Taiwan, the Economist proclaims on its May 1-7 cover, is “the most dangerous place on earth.”
The Chinese foreign ministry says the island has been an “inalienable” part of China “since ancient times,” and Beijing demands Taipei agree to annexation. Should the United States try to resist a Chinese attack, it will, according to the Pentagon’s Franz Gayl writing in the Communist Party’s Global Times, lose. Taiwan, the paper said in April, “won’t stand a chance” if China invades.
Are any of these Chinese narratives correct? No. Most important, even though deterrence is clearly breaking down, Washington can re-establish it. The U.S. can and should defend the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally known.
Although Taipei calls itself “China,” Taiwan is not now and has never been “Chinese,” no matter how many times Beijing repeats its contentions. The People’s Republic has never exercised control over the island—actually a collection of islands—and the international community has not formally recognized any Chinese regime as the legitimate government of Taiwan. People in Taiwan overwhelming identify themselves as “Taiwanese,” not “Chinese.”
In short, China forcibly taking over Taiwan would be an act of aggression, not, as Beijing says, one of “re-unification.”
There are three principal reasons why Taiwan is critical to American security. First, since the latter part of the nineteenth century, Washington policymakers have drawn America’s western defense perimeter off the coast of East Asia, and Taiwan sits at the center of that line, where the South China Sea and the East China Sea meet. Taiwan’s islands protect the southern approaches to America’s “cornerstone” ally Japan and guard the northern approaches to the Philippines, also a U.S. treaty partner. Moreover, Taiwan prevents the Chinese navy and air force from surging into the western Pacific.
Second, Taiwan, although not a formal treaty ally, is seen in the region and elsewhere as a test of American resolve to defend alliance partners. Fail to defend it, and America’s alliance structures could fail.
Third, in these days of the Communist Party’s unrelenting assaults on democratic governance, America cannot allow Beijing to take over any democracy, especially one as important as Taiwan.
At the moment, America maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” not telling either Beijing or Taipei what the U.S. would do in the face of imminent conflict. This approach worked when rulers in Beijing were impressed by American power.
They no longer are in awe. China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, in the Anchorage meeting in the middle of March, told Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in no uncertain terms that the U.S. could no longer talk to China “from a position of strength.”
Ominously, Beijing is openly challenging America. Global Times, which the Communist Party uses to signal future policies, on April 14 ran an editorial titled “When Real Determination Is Lacking, the U.S. Should Maintain ‘Strategic Ambiguity.’”
In effect, China’s leaders were saying they do not believe the U.S. will defend Taiwan because the military balance of power has shifted in their favor. Chinese self-perception of overwhelming strength is a sure sign that deterrence is quickly eroding.
So it’s time to restore it. As Joseph Bosco, a Pentagon China desk officer in the George W. Bush administration, told me in April, “Given the dramatically changed circumstances, different words are needed now.”
President Biden should publicly declare the United States is adopting a policy of “strategic clarity,” in other words, Biden should issue a clear declaration that America will defend the island. Beijing has publicly dared the president to issue such a declaration; a failure to respond will therefore have consequences.
Because it does appear China has, at least on paper, a stronger conventional force in the region, can America still deter Beijing?
Many say China’s most important foreign policy objective is the absorption of Taiwan.
That is not correct. China’s No. 1 foreign policy goal is the continuation of Communist Party rule.
This means Franz Gayl in his Global Times piece is incorrect. He mentions Beijing will defeat the United States over Taiwan because “casualty-tolerance” is “China’s decisive advantage in any fight with the U.S.” Its “whole-of-society commitment to core national security priorities is legendary,” he writes.
Xi Jinping may believe he can take the island but will not launch an invasion if he thinks the casualties will be too high. As much as he would like to be Mao Zedong, he almost surely knows he cannot do what Mao did in Korea in the early 1950s: lose over 900,000 or so soldiers and still maintain power.
So, yes, the United States can deter Xi by making it clear that the cost in Chinese life in taking Taiwan would threaten the rule of the Communist Party. Washington can, therefore, deter China in the Taiwan Strait.
And the sooner the U.S. speaks clearly the better.