In response to President Tsai’s visit with Speaker McCarthy, China deployed ships, launched drones, and fired missiles in military exercises around Taiwan, bringing tensions to new heights. As a result of changing circumstances, some have come to view America’s longstanding One China policy as something that has enabled Chinese aggression rather than contained it. These voices demand new official relations with Taiwan to bolster America’s defense commitment and deter further Chinese aggression.
This strategy is bad for America because it could escalate “strategic competition” with China into a devastating direct military conflict. Before America even considers abrogating the One China policy, it should focus on solving persistent underlying questions surrounding Taiwanese security and less risky alternative means of deterring China.
If simply visiting with the President of Taiwan is enough to spark the largest live-fire military blockade simulation of Taiwan to date, and elicit provocative threats from China to use drastic measures to protect its sovereignty, then there’s little reason to think that officializing relations with Taiwan would prevent China from pursuing reunification. As China has risen to prominence, its public image has come under attack from failed foreign investment schemes and human rights violations. If the United States ignores China’s warnings to back off Taiwan, it will force China to act or risk appearing weak on top of its already tainted reputation.
The One China situation is, at worst, a catch-22 where the policy might actually be stopping America from deterring China, but there is also a considerable risk of igniting a catastrophic war with China by abandoning the policy. In a worst-case scenario, America squaring off with China could go nuclear, while at best, it would incur a massive loss of life and economic destruction. Ultimately, before American leaders even consider taking this plunge and tampering with the policy, they should first focus on answering some relevant, pressing questions.
For example, one question is that of resolving Taiwan’s defense backlog. To date, the United States has sold over $19 billion in weapons orders to Taiwan that it has yet to fill due to bureaucratic red tape and flaws in the American weapons sales systems. These flaws have been made all the more apparent by the leaked American intelligence documents showing that the U.S. military-industrial complex is having difficulty keeping up with the war in Ukraine.
Risking war at this stage by recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation would be premature, as Taiwan is not entirely equipped to fight off its larger foe in part due to American shortcomings. If the United States can’t provide them weapons during peacetime, there’s little reason to believe that America would be able to support both itself and Taiwan with weapons against China in a wartime scenario. This means the burden of fighting off China would largely be relegated to America, consigning Taiwan to be crushed in a greater power conflict.
Another issue is the question of Taiwanese ambiguity. Taiwan’s reserve forces are historically underprepared to fight, with low numbers, poor training, and short enlistment periods. Taiwanese defense officials have a history of diverging from American recommendations, consistently preferring amphibious assault vehicles, heavy armor, and fighter jets over cheaper, more effective purchases like drones and mines.
This could be due to doubt over their own peril, fear of Chinese reprisals, or just old thinking. There have also been various polls over the past decade, with some more recent ones showing at least one in eight Taiwanese citizens supporting reunification with China. With both the people and the government sending mixed signals, America shouldn’t rush to abandon its One China policy and confront China for the sake of a nation that is understandably hedging its bets, lest it risks entering another Vietnam.
Instead, America can better deter China by strengthening regional allies like Japan, India, South Korea, and Australia. A united front can more effectively serve to deter Chinese aggression against Taiwan. A protracted conflict with neighbors has far greater long-term implications than a nation on the opposite side of the world. This type of deterrence should be preferable to those opposed to the One China policy because an invested Asian defense of Taiwan would give America greater freedom with its Taiwan policy since such moves would come with lowered risk of war with a nuclear-armed economic superpower.
Ultimately, abandoning the One China policy is not the only prescription for peace in a heated Pacific theater. Even if it were, there are vital questions America needs to answer before it risks taking China by the horns. It would be better if, while seeking answers to these questions, America uses its considerable diplomatic muscle to form a united front against Chinese aggression with regional allies who are more invested in and better positioned to defend the island in question.
Garrett Ehinger is an undergraduate student at Brigham Young University in Idaho, majoring in Biomedical Science. He was the Director of the China Lab at his university, a recipient of the EA UGAP stipend award, and has studied Chinese culture and history for over a decade.