This month, Chinese military flights near Taiwan reached an all-time high. In a single day in September, aircraft from the People’s Liberation Army crossed into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone more than 100 times. As China’s campaign of military intimidation toward the self-governing island reaches new heights, it’s important to remember why U.S. support for the island nation is more vital than ever.
Deterring China from launching an invasion of Taiwan and dominating the world’s largest market zone is a vital U.S. interest. This is not simply because Taiwan is part of an esoteric global struggle between democracies and autocracies, but because its loss to China would have grave consequences for American security and prosperity.
Popularly dubbed “the world’s most dangerous flashpoint,” Taiwan is rarely far from the headlines. In recent years, under Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, China’s rhetoric and military intimidation tactics aimed at the island have grown more aggressive and escalatory, sounding alarm bells in Washington and among America’s regional allies.
In 2021, Admiral Phil Davidson, head of the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) warned that the PRC threat to Taiwan would manifest “in the next six years.” Last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken lamented that “Beijing [is] determined to pursue reunification [with Taiwan] on a much faster timeline” than previously thought.
Even if no formal invasion timeline has been set, there is no denying China’s rhetoric and activities have grown increasingly provocative. In recent years, it has conducted live-fire missile tests and military exercises around the island and encircled Taiwan with warships to conduct a mock blockade. Beijing has levied draconian economic sanctions on the island and has whittled down the number of countries formally recognizing Taiwan from 22 to just 13.
We know why Taiwan matters a great deal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For one thing, the party has closely tied its legitimacy and national narrative to plans for “reunification” with the island. For another, Taiwan’s status as a thriving democracy also exposes as fraudulent the CCP’s narrative that the Chinese people are ill-suited to political freedom and democratic governance.
Finally, the party sees Taiwan’s de facto independent status as a painful reminder of China’s “century of humiliation.” It portrays “reunification” as a vital step in China’s national rejuvenation, a project that would have China resume its rightful place — in the party’s view — not only as Asia’s hegemon but as the world’s most powerful nation.
Taiwan’s security also matters a great deal to the U.S. The island has a vital role to play in denying China’s hegemony over vital global supply chains and maritime trading routes. It is also essential in preserving the integrity of America’s First Island Chain defense strategy, and in maintaining a coalition of Indo-Pacific capitals dedicated to resisting China’s imperial ambitions.
Heart of America’s Economy
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would have terrible consequences for the U.S. economy. The costs to American workers in terms of wages and jobs lost would be severe. Taiwan is the fifth-largest economy in Asia and a top-10 trading partner of the U.S. Most importantly, an astonishing 90 percent of the world’s most advanced semiconductors are manufactured in Taiwan. These tiny chips are critical components of nearly every electronic system in the United States from smartphones and laptops to fighter jets; without them, the U.S. economy would grind to a halt.
Over the long term, the U.S. must seek to improve its resilience to supply-chain shocks through increased domestic manufacturing and pro-growth reforms to incentivize investment in this critical sector. For the foreseeable future, however, Taiwan will play a central role in the global supply of advanced semiconductors, and that supply would be badly disrupted in any conflict across the Taiwan Strait. Worse still, if China were able to assume control of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, it would grant Beijing enormous coercive leverage over the U.S.
First Line of Defense
Taiwan is a key node in the “first island chain” of military outposts spanning north to south from Japan to the Indonesian archipelago. If Beijing conquers Taiwan, it will have broken through this first line of defense, offering the Chinese military easy access to the Western Pacific and positioning China to use military force far more easily against Japan or the Philippines.
This matters not only because America is treaty-bound to defend both allies, but also because Beijing would be in a stronger position to compel regional capitals. It would also increase the threat posed by the Chinese military to Guam, Hawaii, and other U.S. territories, partners, and personnel in the Pacific.
Across the Indo-Pacific, nations expect the United States to defend Taiwan from a Chinese assault. If China can get away with seizing Taiwan, it would send a clear signal to the rest of Asia: “You’re on your own.” Other nations would no longer be as confident in America’s willingness or ability to defend them from China’s wrath, and as a result, might be more likely to cozy up to China.
This would be disastrous because preventing China from dominating the Indo-Pacific will require a collaborative effort between the U.S. and its partners and allies. Only the U.S. can lead such an effort, but it cannot defend against China’s imperial ambitions alone. It is therefore imperative that America’s Asian partners and allies also step up, especially by strengthening their own defenses and working together with the U.S. and each other to deter and defend against Chinese aggression.
Denying Imperial Ambitions
Far from an idealistic crusade on behalf of democracy, America’s interest in Taiwan is based on a pragmatic assessment of geography, economic security, alliance management, great power politics, and military deterrence in a web of overlapping national interests that intersect at this small island in the Pacific. The U.S. simply cannot allow the CCP to obtain hegemonic influence over the world’s largest market zone, which would give it enormous power to engage in economic coercion against the U.S. and others.
Simply put, the U.S. has a vested interest in denying Beijing’s imperial ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Taiwan is central to that effort.
Even as we acknowledge Taiwan’s vital importance to the U.S., we should be clear: America does not seek a war with China over Taiwan. Quite the opposite. Our apex priority is to deter the PRC from ever launching an invasion. That will require Taiwan to do more, including increasing defense spending and adopting a more effective defense strategy.
Most importantly, it will require ensuring that, through enhanced U.S. military deterrence, the CCP recognizes that an invasion of Taiwan would not only fail but also prove exceptionally costly for China and potentially fatal for any Chinese leader responsible for the catastrophe.