For three generations, U.S. diplomats have purchased what they imagined to be the Chinese Communist Party’s good will by serial reductions in America’s own geopolitical interest in Taiwan. They have refused to see that tiny Taiwan is key to Beijing’s political vulnerabilities and ambitions. The ambiguity and flexibility of U.S. policy made it easier for China’s Communist regime gradually to secure its domestic legitimacy as well as to reduce America’s influence in the Western Pacific. It also has enabled Beijing to establish the political and military conditions for forcefully taking the island. Acknowledging this error, reversing what has been basic U.S.–China policy since 1949 by putting Taiwan beyond Beijing’s reach politically as well as militarily, is essential to avoiding an increasingly likely war for the Western Pacific. Nothing would so surely change Beijing’s calculus on Taiwan as the presence there of nuclear weapons targeted on the Party’s leadership.
The Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan, a mere 23 million people, challenges the Communist regime’s legitimacy by reminding the mainland’s 1.4 billion Chinese that they are not free. Dominating the China Sea from the south to the north, the ROC is the fortress that Beijing must conquer if it is to establish control over its ocean flank. And over Japan’s lifeline. So long as Taiwan is free, Beijing cannot expel American influence from the Western Pacific.
Taiwan’s place atop Beijing’s priorities has never been in doubt. From Chiang Kai-shek’s founding of the ROC on Taiwan in 1949, the Beijing regime demanded that the U.S. denounce it as the precondition for continuing its then good relations with the Washington foreign policy establishment. Secretary of State Dean Acheson agreed, and gave Beijing all that the U.S. political system allowed. That is why he refused to believe that Mao would challenge the U.S. in Korea. When Mao did sponsor and then lead the 1950 Korean invasion, the Truman administration ordered the U.S. Seventh Fleet to prevent the ROC from attacking Beijing from the rear. Thus did the establishment compound its stupidity.
Two decades later, China’s Communist regime was in bigger trouble, having defied Moscow politically and militarily. It feared Soviet nuclear strikes on its own nuclear program, and was facing fifty-three nuclear-armed Soviet divisions on the Amur River border. It begged for help from the Nixon administration—the only power that might restrain the angry Bear. When Henry Kissinger went to China in 1971, its Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was over the proverbial barrel—the classic demandeur. Nevertheless, Zhou boldly demanded that the U.S. de-recognize the Republic of China on Taiwan as the price for being allowed to pull Beijing’s chestnuts out of the Bear’s maw. Henry Kissinger agreed, in arguably his greatest show of incompetence. U.S. de-recognition effectively turned Taiwan into an international outlaw.
A decade after that, the Reagan administration proved to be a brief, partial exception to incompetence. At a dinner I attended as part of the Reagan transition team, China’s ambassador suggested, as Zhou had done with Kissinger, that good U.S.–China relations depended on America’s flexibility regarding Taiwan. Our group unanimously let him know that the Reagan administration’s interest in China was chiefly on what China was prepared to do “about the Bear.”
But the foreign policy establishment never wavered from its course. Already in January 1977, George H. W. Bush, director of Central Intelligence and recently U.S. ambassador to Beijing, had sworn to a secret session of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. government knew nothing either about China’s military preparations against Taiwan, or even about a famine that had claimed millions of lives. As Reagan’s Vice President, Bush fostered the beginning of the massive U.S. corporate presence in mainland China, and resisted efforts within the administration to sell Taiwan armaments comparable in sophistication to what China was deploying.
Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama lived by the mantra that Beijing would grow in peaceful responsibility, the richer and more powerful it became. And that Taiwan was an irritant to that salvific process. Over that generation, our establishment’s identification of U.S. interests with the Chinese regime enabled that regime to build the world’s second-ranking economy and to become the Western Pacific’s dominant military power. Rather than using opportunities to moderate Beijing’s international behavior, this generation’s presidents have given that regime sound cause to believe that, after all is said and done, America would let Taiwan go quietly.
But this political confidence, coupled with its overwhelming military advantage in the region, has led Beijing’s regime to flaunt its determination to take Taiwan while humiliating the Americans. This “middle finger” policy was on display in January 2021, when Chinese aircraft made mock attack runs on U.S. carriers in the Taiwan Strait, and again in April, when some twenty bombers hooked around to Taiwan’s eastern side, emphasizing that there is no safety for any Americans anywhere near Taiwan.
Meanwhile, the regime has just completed the world’s largest heliport a mere 150 miles from Taiwan. Were China to invade, the first wave would arrive by air. Were China to strike, it could defeat organized resistance in 8-12 hours. Some 1,200 accurate ballistic missiles would strike every military target of any importance. Chinese fifth generation fighters, supported by AWACS, would sweep the skies of Taiwan’s obsolete F-16s. As the remaining Taiwanese ground forces moved to defend the beaches, they would be bombed. As the tanks were about to land, heliborne divisions would be hitting the defenders from the rear. Beijing has been building this hard-military reality in plain sight.
Suddenly, it seems, some in our foreign policy establishment are entertaining the possibility that China might not be playing games. Of course, the attack would succeed. How would the U.S. government respond? Make war on China? What for? To restore the independence of an island the independence of which it had denounced, and that it had refused to protect? The U.S. would suffer geopolitical shrinkage. A Sino-Japanese war would be among the consequences.
Nothing Americans say could deter this horrible prospect, because no words could counter seventy years of U.S. policy’s ambiguity and flexibility to Chinese demands. There is no reason why Beijing should credit any U.S. declaratory policy, especially given its now deep grip on the U.S. political process atop overwhelming local military advantages.
Deterrence worthy of the name could come only by deploying forces that could actually defeat China’s military preparations. Such forces would also have to preclude the possibility that China would escape unacceptable consequences for even trying to invade Taiwan. Defending Taiwan would have to begin by providing a thick anti-missile defense—many batteries of AEGIS-ASHORE. But nothing could so surely deter aggression as the presence of nuclear weapons. Deterrence is what happened in the 1980s, when the U.S. deployed Pershing II missiles with W-85 nuclear weapons to Europe, targeted them on the Soviet leadership, and let it be known that they would be launched were Soviet forces to have invaded. The Pershings are gone. But other missiles and nukes could substitute.
Would such a move trigger war? On the contrary. It is difficult to imagine a less forceful, less unambiguous move, preventing war.