The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the foremost geopolitical threat to U.S. foreign affairs and to a liberal world order. After Beijing’s breakaway economic recovery following the 2008 recession, the PRC presents a favorable economic model for regional authoritarian states, with strong agricultural, technological, and industrial sectors. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is now the second largest military in the world, with annual defense expenditures on the order of $200 billion. The PRC claims as its territory Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, the Xinjiang Region, and the Falun Gong, all of which oppose its jurisdiction. Beijing uses economic coercion, military violence, and psychological operations to maintain control of its citizens and territories, strategies directly at odds with liberal values. Beijing seeks to assert its regional hegemony and elude constraints of a liberal world order.
To this end, the PRC has developed rival international institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to rival the IMF and World Bank in Asia, modernized and expanded its military, and engaged in an aggressive island-building program in the South China Sea that encroaches on international waters and the territorial claims of its neighbors. President Xi refuses to criticize the Russian invasion of Ukraine and maintains the “One China” policy with greater aggression than his predecessors. China policy experts believe President Xi considers the task of unification with Taiwan imperative within his tenure.
CHANGING TIDES IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
In 1979, the U.S. switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing and passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), establishing the policy of strategic ambiguity over whether the U.S. would aid Taiwan in the case of invasion. The law describes the president’s right to take “appropriate action” against any attempt to settle the dispute by force. The law also established sales of weapons to Taiwan, which the PRC had adamantly opposed.
The 1990s saw Taiwan’s democratization and a distinct Taiwanese national identity. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) unseated the Kuomintang (KMT) and incited Beijing’s wrath by publicly describing Taiwan and the PRC as distinct states. In response, the PRC passed the Anti-Secession Law in 2005, authorizing military force should Taiwan officially declare its independence.
Led by President Ma Ying-jeou, KMT regained power in Taiwan in 2008 and returned to the “1992 consensus”: passive disagreement on the meaning of the One China policy. Public preference has continued to shift towards independence, and the DPP has regained power, while President Xi has continued to escalate PLA military exercises in the South China Sea. Admiral Phil Davidson, Head of the Indo-Pacific Command, has voiced fears of China attacking Taiwan as soon as 2027. Taiwan, under President Tsai of the DPP, no doubt seeks a stronger security guarantee from the U.S., which maintains unofficial relations through the non-profit American Institute in Taiwan (AIT).
Former Chinese President Hu Jintao declared that, “in order to achieve peaceful unification, we must ensure peaceful growth of relations between the two sides.” This “soft” reunification tactic was short-lived. President Xi took power in 2013, expanding tactics to include export quotas, import restrictions, and tourism bans, aimed primarily against democratic countries. The PRC now relies on economic coercion to push its political and ideological agendas abroad. The ECFA, a trade agreement between the PRC and Taiwan, produced economically favorable results for Taiwan, with reductions of relative tariffs on the order of $11 billion in Taiwan’s favor. The cost is political, opening the island to mainland power via economic dependence. This agreement demonstrated Beijing’s willingness to provide Taiwan disproportionate concessions in order to extend their sphere of influence. Taiwanese companies continue to be threatened with sanctions should they support the DPP, but there are possible and necessary means to check such coerciveness.
American Interests & Implications
As a liberal democracy, the U.S. must consider Taiwan a bastion of liberty and self-determination in the shadow of Beijing. The country is a model for third world economic development and civic innovation. Taiwanese civic hackers founded gØv, a civic tech community adopted as a policy sandbox by the Taiwanese government. The platform allows public access to budgets and facilitates petitions. With 87% of Taiwanese online, broadband is locally considered a human right. These advances in democratic tech integration make Taiwan politically one of the world’s most promising and resilient democracies and a valuable model for East Asia.
Taiwan is no small fish, as the world’s 20th largest economy and 17th largest exporter. Its economic growth, once projected to trail Japan’s, has now overtaken it in purchasing power parity (PPP). There is potential for Taiwan to continue to leverage Chinese interest to its advantage. In fact, China is not necessarily dominant in this conflict; its list of enemies is long, and projection of power abroad absorbs much of the PRC’s resources. Aggression counteracts the expensive coercive effects of economic carrots on voters, which themselves are often clumsily played out. The DPP maintains authority in Taiwanese politics, and though PRC attempts to influence elections in favor of candidates friendly to the mainland, Beijing’s political efforts proved counterproductive in the 2020 election. Overindulgent support for PRC-friendly candidates made them easy targets for criticism on that front.
Taiwan has been a U.S. ally since the Cold War, containing Chinese Naval power and blocking Beijing’s free military expansion over the Pacific. Though the PRC has a growing military advantage over Taiwan, anything less than a rapid victory would be a major political victory for Taipei and destabilize Beijing. Yet the costs of a conflict far outweigh any potential benefits. Direct U.S. involvement in a conflict could produce amplification to the nuclear level. Should Taiwan’s industrial centers be damaged by warfare, the world economy would suffer. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), for example, is the world’s most valuable semiconductor chip maker, designing and producing 84% of the most advanced chips on the market. An interruption of production would incur incalculable costs on the world economy and set global chip technology back about ten years.
A peaceful settlement to the conflict may be in the interest of the U.S., but that depends entirely upon the conditions of the settlement. Thus far, Taiwan’s greater military self-reliance and openness toward mainland China have been in the U.S. interest since they tend to strengthen peace in the Taiwan Strait and help to moderate policies in Beijing.
Other fronts in the U.S.-China conflict may benefit from the maintenance of cross-strait tensions. Beijing’s psychological operations utilize four main mechanisms of control: propaganda, disinformation, censorship of critical information, and ownership of news infrastructure. The government uses these tactics daily and in increasing capacity against ideological opponents. Local conflicts may be opportune to create regional democratic coalitions to oppose and counteract the PRC’s coercion on an international scale.
The necessity of an international response has been made clear by the reach and depth of CCP psychological operations, having succeeded in influencing global views on China and President Xi. Approval has declined since 2015 due to aggressions in the South China Sea, which China blames on the U.S., and the detention program in Xinjiang. Perhaps this is the opportune moment for a coalition strategy. It would necessarily include diversification of trade, an example of which is Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy. Tying this to the trade policies of other democracies in the region, most influentially India, would be especially effective in balancing power.
No doubt NATO planners are now asking themselves what role U.S. security provisions play in these relationships. A Taiwan Security Alliance (TSA) has been flirted with over the years but never adopted, with Washington favoring strategic ambiguity as a mutual deterrent. At this point, announcement of the TSA would push relations out of their current equilibrium, whereas ambiguity maintains diverse mechanisms for handling the situation.
Prospects of Security
Looking forward, an invasion by the PLA is a possibility, but there is little benefit in the TSA as a deterrent. It would certainly escalate cross-strait tensions, considering China’s aerial aggression in response to the formation of AUKUS. It would tie down U.S. options, increase expenditures, incite the PRC, and embolden Taiwan. The benefits of strategic ambiguity are far greater.
Of course, leaving Taiwan to fend for itself, in the face of increasing Chinese aggression, is strategically unadvisable. A strong Taiwan is a favorable geopolitical asset to the U.S., and invaluable to the Taiwanese people. The vast majority of Taiwanese maintain the desire for independence, while a significant margin calls for an accelerated path towards declaration of complete independence. While Taiwan is of great strategic importance to the U.S., its conflict with China is, first and foremost, a Taiwanese issue. As such, any position taken by the U.S. must be in a purely supportive capacity to the cause of Taiwanese self-determination.
For optimal security without increased risk of world-power conflict, comprehensive support for Taiwan must address the roots of the PRC’s imperialism: psychological operations, economic coercion, and the threat of military violence. Militarily, the U.S. ought to support a “porcupine defense” popular among the Taiwanese defense community: a strategy of many smaller deterrents, including shifting development away from large, expensive, easily bombed installments, towards integrated forms of community defense, the existence of which must be known to the PLA, so as to effectively deter invasion.
As previously discussed, harm to Taiwanese industrial plants would harm everyone. U.S. Defense goals are most often measured in spending but this doesn’t necessarily function well with asymmetric warfare; the goal should be to optimize deterrence while minimizing cost. In his October 2020 address to the U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, General Chang Guan-chung, vice minister of defense for armaments, proposed developing numerous, low cost, dynamic defenses, and President Tsai Ing-Wen stated that her first national defense objective was “accelerating the development of our asymmetrical capabilities.” The guideline for this defense model ought to be to frustrate invasion.
To support this without exacerbating tensions, the DoD could form a joint task force with Taiwanese planners to maintain the correct military disincentive, notably not a proportional defense. Natural military advantages of Taiwan include the potential for naval mines and drones to disrupt amphibious attacks as they cross the 130-kilometer strait. The task force should immediately begin modeling decentralized modes of community defense as deterrents. The logic of this is simple, though logistics may be less so: with a Taiwanese population of 24 million, the porcupine model would be most effective as a deterrent if the Mainland faced the prospect of a slow land war across valuable industrial developments, in which the two-million-strong PLA faced guerrilla-style combatants that outnumber them ten-fold.
Beijing’s non-military coercion may be addressed by the formation of a tactical body among democratic nations of the Pacific and Indian coasts to strategize a collective counter to authoritarian psychological and economic warfare. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea would be key members of the coalition, with India functioning as a favored industrial base. Recent China-India border disputes may align Taiwan and India on matters of economic and military security.
The core threat to a liberal world order will only be neutralized when the PRC democratizes. The PRC is a rising power, and power transitions breed conflict, but war in 2022 would be apocalyptic. The U.S. must resist being roped into a TSA, and opt instead for ambiguity, coalition formation, and new mechanisms of integrated Taiwanese porcupine defense. These are the best precautions in such volatile times.
Ideological defense of a liberal order requires foreign policy in service of local popular sovereignty. Authoritarian regimes are more powerful, intrinsically—they control their citizens—whereas the power of liberal regimes resides directly in the hearts and minds of the people. Popular support is liberalism’s silver bullet, the key missing component of U.S. foreign policy. Its absence is evidenced by global public opinion: approval for the U.S., China, and Russia lie at 33, 32, and 30 per cent respectively.
Without working in service of liberal ideals, the U.S. is without its greatest asset: the people. The vast majority of Taiwanese are in favor of continued independence, with an increasing portion opting for decisive measures. Here, policy ought to serve the people, seeking to address root causes. The Taiwanese prefer moderate demilitarized solutions, decreased arms trade with the U.S., and the establishment of a peace agreement. This sets the foundation of U.S. policy.⬩