Michael Anton makes a compelling case for not resisting a Chinese takeover of Taiwan with force. I agree with the vast majority of his historical and strategic assessments and arguments. But I disagree that abandoning a U.S. policy commitment to help Taiwan maintain its independence is a wise choice.
Americans have spent too much of the past several decades embroiled in poorly chosen and badly executed ground wars. Extricating ourselves from them was definitely a wise choice even if Joe Biden’s execution of the Afghanistan withdrawal was light years beyond badly done.
But we must differentiate between withdrawing from two wars and signaling we are unwilling to contemplate another. Iraq was a slight victory with little actual strategic advantage gained. Afghanistan was a clear loss with tremendous damage done to our credibility and deterrent factor. Adding a policy change saying we will not honor a quasi-treaty obligation against our main global threat China would be extremely destabilizing.
The policy most likely to deter our enemies and avoid wars is Peace through Strength. But I think we can agree that was much easier with Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump as commander in chief than with Biden asleep at the helm. Yet we should make strong strategic policy decisions even with that fundamental disadvantage in play.
All of our instruments of national power must be in play to have the best chance of avoiding the last resort of boots on the ground or boats in a sea battle. That means we may want to implement preemptive economic and diplomatic and even strategic military deployments in order to ensure our deterrent factors are properly evaluated.
China should know it will pay a steep price before they contemplate any move on Taiwan. That is the best way to stop them from actually doing it.
Anton’s evaluation of just how much China wants Taiwan back and just how much it could suck for us to get into a shooting war over this is spot on. I don’t want that at all, and I am not sure that if China drove ships across the Formosa Strait we even should respond by sending in the USS Ronald Reagan.
But I do not think that we should simply accede to their desire to reclaim Taiwan simply because the military cost would be exceptionally high, either. There are also costs to giving the CCP any sort of green light.
The one actual flaw in Anton’s evaluation begins with this statement: “We have no mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. If we want to get super-technical, we can’t have a treaty with an entity we don’t recognize as a country. Legalistic hair-splitting aside, neither do we have any sort of agreement that commits us to the defense of Taiwan—the way that, say, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Charter or various mutual defense treaties do, in fact, obligate us to come to the defense of other nations.”
Anton is 100 percent correct in the hair-splitting and treaty evaluation. But he sidelines the Taiwan Relations Act that replaced the Sino-American Mutual Defense Pact, a Senate-ratified treaty. President Jimmy Carter unilaterally withdrew us from the latter treaty, and the constitutionality of that action has never been determined.
That led to the Taiwan Relations Act which, as Michael properly notes, does not constitute a formal treaty. But it has been mostly treated as a de facto treaty since its inception. Certainly, the many countries in the region that look to the United States as a buffer against Chinese expansionism see it as an important protection.
If we, through action or inaction, move away from the obligations in that act, we send an unavoidable message to friends and enemies around the world. We also give a massive victory to the Communist Chinese and embolden their already unacceptable expansionism in the Pacific Rim and the rest of the world.
China is our enemy, and we must act in ways that attempt to both lessen any chance of outright conflict as well as limit their push to become the dominant superpower. That does not in any way mean a return to neocon interventionism, but it also should not appear to be a neo-isolationism.