The Role of the United States in Preventing a Conflict in Taiwan
Published March 21, 2023
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022 precipitated the largest set of Chinese military exercises in twenty years. China’s recent aggressive actions, along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have led many Americans to reconsider their stance on military support for foreign conflicts. Should America remain involved with Taiwan? And should we defend it if China were to invade?
- Should America remain involved with Taiwan, even if that means war with China?
- Are there any other solutions to the Chinese-Taiwanese issue other than defending Taiwan or leaving it alone?
- Listen to “Taiwan’s Outlook: Independence, Unification, or Status Quo?” with Kharis Templeman and Bill Whalen, on Matters of Policy & Politics. Available here.
- Read “Xi Doesn’t Need Taiwan,” by Kharis Templeman et al. in Foreign Affairs. Available here.
- Read “In the South China Sea and Elsewhere, East Asia Stumbles Toward Conflict,” by Michael Auslin in National Review. Available here.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan precipitated the largest set of Chinese military exercises in at last twenty years. China’s recent actions, along with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have led many Americans to reconsider their stance on military support for foreign conflicts.
Should America remain involved with Taiwan? Should we defend it if China were to invade?
Any response must take into account the existing and complicated relationships we have maintained with Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China for the last forty years.
The United States remains committed to the “One China” policy, which means it recognizes the PRC as the sole legal representative of China. It acknowledges but does not accept the PRC position that Taiwan is part of China.
Our overriding objective is peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. To that end, the United States does not support unilateral changes to the status quo by either side. We oppose any actions by China to invade, blockade, or otherwise impose unification by force. But we also oppose a unilateral declaration of independence by Taiwan.
Until recently, Beijing pursued a two-track strategy of trying to win over Taiwanese public support for reunification through closer ties while also building up a military deterrent to prevent a unilateral declaration of independence. But under Xi Jinping’s leadership, Beijing appears to have shifted goals, from deterring independence to compelling unification within a finite period of time.
The Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping views Taiwan as an existential issue. It is committed to eventual unification, and with Xi beginning his third term as leader of the country, he may view Taiwan as a legacy issue to be resolved before he leaves power.
How do the Taiwanese feel about unification? Public support on the island is very, very low. Support for unification, now or at some point in the future, used to be around 20 percent, but with the PRC’s recent failed efforts to influence Taiwan’s elections and the military drills held around the island, it has fallen to around 6 percent.
As Beijing appears to be moving up its timetable for taking control of Taiwan, it is reasonable to ask if the United States should remain committed to Taiwan’s defense, and if so, how?
Well there are four reasons.
First, Taiwan is a longtime ally of the United States and our 10th largest trading partner. To put that in perspective, Ukraine last year was 67th. Taiwan is also a major supplier of the world’s most advanced semiconductor chips. We saw the negative economic impacts of supply chain disruption during Covid when relatively minor shortages of chips occurred. The consequences of China seizing, destroying, or blockading Taiwanese exports would be enormous on the global economy, and on Taiwan’s people.
Second, there is Taiwan’s geographic position in the first island chain. For seventy years the United States has had an interest in ensuring that a friendly government controls the territory of Taiwan, and that the PLA cannot use it as a base to project power into the western Pacific.
Third, Taiwan is a powerful symbol of the US’s enduring commitment to the free and liberal world. Taiwan is not Afghanistan or Iraq; it already is a liberal democracy. In per capita terms, it is equal to Germany and richer than Japan. American support is directly responsible for Taiwan’s prosperity. It is a shining example of how being part of the US-led liberal, capitalist world order can increase freedom and prosperity for everyone.
Finally, a thriving Taiwan is proof that democracy is not incompatible with Chinese culture or values. The biggest prize of all for the US would be to have China follow Taiwan’s lead and transition to a market economy with a liberal democracy.
Abandoning Taiwan to the authoritarian, communist People’s Republic of China across the Strait would mean walking away from a 72-year commitment. It would weaken or destroy the credibility of our alliances with Japan, Philippines, and South Korea, and to other countries in the world facing pressure from authoritarian governments.
Defending Taiwan is not an impossible task. The military threat from the PRC has steadily increased over the past two decades. But with the right strategy, it remains feasible for Taiwan and the US together to deter military aggression and to maintain peace across the Strait.
The CCP’s insistence that it will pay any price and bear any burden to achieve unification is remarkably self-serving, and intended to persuade the US and partners and allies to walk away from Taiwan without a fight.
In reality, China has survived and prospered for 70 years without exercising political control over Taiwan, and there is no reason why Beijing must seek to conquer it today.