What the US Gets Wrong About Taiwan

By Sean Starkweather

Aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan transits the South China Sea in 2021.
Image Credit: Rawad Madanat/DVIDS

On March 9, 2021, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at the time, asserted in a testimony to the Senate Committee on Armed Services that “the threat [of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan] is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.” 

A similar sense of unease over China’s military capabilities and assertive foreign policy has  echoed throughout the American foreign policy community. Deriving largely from a belief that Taiwan is of great geopolitical and economic importance (and that it has a unique symbolic value as the only Chinese democracy), perceptions of a PRC strategy to take Taiwan by force have pervaded the highest levels of the defense and policymaking communities.

This often evokes powerful convictions among statesmen that the U.S. must defend its interests in Taiwan. But while such views have merit, they reflect a misled conception of the American national interest and a lack of appreciation for the consequences of such a conception.

Taiwan’s seeming geopolitical importance lies in its position as the middle island in the “First Island Chain,” a string of islands extending from the Kuril Islands down to Borneo near Malaysia. To defense specialists, losing Taiwan would supposedly mean jeopardizing Washington’s network of alliances because its commitments to other Asian powers would then be seen as uncredible. 

Taiwan in this sense has come to represent the status of the U.S. as the global superpower. Losing Taiwan could also mean compromising regional security. An aggressive China could use the island to undermine American interests by either launching strikes on U.S. military bases in the region—most significantly, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa—or as a means to restrict maritime trade through the Taiwan Strait. 

Both of these outcomes are undesirable, and each would negatively impact an American public that relies on goods produced in East Asia like Taiwanese semiconductors.

The U.S. is right to identify East Asian stability as a core interest. East Asia is a historically violent region. However, many American analysts have interpreted defense white papers published by China’s neighbors as evidence that China is commonly viewed as the lone threat to Asian security, thereby making a commitment to Taiwan appear all the more vital for America’s credibility and leadership status. 

This is a mistake. While states like South Korea and Japan unquestionably point to China as being increasingly assertive, both states also point to either U.S. activity or the broader U.S.-China competition as destabilizing forces as well. The militarized lens through which the U.S. views its relationship with Taiwan is also a miscalculation in part because China already has the capability to strike American bases in the region from the mainland. 

By trying to ensure regional stability, the U.S. may be inadvertently creating the conditions that would lower the action potential for a conflict to break out in the first place, thereby raising the long-term costs for the American people.

Beyond security considerations, the U.S. retains other interests that include the protection of international maritime trade and the continued production of certain key goods. Without a doubt, Taiwan plays an important role in securing both of those interests. The Taiwan Strait is an important chokepoint for maritime commerce, and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is currently responsible for over half of the production of semiconductors worldwide. 

Any interference with these interests would harm both the American and global publics. But these are all issues which will not be solved through hard power. In fact, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has already alerted the U.S. to the high degree of dependence it has on certain states producing critical goods.

As a result, President Biden and private business leaders have promoted legislation to help spur semiconductor production. While maritime trade with Taiwan is important, it will not be vital to the U.S. given the push to localize the production of machinery.

Taiwan’s status as a liberal democracy also presents a strong moral component which could serve as an impetus for defense of the island. The U.S. has consistently publicized democratic governance in other states as a core national interest that would benefit the American people by making regions more peaceful. 

However, Taiwanese democracy has negligible material impact on the American people, who are not particularly excited over the prospects of another expensive war; it also does not require a direct military commitment. 

The Taiwanese need for security comes, to some degree, from both the Taiwanese mistrust towards their own military as well as the surprisingly low percentage of GDP the island commits to defense. The U.S. would go further in securing peace by helping shore up Taiwan’s own capabilities and strategies, improving civil-military relations and offering indirect assistance in the event of an invasion.

This is not to suggest that the U.S. should abandon Taiwan. However, the U.S. will not be able to protect its interests unless it exercises greater prudence in its Taiwan policy. Failing to do so could lead to a crisis in the Taiwan Strait similar in severity to the 1958 crisis over Quemoy and Matsu, which almost led to nuclear war

Moreover, American credibility among its regional allies would be threatened only by making military commitments to Taiwan that Washington is unable to fulfill. As it stands, some allies—especially South Korea—have long maintained a policy of hedging between China and the U.S. while avoiding a definitive choice. While it is unlikely that South Korea would renege on its defense commitments, future U.S.-China brinkmanship would put additional strains on critical relationships.

Most significantly, the Taiwan question will do little to impact Americans’ daily lives. But a war over Taiwan would unquestionably bring with it consequences which the public may be unwilling to bear. 

In this sense, the ongoing Ukraine crisis can serve as an example. Given the danger of becoming embroiled in war with a peer competitor, the U.S. has managed to sustain a positive image in the international community because it has not acted in a manner which invited escalation. 

America’s response so far has made Putin appear hyper aggressive and reckless. This has isolated Russia and made it politically easy for states who would otherwise refrain from getting involved to join the economic sanctions against Russia, including South Korea and Japan. 

When it comes to Taiwan, America can only protect its interests if it commits in a transparent manner to a diplomatic resolution rather than a military one. The future of Asian security depends on it.

Sean Starkweather is a third-year at James Madison University majoring in international relations with a minor in Asian studies. He focuses on East Asian politics and security.

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

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