Communist China could soon move to seize free and democratic Taiwan, and the stakes are sky-high for the United States. It could be next spring when the sea conditions are more favorable, or perhaps it will be two or five years from now. But China’s leader for life, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, has made conquering Taiwan a top priority, and there are signs he could attempt such an action soon.
“Gray zone tactics” are being used by Communist China against Taiwan, meant to exhaust and intimidate the Taiwanese so when the PRC makes its big move, Taiwan will lack the political will to fight back. The PRC hopes if Taiwan does not fight as though its very existence depends on it, and the United States has not adapted its weapons deployments in time to win against the PRC at acceptable costs, then the United States will not come to Taiwan’s defense.
If that is the way events unfold, then the Chinese Communists will successfully score the death blow to the United States as the global preeminent power, taking the power and influence that comes with that mantle.
Of course, China could misjudge the will of the United States and our allies to fight for Taiwan. In such a scenario, we would have a serious war on our hands — a conflict that would be nightmarish yet worth fighting — and we should be urgently working hard right now to prevent it.
Why Taiwan’s Security Is Critically Important
Xi wants to conquer Taiwan for symbolic, geopolitical, and economic reasons. China hasn’t done so because the costs are undeniably high and Taiwan continues to improve its ability to make an invasion as painful as possible (even if without the United States, resistance would ultimately prove futile).
Still, the motivations for Xi to move soon are potent, and if he sees a political opening that makes such an endeavor worth the risk, he is likely to do it. The Chinese Communist Party’s ideas are rooted in the racist view of ethnic Han supremacy and Marxist-Leninist ideology. Based on those views, the CCP operates a vast authoritarian surveillance state to censor and suppress ideas and people that undermine the CCP’s message.
The individual Chinese man, woman, and child of the more than 1 billion people in China are mere cogs in the CCP machine, easily silenced or dispensed with if they harm the party. That is why the Chinese government has been lying about the origins of the COVID-19 virus even as it infected millions, and perhaps more importantly, why they behaved at the onset of the pandemic as though they did not mind the virus spreading outside their borders. It’s why the CCP is engaged in genocide of the Uighur Muslims, and it’s why the CCP forces companies to comply with their authoritarian policies and guidelines.
In stark contrast, Taiwan is a flourishing liberal democracy of 24 million people, advocating dignity for each individual man, woman, and child. It has embraced pluralism and transparency, as well as religious, political, and academic freedom. The very existence of a free and successful Taiwan rebukes Xi’s vision and his insistence that Chinese Communism is a superior system of government to liberal democracy, and that ethnic Chinese are the ones to prove it.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is now a distinguished fellow at Hudson Institute, and I asked him about the importance of Taiwan in preparation for this essay. What he told me was illuminating:
Taking over Taiwan is the ultimate fulfillment of a decades-long communist ideological commitment. The CCP views the U.S. as the most decisive backer of Taiwan’s freedom and de facto independence. Taiwan’s success in democratization has exerted an enormous impact on the Chinese people who have drawn inspirations from the Taiwanese people. The nascent Chinese environmental activism, advocacy for artistic freedom, the free spirit, and innovativeness of Taiwan’s academics, politicians, entertainers have all been deeply impressive to ordinary Chinese living under authoritarian CCP rule … It is also true that, as President Reagan understood so well, the CCP’s desire to control its own people will not last forever and the example of a free Taiwan will hasten the day that the mainland Han Chinese come to see that they must demand their freedoms as well.
Geopolitically, Taiwan is indispensable to the United States. The United States has understood that preventing Taiwan from falling into communist hands was critical to peace since the aftermath of World War II, when the Cold War was already frosty. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, concerned the Communists might take Taiwan, sent a memorandum to Washington, and coined the now-famous metaphor that characterizes the military importance of Taiwan: an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”
Should the PRC conquer Taiwan, China scholar Michael Mazza articulates the stakes:
The PLA would for the first time have unimpeded access to the Pacific Ocean, allowing it more easily to threaten Guam, Hawaii, and the continental United States. PLA ballistic missile submarines might ply the waters of the Western Pacific, allowing China to pose a more potent nuclear weapons threat to the United States.
We also have an interest in trading and traveling safely in a region that will generate two-thirds of the global economy in the next ten years and want to do so as Americans, not as essentially Chinese serfs who need the CCP to grant us permission. If China can cut us off from the region, it would also seriously impede the United States from providing security assurances to allies like Japan and the Philippines.
If Japan loses confidence in America’s willingness and ability to come to their defense if China or North Korea attacks them with a nuclear weapon, we can be sure Japan will get their own nuclear weapons, which would kick off a domino effect of nuclear proliferation. The importance of the credibility of nuclear assurances made from the United States to our allies cannot be overstated.
Taiwan also contributes a critical component in global tech supply chains: semiconductors. Taiwan is home to the world’s largest semiconductor foundry, and it supplies microchips to major American companies. As Mazza notes:
Put simply, if the United States were to lose access to Taiwan’s innovators and manufacturers, the American tech industry could be paralyzed.
Unlike the secretive and deceptive CCP government, President Tsai Ing-wen and her administration repeatedly sought to help inform other nations at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has heroically welcomed Hong Kongers as China snuffs out Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy.
Military Leaders are Worried
Senior military officers have sounded the alarm about the need for America to quickly adapt and invest in its military to deter China and highlighted the issue that could cause a war with our greatest enemy is likely over Taiwan.
On March 9, 2021, when Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker asked, “How do you feel about our ability right now to defend Taiwan?” Adm. Philip S. Davidson, the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, responded, “… I think our conventional deterrent is actually eroding in the region,” adding that he thinks China could move on Taiwan “in the next six years.” In a subsequent hearing, Davidson’s successor, Adm. John Aquilano, expressed a Chinese attack on Taiwan is closer than “most” think.
One more thing that we should keep in mind: The PRC has been steadily improving its nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, because the stakes over Taiwan are so high, and both the CCP and the United States view it as a vital national interest, there is no guarantee that a conventional war with China over Taiwan will stay non-nuclear.
Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, writes, “[the United States] has grown accustomed to ignoring the nuclear dimension.” Yet all our military operations assume our nuclear weapons are going to deter the most catastrophic attacks. Richard warns:
There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state. Consequently, the U.S. military must shift its principal assumption from ‘nuclear employment is not possible’ to ‘nuclear employment is a very real possibility,’ and act to meet and deter that reality.
Indeed, the full modernization of our aging nuclear forces is paramount.
If Deterrence Fails, How We Can Prepare to Win
To state the obvious: the Chinese appear to not be intimidated by President Joe Biden. Chinese diplomats did not publicly preverbally slap around the United States’ most senior diplomats during the Trump administration the way they did of Biden officials in Alaska.
We should all be rooting for President Biden because our security relies at least in part on how seriously the CCP takes him. But we cannot sugarcoat just how bad the timing is for Joe “China’s gonna eat our lunch? Come on, man!” Biden, who has decades of records showing just how terrible his instincts are on foreign policy, to assume the presidency.
But so far, the Biden China team has been continuing many of the China initiatives of the Trump administration. The State Department has reiterated America’s “rock solid” support for Taiwan. As secretary, Pompeo lifted several bans on official U.S. diplomatic engagement with Taiwan and the Biden administration sent U.S. Ambassador to Palau John Hennessy-Niland to Taiwan, the first U.S. ambassador to visit since 1979. The Pentagon continues to facilitate critical multilateral military exercises and bullish freedom of navigation exercises.
These moves are promising and frankly, surprising. But there is more we can do to try to get us through the next few years without a major crisis in the Indo-Pacific theater.
To strengthen deterrence, we should give strong signals to China that aggressively moving against Taiwan would not be worth the cost. The United States has wisely maintained “strategic ambiguity” on whether we would defend Taiwan, but given the current context, now it is time to turn the dial so things are less ambiguous without removing pressure on Taiwan to continue to invest in its own security or ceding America’s decision-making on such a weighty issue to the unknown future actions of others.
Secretary Antony Blinken did express greater clarity without formally abandoning ambiguity on Sunday when he said of Taiwan: “I can tell you is it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force.”
But signaling greater strategic clarity must be urgently backed up by our ability to make good on it. Doing what is necessary will face some Democrat opposition, including from the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith, who has a misplaced fear the U.S. military is trying to “dominate” China, rather than deter it. He couldn’t be more wrong.
First, we should continue to push for greater weapons sales to Taiwan so it can better “fortify” itself. Second, we should have a robust forward posture in the Indo-Pacific theater. Military deployments must show — in kind and in number — that the United States could and would employ them if this cold war with China turns into a hot war.
Third, we must put a premium on better fortifying Guam to defend against an attack by the PRC. Any American fight with the PRC will rely on our ability to operate from Guam.
Fourth, the United States should quickly produce and work with allies to deploy “long-range fires,” ground-launched cruise missiles able to successfully hit targets as required on a challenging battlefield. President Trump withdrew the United States from the Cold War Treaty — the INF Treaty — because Russia was cheating on it. Now we can, and must, produce those missiles even as we work with allies on potential hosting agreements.
Finally, we should emphasize close and very visible cooperation and solidarity with our regional allies and partners. China seeks vassal states. The United States has and respects sovereign allies that are indispensable for deterring China and winning if deterrence fails. The Trump administration did excellent work with the “Quad” and the Biden administration is continuing such efforts.
The CCP is determined to replace the United States and thinks it sees an opening now to make its move by swallowing up Taiwan. We must do everything we can now to convince the CCP that such an opening does not exist.