The Real Stakes of Taiwan

It’s not about democracy. It’s about power.

Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
A US-made CH-47 helicopter flies an 18-meter by 12-meter national flag at a military base in Taoyuan on September 28, 2021.
A US-made CH-47 helicopter flies an 18-meter by 12-meter national flag at a military base in Taoyuan on September 28, 2021.
A U.S.-made CH-47 helicopter flies a Taiwanese flag at a military base in Taoyuan, Taiwan, on Sept. 28, 2021. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden stirred up a miniature tempest in the international relations world when he made an apparently off-the-cuff comment committing the United States to Taiwan’s defense in the case of a Chinese attempt to take over the island by force.

In the days that followed, Biden’s national security team struggled to walk the comments back, saying that there had been no substantive change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. The United States, in other words, still adhered to the historic “One China” policy but would also maintain a posture of strategic ambiguity. Historically, this has meant leaving it to Beijing to guess what Washington would do in the case of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Although it has not dominated the headlines in the United States, there has been no shortage of developments around Taiwan in the weeks since then. China, for example, unilaterally declared that it will no longer treat the 100-mile-wide strait separating its mainland from Taiwan as international waters freely open to navigation by foreign (read U.S.) warships. Beijing also unveiled its third aircraft carrier, which is the first whose size and technical design are intended to rival the most advanced carrier in the U.S. fleet.

Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden stirred up a miniature tempest in the international relations world when he made an apparently off-the-cuff comment committing the United States to Taiwan’s defense in the case of a Chinese attempt to take over the island by force.

In the days that followed, Biden’s national security team struggled to walk the comments back, saying that there had been no substantive change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. The United States, in other words, still adhered to the historic “One China” policy but would also maintain a posture of strategic ambiguity. Historically, this has meant leaving it to Beijing to guess what Washington would do in the case of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Although it has not dominated the headlines in the United States, there has been no shortage of developments around Taiwan in the weeks since then. China, for example, unilaterally declared that it will no longer treat the 100-mile-wide strait separating its mainland from Taiwan as international waters freely open to navigation by foreign (read U.S.) warships. Beijing also unveiled its third aircraft carrier, which is the first whose size and technical design are intended to rival the most advanced carrier in the U.S. fleet.

Whether due to intention or coincidence, the timeline of the Chinese carrier’s expected rollout, once fully finished in five years, roughly coincides with what many security analysts see as the moment of maximum risk in terms a potential war over Taiwan.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made little secret of his determination to assert direct control over the island in a reasonably near, if deliberately unspecified, future. He has clearly stated that the Taiwan question cannot be put off indefinitely, which all but amounts to staking his place in history on the subordination of Taipei to Beijing. And the next five years bring with them a calendar logic that is hard to ignore. For China, the year 2027 will be the 100th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army, just as it would likely mark the conclusion of Xi’s expected third five-year term in power.

All of this creates the impression that all parties involved are stumbling blindly toward conflict.

Only Biden knows his own mind and intentions, but beyond that, no one has the faintest idea whether the current U.S. approach to Taiwan will survive this administration or what might follow. What struck me most in the wake of the Biden comment, though, was the stark divergence of opinion about the United States’ military capacity to prevent a Chinese takeover of the island should Washington commit to such a goal. This is a question of as great interest to politicians and military officials in Beijing as it is to anyone in the United States.

Analysts hold sharply divergent views on the relative warfighting capacities of the United States and China in the case of a conflict over Taiwan. Just a couple of assessments, chosen from a wide variety of sources, provide a sense of this. In an essay in the New York Times, the Stanford University security analyst Oriana Skylar Mastro denounced the erosion of strategic ambiguity brought about by Biden’s recent Taiwan statement, saying, “Simply put, the United States is outgunned.”

As other analysts have, Mastro invoked recent war simulations and U.S. congressional testimony that both suggested a Chinese victory in the case of a U.S. intervention to defend Taiwan. “At the very least, a confrontation with China would be an enormous drain on the U.S. military without any assured outcome that America could repel all of China’s forces,” she wrote.

Those who take this pessimistic view routinely invoke the tremendous advances in Chinese military, and especially naval and missile, power over the last generation, as well as the well-known and dreaded military concept of the tyranny of distance, which holds that wars fought far from home are harder to win. In the Taiwanese case, this includes the difficulty a distant power such as the United States would face in resupplying the maritime field of war surrounding Taiwan across some 1,500 nautical miles of open ocean from Guam or, in the likely event Guam immediately comes under withering Chinese attack, some 6,500 nautical miles from the U.S. mainland. China, on the other hand, need only deploy its forces across a distance of 90 nautical miles or so.

These, however, are no ordinary 90 nautical miles. Analysts who are bullish on the United States’ continuing ability to deter a Chinese military attack note that launching a maritime invasion even at distances this short is a feat of daunting risk and complexity that Chinese advances in hardware procurement thus far cannot be safely assumed to have overcome. Attack submarines, mines, javelin missile attacks on aviation, and howitzer and artillery bombardment of any attempted Chinese landing or beachhead would combine to bedevil any cross-strait offensive. People on this side of the analytical divide have been further cheered by the immense difficulty Russia has faced in seeking to impose itself on its neighbor Ukraine, despite having a far more advantageous land border with its much smaller and weaker neighbor.

Writing for the website War on the Rocks, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Mike Pietrucha drew heavily on the experience of the Allied assault on Sicily during World War II as the best available analogy for the challenges that China would face in trying to take over Taiwan militarily, and he said that China’s present and projected near-term means paled in comparison to that European campaign. Compounding the inherent level of difficulty, he said, are China’s lack of air force combat operations since 1955 and its near complete lack of naval warfare experience.

“In Taiwan, as in Ukraine, invaders should realistically expect an aroused and angry population with a sizable and modern military willing to contest every inch of heavily urbanized territory,” Pietrucha wrote, adding that “expecting any other result than an early and bloody defeat seems ludicrous.”

In this business, there is no such thing as certainty, but some people with far higher purview in military planning lean in the same direction as Pietrucha. In a podcast last July, for example, a former U.S. director of national intelligence and commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, offered a similar analysis, noting that “It is relatively easy to sink large amphibious or other vessels in a confined area like the route from Chinese ports to any invasion beachhead. … Taiwan has lots of ways to do it, the United States has even more ways to do it—ways that the Chinese would not possibly be able to deal with.”

To be fair to this debate, it is unlikely that someone who had occupied Blair’s official posts would want to convey American doubt to China or otherwise bolster Beijing’s confidence. There is no shortage, however, of authoritative-sounding voices who doubt the United States’ ability to prevail in a Taiwan conflict. Views like these, however, can arouse as much skepticism as Blair’s public comments from those who hear them as the voice of a sort of war party or advocacy for ever more resources for the U.S. military.

Striking what sounds like a middle ground, analysts Meia Nouwens and Henry Boyd with the International Institute for Strategic Studies wrote in 2020, “The quantitative cross-strait military balance between China and Taiwan has not changed drastically over the last decade. However, the major improvements in PLA capability—significant qualitative improvements and the expansion of China’s inventory of theatre-range weapons—have concerned the Pentagon.”

The most telling line in the Pietrucha piece, however, came not with his historical analogies or views of the relative capabilities of the two superpowers, but with this: “This assessment is focused on the ability of the People’s Republic of China to execute a successful assault, but there is no question that they could launch an unsuccessful one.” This leads to where discussions like these should both begin and end: Why would the United States and China, the world’s two most powerful nations, ever contemplate going to war over Taiwan. What is it worth to them?

This question is easier to answer for China than it is for the United States. China’s official position, which it has repeated almost by rote for decades and drilled into its citizens, is that Taiwan has always been part of China and therefore its separation from the mainland is intolerable. This has given the pursuit of political control of the island an unquestionable, almost divinely ordained quality. For a nation whose governing ideology of communism is strongly at odds with its economic realities, nationalism has increasingly become the go-to binding force in public life—and with cynicism about the country’s system running high, especially among educated urbanites, pursuit of the absorption of Taiwan still spurs a unified sense of purpose, acting as a kind of nationalist catnip.

For the United States, Taiwan’s importance is less obvious. Few Americans have been to the island or spend time thinking about it. Many would be surprised to learn that the prospect of a war with China in which American lives and fortune could be lost on a large scale is much more than a remote theoretical prospect. The United States has a positive but abstract goal of helping preserve a vibrant democracy in Taiwan, but there are obviously many places in the world where the United States would never risk human and economic catastrophe to defend democracy.

This brings us to the most fundamental level of what this is about: sheer power. If the United States allowed China to seize control of Taiwan, America’s position in Asia, and hence as a global power, would tumble overnight. Its alliance structure in the East would collapse, and China would become the regional hegemon, despite its many protestations to the contrary.

If, by the same token, China were to prevail in a conflict over Taiwan, it would not just be able to cow neighbors such as Japan and South Korea (among others)—with the world’s largest navy already, it would soon control the entire western Pacific. The Chinese government, of course, doesn’t talk openly about the stakes in these terms for fear of frightening others.

But for a democracy like the United States, and indeed for its most deeply implicated allies, this is unacceptable. Smart people may differ about the wisdom of eroding strategic ambiguity around Taiwan, but with stakes this high, the public deserves a clear and open discussion of the high risks and cost and benefits of defending the island.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

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