China wants Taiwan to be a fully incorporated province of the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan, however, strongly prefers to remain an autonomous province with its own democratic government. While Taiwan does have some significant capacity for self-defense, and even resistance after a takeover, the main obstacle to China acting on its desire is the commitment of the U.S. to defend Taiwan from attack.
At this moment, China is not willing to go to war with the U.S. over Taiwan. Even if China believed that it had a slight military margin and could eventually control the air and sea space around Taiwan, that would not be sufficient. It would still leave any invasion too risky, too costly and too uncertain, with the possibility of setting off a greater war that would touch the mainland and affect relations with South Korea and Japan. (China has territorial disputes with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, where China has been aggressively stepping up its sail-by operations.)
China wants to be seen as the overwhelmingly dominant power in the Western Pacific, indeed in all of Eurasia, and to be the world’s main fulcrum for economic growth and trade. A bloody invasion that might end with considerable Chinese losses while attaining victory, followed by economic sanctions from multiple countries, would be a serious setback to China’s pursuit of those goals.
So China will wait in the hope that either Taiwan accedes to voluntary reintegration with the mainland or the U.S. is unwilling to engage in a war to prevent an involuntary reintegration. But even though China’s patience in diplomacy, born of a “long view” of history, is legendary, it is not infinite. China’s desire to integrate Taiwan has become far more urgent in recent years. We thus must ask whether the U.S. should risk war with China to defend Taiwan’s liberty and how best to maintain the status quo without falling into war.
Taiwan’s status as an autonomous province of China has served both China and Taiwan well. Chinese leaders accepted that status, and changing it was not seen as a priority. When China was struggling to improve its economy and upgrade its technology, the imperative for China was for other countries to accept its growing role in global production and trade. Moreover, cooperation with Taiwan could advance China’s economic goals, and hostilities with Taiwan would set back China’s relations with other countries and possibly imperil the crucial economic intermediary role of Hong Kong.
Today, however, China has risen to become a world-leading economic and trade power. What China now wants is for international institutions to recognize China’s ascendance and for international relations to bend to accommodate and even enhance China’s global reach. Moreover, Chinese leaders are all too aware of what happened to Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and of other color revolutions that have overthrown communist and authoritarian leaders. Taiwan’s continued existence as a fully autonomous, democratic society is thus a dual threat to China’s ambitions.
Why China Wants Taiwan
First, how can Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia or other East Asian societies be expected to defer to China and recognize its domination if China cannot control even Taiwan? President Xi Jinping has made the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland a key part of achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” While his goal is to accomplish this by the PRC’s centenary in 2049, we have seen in Hong Kong that even distant goals can be accelerated to ensure they are reached (full unification was not set to occur until 2047).
In Xi’s view, a firmly united China under the control of the Chinese Communist Party is essential to achieving China’s full stature in the world. Already he has undertaken a thorough colonization in Tibet, genocidal population control in Xinjiang, and an all-out assault on democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong to end any hint of independence in these regions. Taiwan’s separate governance is the last obstacle.
Second, a thriving democratic society in Taiwan is a dangerous example of a successful departure from authoritarian CCP control. Xi feared that protests and increased democracy in Hong Kong might infect China with the spirit of a color revolution; Taiwan poses a similar threat. Both for China’s global strength and prestige, and to end the threat of internal dissent, the reunification of Taiwan under the regime is a pressing matter, to be accomplished as soon as possible.
But China cannot seek integration regardless of cost. For example, one of China’s current Achilles heels is its inability to produce leading-edge semiconductors, which it needs throughout its military and economy. It is at least two or three years behind world standards in the design and fabrication of chips. Yet the world’s leading producer of such chips is Taiwan; Taiwan Semiconductor has a 56% share of global production. An invasion of Taiwan that led to the destruction of this capacity, or the flight of the brains behind it, would be devastating to China’s economy (South Korea and the U.S. are the only other nations that fabricate advanced chips).
So China will bide its time until it views the U.S. as unable or unwilling to intervene, or until an intolerable provocation, such as Taiwan declaring independence, forces its hand. Keeping the peace across the Taiwan Strait requires both maintaining China’s perception that the U.S. will respond vigorously to any action by China and ensuring that Taiwan not provoke such action.
Meanwhile, China has become more aggressive in treating interactions between Taiwan and other nations as provocations. It is pressing the few remaining nations with formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan to drop them, and it’s turning up its rhetoric. After Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil led a delegation to Taipei last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the trip as “an unendurable provocation for which there will be retribution” and said China would make Vystrčil “pay a heavy price.”
But Western nations should not cave in to such pressure; that would only feed the perception that China’s absorption of Taiwan would be tolerated. Rather, the U.S. should encourage other nations (and insist on their right) to maintain trade and other relations with Taiwan in the same way that many nations do with California and other U.S. states without any suggestion that these states are independent or challenging U.S. authority.
The U.S. should always make clear that it formally recognizes only one China, but that in accord with the United Nations doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, it reserves the right to champion international intervention against any large-scale use of deadly force by China (or any other country) against its own people. To maximize the credibility of such efforts, the U.S. needs to react forcefully to China’s human rights violations in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, responding proportionately with sanctions, formal denunciations, or other clear and meaningful actions.
In short, while it is vital to work with Taiwan to see that it avoids provocative actions that explicitly call for independence, it is also necessary to avoid the provocation of capitulation to Chinese demands, which encourages China to believe it would face little or no cost for aggressive behavior.
Some argue that Taiwan’s autonomy and democracy are not vital interests of the U.S., certainly not vital enough to risk war with the world’s largest population and second-largest economy. Others maintain that America’s commitment to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression is crucial to the security of the U.S. and its allies across the Pacific because a forcible absorption of Taiwan would undermine faith in Japan and South Korea that the U.S. will defend them from similar aggression. Chinese unification by force would also support Xi’s narrative that China has overtaken the U.S. as the dominant power in the Western Pacific and perhaps across Eurasia, further weakening U.S. leadership around the globe.
While the U.S. should not risk a major conventional war, much less a nuclear war, with China, there are still measures that the U.S. can and should take to maintain the status quo and avoid the risk of military conflict. Of course, the U.S. should continue military cooperation with Taiwan, and continue its own operations, to demonstrate its engagement in the region. Freedom-of-navigation operations, responses to incursions into what Taiwan considers its airspace, and similar actions must be vigorous.
China is constantly looking for signs of U.S. weakness and disengagement or lack of attention. That is why it’s stepping up its probing and aggressive actions against Taiwan, such as invasion exercises, military flyovers and sail-by actions. If the U.S. and Taiwan react less quickly or less forcefully, it will be an invitation for Beijing to increase its pressure.
The “Peiping Model”
China’s preferred path to integrating Taiwan is to have Taiwan—and indeed all the nations of the Western Pacific—see China’s power as so much greater than America’s that China’s domination of the region and a U.S. withdrawal become inevitable. This is what Chinese advisers to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have referred to as the “Peiping model,” in which the Kuomintang, recognizing the overwhelming strength of the Communist forces, surrendered Beijing (then called Peiping) in 1949. Any impression that America is losing the desire or ability to strongly respond to Chinese aggression will feed the view that it’s on the way out, so China can ratchet up the pressure until Taiwan acknowledges the new reality and agrees to mainland rule.
What is most likely to result in a war over Taiwan is a misunderstanding that causes China to overestimate its strength and underestimate America’s, leading it to assume that the time is ripe to push forward with measures to force Taiwan to yield. Therefore, the single most significant action the U.S. can take to prevent such a war is to ensure that in Chinese and global perceptions the strength of the U.S. as the world’s economic and technological leader remains undimmed.
In this sense, the challenge to limit Chinese aggression and defend Taiwan begins at home, in the strength and leadership that the U.S. projects to the world. This is not just, or even mainly, a matter of military technology and combat force. It depends even more on how China and the world perceive America’s ability to solve problems and respond to challenges. At this moment, the U.S. is not doing well.
If foreigners visit San Francisco or Los Angeles or even Washington, D.C., they will see beggars in the streets and tents of the homeless near major intersections. In New York, Boston and Chicago, they will find old and unimpressive public transport and infrastructure; almost nowhere does America boast a truly modern rail service. Compared with the gleaming new buildings, subways, clean streets and elegant parks of leading Asian capitals, the United Arab Emirates or Northern Europe, the U.S. looks poor. “I thought the U.S. was a rich and powerful country,” you can hear people say. “But it has beggars in the streets like India and people sleeping on the sidewalks like China in the 1930s.”
America’s casualties in the face of COVID-19, the corrosive and paralyzing partisanship of its politics, and the violence in its streets send a message to the world of a society in decline. That is the message China wishes the world to see, in contrast to what it sees as its own effectiveness and progress. And that is what China hopes will persuade Taiwan, and all of Asia, that resistance to reintegration is futile in the light of China’s growing dominance and America’s decay.
The best way to counter that narrative is an American revival at home. A society that leads the world in quality of life, innovation and confidence, with a government that is effective in acting on and addressing problems, is the best deterrent to China taking risks in the belief that it has an inherent superiority that will lead it to prevail.
In addition to a stronger and more united society at home, stronger ties with allies in Asia and Europe will further contribute to the narrative that China is not gaining dominance. Joint military exercises, strengthened engagement, and commitment to NATO and to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea will temper Chinese overconfidence. Last week’s meeting of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia (the “Quad”) projected America’s influence in the region. There is no need to try to “contain” China, and its economic progress can be encouraged, as long as China believes it is still just catching up to a stronger America, not overtaking it.
As Harvard professor Joseph Nye has pointed out, America retains advantages over China in technology, demography, and the openness and flexibility of its economy and political system. But if those advantages are not turned into clear evidence of economic vigor and competent, effective governing, they will go for naught.
There has been much debate on a U.S. pivot to Asia in foreign policy, on managing China’s cyber and military advances, and on the importance of strong alliances vs. a policy of America first. But the difference among these approaches is illusory—all are important. If the U.S. is not seen as prosperous and capable, then all the military force in the world will not persuade other countries, including China, that the U.S. isn’t a declining power. Averting that perception, both for the defense of Taiwan and for the survival of democracy around the world, must be America’s chief goal.
This is the first article in a series titled “The Future of Taiwan.” The second article discusses the obstacles facing a Chinese military conquest of Taiwan. The third article discusses Taiwan’s vital role in the production of semiconductors. Subsequent articles will be published in the coming weeks.