Will America fight for Taiwan?
Twice in recent months President Biden has publicly affirmed a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan should China attack. Both times, the White House walked his comments back, admitting that no such formal obligation exists.
While the media was quick to pounce on Biden’s “gaffes,” it’s likely that the Chinese received his message loud and clear: America has Taiwan’s back.
The United States has no mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, as we do with Japan and South Korea. On the contrary, since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington has explicitly recognized the island as a part of China. Since then, “strategic ambiguity” has governed U.S. Taiwan policy: Washington won’t support the island’s independence so long as China refrains from seizing it by force.
Under strongman Xi Jinping, however, China has escalated a war of nerves with Taiwan, which lies 80 miles offshore. It continues to build military bases on contested islands in the South China Sea and conduct aggressive military exercises that last month included sending dozens of jet fighters into Taiwan’s air defense zone.
It’s part of a broader pattern of hyper-nationalist behavior under Xi that is sparking a global backlash. It includes China’s predatory trade practices, technology theft and cyber-espionage; the horrific ethnic cleansing of its Uyghur minority; smothering dissent and democracy in Hong Kong; and Beijing’s bullying attempts to use China’s economic might and “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy to silence critics around the world.
Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that Biden feels the need to restate America’s strategic and moral interest in preventing China from gobbling up Taiwan. U.S. public opinion seems to be moving in this direction, too. In its 2021 survey of public views on foreign policy, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that, for the first time, a majority of Americans (53 percent) favor sending U.S. troops to defend Taiwan if China invades.
By declaring an implicit U.S. security obligation, Biden aims to head off that prospect. But is U.S. deterrence credible? Would Americans really be willing to risk war with China to prevent it from depriving Taiwan’s 24 million inhabitants of their freedom?
Although Biden has reassured U.S. allies that “America is back,” many aren’t confident that the Americans are ready to resume the burdens of global leadership. They were taken aback by our country’s swift relapse under the Trump administration to an “America First” insularity not seen since the isolationist 1930s.
Will a deeply polarized America worn down by two decades of counterterrorism and wars in the Middle East have the stomach to face down China’s depredations in Asia? No one – including Americans themselves – really knows.
Apart from this basic question of national will, there’s also the related question of whether we have the means to deter China.
The United States still spends a lot more on defense to meet its world-wide commitments, but China is arming rapidly and concentrating its forces on the Pacific Rim. The shifting regional balance of power recently led some former commanders of U.S. forces in Asia to warn that China could take military action against Taiwan in the next six years.
According to the Office of Naval Intelligence, China already has the largest navy in the world — about 360 combat ships, compared with 297 for the United States. The Biden administration wants to push the U.S. total to 372 manned ships, but China has vastly greater shipbuilding capacity and is planning to have 425 ships by the end of the decade. It is also methodically closing the quality gap for both ships and sailors.
The United States, however, has a force-multiplying advantage China can’t match: capable allies. China’s hegemonic ambitions in the South China Sea have provoked new regional security cooperation, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue involving the United States, India, Japan and Australia. And despite the unfortunate row with France over submarine sales, the AUKUS pact Washington has forged with Australia and Great Britain also will help balance the power equation in the region.
On the diplomatic front, the European Union also is contemplating upgrading its ties with Taiwan, its fifth largest Asian trading partner. A new EU parliamentary report declares that “maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific is a core interest for the EU.”
The elements of an effective strategy of deterrence are moving into place. But a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers warns that the lack of a formal security treaty with Taiwan ties the president’s hands should China strike.
“Simply put: the president has no legal authority to react in the time necessary to repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and deter an all-out war,” notes Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a Navy veteran and vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) has introduced the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act to give the president authority to respond quickly, lest China present the world with a fait accompli.
As Biden understands, China’s hubris and chauvinism pose a growing threat, not only to a prosperous and democratic Taiwan, but also to Japan, South Korea and other U.S. allies in the Pacific. Helping Taiwan defend itself, and standing ready to help repel a Chinese invasion, is the best way to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).
Editor’s note: A previous version of this piece misidentified the sponsor of the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act. The bill’s sponsor is Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.).