The greatest present challenge facing America and its allies is arguably a small democratic island off the coast of the biggest rising naval hegemon. Detached historians might see an amusing parallel from ancient Greek history, but history has rarely been kind to small islands caught in the middle of a great-power rivalry. The same argument has now reached Washington D.C., as China embarks on one of the fastest and largest naval build-ups in human history.
Charles Glaser writes for Foreign Affairs that China is geographically poised to take Taiwan if it so desires, yet defending Taiwan militarily is a fool’s errand — impossible to do without an uncomfortable, civilization-destroying cost. According to Glaser, the defense of Taiwan isn’t imperative to the balance of power in Asia, and unlike other allies — such as Japan and Australia — Taiwan is uncomfortably placed in a region where geography gives China an advantage.
That said, in a war the United States might be able to prevail, but the cost of that would be unbearable to generations who have no idea what a genuine great power war might look like. Therefore, Glaser argues that America shouldn’t tie its fate to Taiwan or promise to do something it cannot. Countering Glaser’s assessment in Foreign Policy, Blake Herzinger accuses Glaser of Chamberlain-esque appeasement, arguing that if the United States abandons Taiwan, all hope is lost.
Their debate frames the situation in simplistic Manichean terms, providing only two options: complete abandonment of Taiwan, or catastrophic war mounted in Taiwan’s defense. Yet such bifurcation is flawed, not least of which because it fails to mention a whole host of additional options, from deterrence by a vigorous arming of Taiwan, or by “bleeding” China by way of asymmetric escalation.
Yet the balance of power in place for the last three decades is, unfortunately, unlikely to hold. As scholarly literature suggests, the relative power difference between China and the United States has changed since the early 1990s. As such, any debate about Taiwan should start with these three questions.
- What should one categorically do to defend Taiwan after a seaborne invasion starts, and missiles start flying?
- How many Americans are we willing to sacrifice in defense of Taiwan, even at the cost of a great power war with a nuclear rival?
- If China successfully invades Taiwan, are American, Japanese, and Australian soldiers willing to sacrifice innumerably more men to liberate Taiwan and restore the current status quo ante?
These questions are not frivolous. It is easy to advocate defending Taiwan. The question is how? Taiwan is not a treaty ally the way North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries, Australia, or Japan are. It is located miles from the Chinese mainland, which gives China the advantage to use fighters and bombers from land, with a much larger reach and capacity than carrier-borne jets.
In military strategy, such a reality is called “escalation dominance” — the capacity to escalate to secure dominance in a region, where the adversary cannot match. The “geography is destiny” principle works the most such invasion circumstances. To balance that, Taiwan is a heavily armed island of 24 million people, but it lacks the weapons needed, although they are trying to upgrade.
No American troops are present there as tripwires, as they are in Korea, Australia, and Japan. Any attempt to insert troops into Taiwan in such a fashion will likely lead to a “security dilemma” or escalation spiral, wherein Beijing feels compelled to engage in an overwhelming response.
So what happens if the invasion starts? Are we to send a flotilla like Britain did to retake the Falklands? China isn’t Argentina. Are we to send carriers to bombard the Chinese mainland and airstrikes on coastal missile silos? One can expect what the retaliation will look like.
It’s worth remembering, that in a naval battle, one sunk American aircraft carrier would mean 6,000 Americans dead within moments — more than the combined total fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and twice the toll of 9/11. It would also mean America cannot back down from that. All of these cases lead to direct war with China.
Of course, so much depends on the resolve and willingness of Americans and their allies in defending Taiwan. It is one thing to arm Taiwan to the teeth, to ensure the cost of invasion is extreme for China. It’s another thing to join a potential war with great power with no end of hostilities in sight and potentially no allies.
The first aim is to bog China down in a quagmire of decades of guerrilla warfare, bleeding them like America bled the Soviets in Afghanistan. The second aim is to reverse and roll back an invasion, with no guarantee of success and all possibility of a nuclear war.
Australia, Japan, and India are not expected to join a global war on China unless attacked, and understandably so. Ever since the dawn of modern warfare, great powers only joined other powers in someone else’s war either for what we call “chainganging,” that is to gain from the spoils of war, or “balancing” — that is, when it is an existential threat if one side wins in the ongoing conflict. Granting that, one can assume the American burden on Taiwan will be a solo one.
Is that what Americans want? Perhaps. Maybe Texans are willing to die in droves in defense of Taipei. Yet the question needs to be asked.
For the sake of comparison, total American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined to a little more than 7,000. Conservatively, that’s what could be expected in a week or less in even a localized (not total) great-power war. A globally spread-out 11-carrier, 300-surface fleet should think long and hard before taking on a concentrated fleet of more than 400 ships and at present two carriers sporting home theatre advantage.
During World War I, Lord Lansdowne wrote of what Britain’s war aims should be:
We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilized world … We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power.
He was, of course, not taken seriously amidst the war hysteria. Still, the Taiwan question requires a similar national debate.
None of that is to say that the United States should abandon Taiwan. The best thing one can do is to have clear, declared red-lines while encouraging and helping with a massive armament of Taiwan, sending them weapons systems, platforms, missiles, submarines, and anti-ship batteries. Taiwan’s troops should be prepared for long-term guerrilla warfare, aiming to show that any invasion of Taiwan would result in such an enormous cost in Chinese blood and treasure that imperialism post-Taiwan would be impossible.
Any stark commitment of war with China over Taiwan, however, isn’t similar to defending Japan or Australia, not just because they are treaty allies stationing already-placed American troops, but because Beijing assesses Taiwan differently. The idea that China will blink in the face of a U.S. military ramp-up is unlikely, and ahistorical naivete at its finest. Politicians of all stripes need to level with the American people about the pathways that make war more probable.