On October 4, three days after China celebrated the anniversary of its government’s founding, 56 Chinese military planes encroached on Taiwan’s airspace, the highest number ever recorded in a single day. As China’s power grows and its international ambitions increase, Taiwan increasingly finds itself in the middle of conversations regarding the potential for conflict between China and the United States. As the United States shifts away from Afghanistan and completes its “pivot to Asia,” the Taiwan question is more important than ever.
Since President Carter terminated the Sino-American Mutual Defense treaty with Taiwan in 1979, the United States has held a position of “strategic ambiguity” towards the island. In other words, the U.S. has elected not to take a definitive stance on whether or how it would respond should China pursue reunification through an invasion of Taiwan. As China’s political, economic, and especially military power begins to rival that of its neighbors and the United States, an ambiguous stance becomes increasingly dangerous. To maintain its position as a global power and restore certainty to international relations in the Asia Pacific, the United States must have a clear plan for how it would respond should China make a military advance towards Taiwan. Failing to do so would have dire consequences for U.S. relations in the region and the overall state of global security.
.At this moment in time, it is not clear that the United States has such a plan. When asked if the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of a military invasion at a CNN town hall on October 21, President Biden responded “yes, we have a commitment to do that.” The White House was quick to walk back the President’s remarks, stating that “there is no change in our policy” towards Taiwan and that they opposed “any unilateral changes to the status quo,” i.e. the U.S. maintains a position of strategic ambiguity.
Yet Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen recently confirmed that American troops, stationed in Taiwan, have been training the Taiwanese Military. The U.S. has long been a supplier of weapons and military defense systems to Taiwan, but the stationing of troops on the island pushes beyond an outright strategy of strategic ambiguity, and China seems to agree. China has responded to both of these events with warnings of caution, going as far as to accuse Taiwanese officials of provoking military action, a response that has become increasingly probable in recent years.
For much of the 21st century, the prospect of a military invasion of Taiwan was of little concern, largely because China simply lacked the capacity to do so. The mere presence of two U.S. aircraft carriers near Taiwan was enough to quell Chinese aggression in 1996. Since then, however, things have changed. China has invested heavily in its military; its Navy in particular has grown to surpass that of the United States in size. Philip Davidson, former commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has warned that China will have the capacity for a successful invasion of Taiwan within six years. What’s more, American teams struggled in recent war games hosted by the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation, suggesting that a military clash between the United States and China could ultimately result in a U.S. defeat.
The dangers of a Chinese invasion go beyond military capacity. The rise of Xi Jingping brought about a notable shift in China’s stance towards Taiwan. China has always maintained a position of political sovereignty over the island but has historically pursued reunification through the peaceful means of economic and political pressure. This has changed in recent years as many party officials, including Xi, have begun to advocate for reunification by whatever means necessary. During his speech on July 1, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi called the resolution of the Taiwan question and the realization of China’s “complete reunification” a “historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China.” Xi went further to say that the party “must take resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward ‘Taiwan independence’.” Not only is China nearing the military capacity needed for a reunification through invasion, but party leaders are growing increasingly impatient and more likely to use force as a means of attaining their goal.
Where, then, does this leave the United States? It is imperative that the United States clearly assert its stance on Taiwan. The long practiced strategy of “strategic ambiguity” is no longer sustainable and any level of uncertainty leaves the door open to dangerous missteps on both sides. The reality is, however, that simply making a clear stance on Taiwan is no longer enough. China is likely formulating its strategy on the assumption of U.S. intervention and is presumably preparing for a military response.
The United States must develop a strategic plan for preventing conflict in the first place by raising the cost of a Chinese invasion. As China’s military capacity increases, their cost of invasion decreases, and as regular encroachments on Taiwanese territory become the status quo, it becomes increasingly easy for China to pull out of an attack with limited repercussions. Raising the cost of invasion means, in part, convincing China that the United States can and will respond to any sort of escalation. To do this, the United States should maintain its current level of U.S. military personnel stationed in Taiwan, thereby guaranteeing U.S. political ties to the island. Additionally, the United States must carefully increase its military capacity within the Asia Pacific so that a Chinese invasion can be met and quickly suppressed before Chinese forces have the chance to reach Taiwan.
Such a strategy will be difficult, as even the slightest change may be perceived by China as an escalation. At the same time, such a strategy is necessary for the U.S. to maintain its strategic position in the region and contain a rising China.⬩
Read more on escalation in the Asia-Pacific: Angus Soderberg lays out the implications of AUKUS, a security pact aimed to counter China’s growing regional ambition.