeration to suggest that this could lead to global apocalypse through nuclear war. While the chance of such an outcome remains remote, the gravity of the risk of the use of nuclear weapons means that the nuclear issue should be taken extremely seriously.
Even if the US were never to enter into conflict with China, an unconditional guarantee would likely lead to a substantial increase in military spending. America would need to deploy additional resources and troops to Taiwan to counter Chinese military advances, and this would be extraordinarily costly. Coupled with the extensive risks that an unconditional guarantee would pose as well as the somewhat limited importance of Taiwan in American interests, it seems clear that America should not offer an unconditional guarantee.
How should the US Respond?
If America should not unconditionally guarantee Taiwan, it is worth considering how the US should optimally respond to Chinese adventurism in the region. Despite the limits on Taiwan’s importance, America has strong reason to want to defend the island. In this essay, I propose two main ways that America can do this while maintaining its current policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’. American can both strengthen Taiwan and develop avenues through which it can punish China.
Firstly, America can and should take measures to strengthen the defences of Taiwan to make them a less appealing and more difficult target for Chinese invasion. The most efficient way to do this would likely be to assist in the development of key defensive technologies, including anti-ship missiles, more extensive air defence capabilities, smart mines and improved cyber warfare technologies. Such an approach would increase the price of a Chinese invasion and likely delay or even deter invasion entirely.
America should also encourage Taipei to focus on military technologies that are primarily defensive, practical and mobile rather than power projection systems. Most analysts universally agree that Taiwan has overinvested in large and expensive and defence systems. Fighter jets, large surface combatants and even large anti-aircraft systems will be vulnerable to Chinese air and missile attacks.
Due to the disparity in resources in spending and resources, it seems likely Taiwan will be best served by asymmetric military capabilities. The US should encourage this.
In addition to strengthening Taiwan, it is also important that the US makes clear there will be strong negative ramifications for China if they were to invade.
America should try to build up a multilateral coalition to apply economic and political disincentives in the event of an invasion. The US could use more traditional means to squeeze China economically (e.g. sanctions) or resort to more drastic methods, such as the freezing of all American assets in China and/or a prohibition of dollar-based transactions in China. It could also confiscate Chinese property around the world.
America should lay the groundwork for economic retaliation, which if done openly would ensure the deterrent effect is realised. The US can also prepare methods of political retaliation, by for instance attempting to expel China from several international organisations or potentially even threatening to recognise Taiwan if China were to invade, turning Chinese action into a greater gamble.
In the event of a military invasion, the US could also take tactical and military steps to strengthen Taiwan. The US could launch cyberattacks on Chinese infrastructure, lend weapons to Taiwan during or in the window before hostilities, or potentially even covertly attack Chinese vessels to a limited extent under the guise of Taiwanese colours.
Despite the allure of an unconditional guarantee to Taiwan, the US should uphold the status quo of strategic ambiguity. This does not mean they should not take action. Both by strengthening Taiwan and threatening ramifications for China were they to invade, the US should try to deter Chinese invasion. More brazen ways of strengthening Taiwan risk an evisceration of America’s position in Asia, numerous deaths and potentially even a nuclear war.