Preventing War Over Taiwan: Washington’s Role and Taipei’s Responsibility

By Jonathan Liu

American destroyer USS Kidd transits the Taiwan Strait in August 2021.
Image Credit: Kaylianna Genier/DVIDS

The Taiwan Strait has long been regarded as among the most dangerous regions in the world and remains the thorniest of issues between the United States and China. 

There has been a recent renewed interest in the Taiwan issue among scholars and analysts, especially in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Taiwan not only represents a core interest of China, but is also vital to American security interests in East Asia as well. 

However, if forced to choose between going to war with China or withdrawing support for Taiwan, it is in the United States’ long term interest to opt for the latter.

John Mearsheimer argues in a controversial essay that while the United States has strong incentives to include Taiwan in its balancing coalition against China (assuming China’s continued rise), the day may come when it becomes too costly, if not impossible, for the United States to help Taiwan defend itself against a potential Chinese invasion. 

Charles Glaser similarly calls for the United States to reconsider its commitment to Taiwan, arguing that “a crisis over Taiwan could fairly easily escalate to nuclear war.”

According to realist theory, the ultimate goal of all states is security and the means to security is acquiring power. Realists disagree, however, with regard to how much power is required for achieving security. 

Mearsheimer explains that “the purpose of American power is to keep the United States safe so its people can prosper economically and live in relative freedom.” As the undisputed hegemon in the Western Hemisphere, the United States remains largely secure from foreign aggression even in a world where Taiwan is coerced into unification with China. 

Taiwan, at the end of the day, is not worth risking a potential nuclear conflict with China that would bring about mass suffering for the American people.

However, abandoning Taiwan in the short term would also incur great costs and is a choice Washington should actively avoid having to make. The reasons Taiwan is significant for American interests are manifold, though none are more important than the island’s geostrategic value. 

Located at the heart of the so-called first island chain, Taiwan plays a vital role in the United States’ security architecture in East Asia. 

A clear commitment from Washington to help defend Taiwan militarily risks the potential of a catastrophic war with China. However, withdrawing support for Taiwan gives China the leeway to project its power into the Pacific and strengthen China’s position in its security competition with the United States.

Equally important, Washington’s support for Taiwan is closely tied to the broader U.S. alliance network in East Asia. Abandoning Taiwan risks eroding alliances with key regional actors such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, which, together, form the basis of U.S. strategy in the region. 

Such a scenario will inevitably lead to massive uncertainty in the region as allies will either seek greater defense assistance from the United States, thereby exacerbating the security dilemma in the region, or reconsider their partnerships with America in the face of a militarily and economically powerful China. 

Abandoning Taiwan outright, therefore, would be extraordinarily disruptive to U.S. policy in East Asia, and the current regional order may not survive such a disruption.

Recognizing simultaneously the value of Taiwan to U.S. national interests and the costliness of a potential war with China, the best approach for Washington, then, is to go to great lengths to reduce the likelihood of a Taiwan Strait conflict. 

To ensure that conflict does not arise from the Taiwan Strait, it is imperative for Washington to remain strategically ambiguous and pursue a policy of “dual deterrence.” 

On the one hand, Washington should remain ambiguous in whether and how it is committed to Taiwan’s defense. On the other hand, Washington should simultaneously deter China from attacking Taiwan unprovoked and Taipei from provoking Beijing unnecessarily. By pursuing these policies with clarity, neither side of the Taiwan Strait will have the incentive to alter the status quo and escalate the already-tense relations.

In order for this approach to work, Washington must also ensure that Taipei plays its part in deescalating cross-Strait tension. For starters, this involves Taipei’s acknowledgement of the “1992 Consensus,” a vaguely defined commitment to the “one-China principle” that undergirded stable cross-Strait relations between 2008 and 2016. 

While Beijing makes clear its intention of an eventual cross-Strait reunification, its demand in the shorter term involves only an acknowledgement of the “1992 Consensus” from Taipei.

Since 2016, however, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen has refused to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus,” thereby prompting Beijing to respond with increased assertiveness toward Taiwan. The Tsai administration’s approach to relations with Beijing has effectively reversed cross-Strait relations to a state of increased tension and uncertainty while also putting at risk Taiwan’s sovereignty and security. 

For the United States, Taipei’s reluctance to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus” adds to Washington’s burden in mediating relations between Taipei and Beijing in the already-turbulent Asia Pacific.

It does not have to be this way. As the weaker side in the increasingly asymmetric cross-Strait relationship, a responsible Taiwan needs to show restraint in approaching relations with Beijing. 

By accommodating Beijing at a minimal level, not only can Taiwan avoid undermining its own security but also decrease the risk of a conflict that could lead to a potential war involving the United States. This requires a clear signal from Washington stressing the importance of accommodation and restraint.

In short, should the day of reckoning come when the United States has to make the choice between going to war with China or withdrawing support for Taiwan, the latter should be the unequivocal, albeit difficult, choice. 

Risking a nuclear conflict with China is not only undesirable for the well-being of the American people, it undermines the livelihood and prosperity of all. But such a choice can and should be avoided in the foreseeable future. 

While the overall pattern of great power competition between the United States and China may not subside in the short term, the Taiwan issue need not drag the United States into a potentially costly military conflict with China.

Should Washington stress with clarity its adherence to the long-standing policies of “strategic ambiguity” and “dual deterrence” and call on Taipei to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus,” one can expect both Taipei and Beijing to approach relations in a more cautious manner, thereby decreasing the likelihood of conflict. 

These approaches have been successful in maintaining peace across the Taiwan Strait in the past, and if managed carefully, they can continue to work for a long time to come.

Jonathan Liu is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Public and International Affairs. His research centers on international relations in East Asia, particularly U.S.-China relations and the Taiwan issue.

This essay was an honorable mention in the 2022 John Quincy Adams Society/The National Interest Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.

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