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Is Defending Taiwan Worth the Risk?

By Emma Ashford, a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! Fall is finally here in D.C.: The leaves are falling, the temperature is pleasant, traffic is reliably terrible, and apparently America is now secretly basing troops in Taiwan. Ready for another winter of pandemic and great-power competition?

Matthew Kroenig: I want to enjoy fall for as long as possible. This is the most beautiful time of the year in Washington.

And rather than cooling down, several flash points around the world have been heating up. Have you followed China’s record incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ)?

EA: To be honest, it’s hard not to notice the hysteria in Washington about the incursions.

This is mostly just a step up in the same kind of activity the Chinese have been doing for years, but to hear people in Washington talk, you’d think China was about to invade the island tomorrow.

MK: Call me old-fashioned, but I think a genocidal, nuclear-armed power threatening its small democratic neighbor with unprecedented shows of military force is worth a bit of hysteria.

EA: At least you’re being accurate about what these incursions are: They are shows of military force, nothing more. To read the reporting on this, you’d think that China is actually invading Taiwan’s sovereign airspace. Instead, what it is doing is sending planes into the air defense zone, which is basically a buffer zone around a state’s sovereign territory. Taiwan’s ADIZ actually extends over the Chinese mainland, though these incursions are in the part of the ADIZ closer to the island.

But I’d state two caveats: First, ADIZ violation is something the United States and its allies have also done on occasion, when Washington thinks it’s important. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we’ve just learned that the United States has had a special operations unit and a small contingent of Marines deployed to Taiwan for the last year, training the Taiwanese military. When we first learned about the ADIZ violations, they seemed to come out of nowhere. But they may well be a response to this U.S. deployment; the public may not have known about it, but the Chinese government almost certainly did.

MK: China’s threats against Taiwan are not a reaction to the United States; they are an outgrowth of the long-standing desire of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to take control of the island by force if necessary. I agree that an invasion is not likely tomorrow, but China’s recent aggression is still concerning, and it advances several of China’s revisionist goals. At the strategic level, it may help create the impression globally that Taiwan is indefensible and that China already has military dominance over the island and the region. It is useful training for Chinese pilots for a future conflict and helps them probe and plan for Taiwan’s likely air defense response. And it puts a lot of stress on Taiwan’s small air force, as its leaders need to scramble aircraft to intercept the incoming Chinese jets.

EA: That’s pretty accurate. China has a really strong interest in persuading the public in Taiwan to reunify with the mainland peacefully, and this kind of activity might help it do that. It might also be signaling to the United States to withdraw those troops.

But let’s take a step back here and talk about the broader question. The Biden administration has obviously expressed diplomatic concern about these flights. But when it comes to the actual defense of Taiwan, things are a lot less clear. Since the 1970s, the United States has maintained ambiguity on the question of Taiwan’s independence and acknowledged that Taiwan is a part of China. The big question currently ratcheting around Washington is whether to change that position and make a clearer commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Even training Taiwanese forces is a step in that direction and could be a sign that the U.S. government is considering abrogating its commitments under the 1982 U.S.-China communique on Taiwan. Do you have an opinion?

MK: Aren’t we paid the big bucks to have an opinion in this column?

EA: If I wanted big bucks, I wouldn’t have gone into policy work.

MK: Fair enough. I’ll offer an opinion despite the modest compensation. I think it does make sense for the United States (and Washington’s allies and partners) to make a clearer commitment to defend Taiwan and for Taipei and Washington to invest in the right military capabilities (like anti-ship missiles) to deter and if necessary deny any Chinese invasion of the island.

The clearest path to a war over Taiwan in my view would come if CCP leaders miscalculate; they might assume that they can get away with a successful takeover of the island, when, in fact, they cannot. So by clarifying the U.S. commitment, Washington would be doing Beijing a service—President Joe Biden would be helping them not to miscalculate.

But I suspect you’re not ready to sign up to fight for Taiwan?

EA: Oh, absolutely not. I’ll just put it bluntly: Taiwan’s strategic significance to the United States is not even remotely enough to risk a war with China.Taiwan’s strategic significance to the United States is not even remotely enough to risk a war with China. There are countries in Asia—Japan and South Korea, for example—that are important enough for the United States to commit to defend. But in the case of Taiwan, the imbalance in interests and capabilities is just too high. China views Taiwan as a historic part of China; reunification has been a core demand of the CCP government for its whole existence. Taiwan is 100 miles offshore the Chinese mainland. Meanwhile, it’s 7,000 miles away from the United States, whose population is at best ambivalent about defending it. So, no, the United States shouldn’t commit to going to war to defend Taiwan.

MK: The CCP’s view that any territory ever controlled by Beijing needs to be reincorporated into China is aggressive and unreasonable. Washington doesn’t go around saying it must take back the Philippines.

EA: No, but Americans did conquer most of a continent, slaughter the native inhabitants, and then fight the neighboring states for more land. You should ask Mexico how it feels about the United States’ historical claims to territory!

Obviously, though, that doesn’t justify what China is trying to do in Taiwan. But the reason I raised the strength of feeling in China about reunification is to highlight the imbalance between U.S. and Chinese interests in Taiwan.

Taiwan is far, far more important and significant to China than it is to the United States. And China’s citizens feel strongly about Taiwan, while defending Taiwan isn’t particularly popular among Americans. In short, it’s going to be extremely difficult for the U.S. government to fight a war that isn’t particularly popular or strategically important against a state where it is popular and important. That’s why I say we have an imbalance of interests.

MK: I wouldn’t be so quick to cede the balance of interests to Beijing. The United States and its allies have built and defended a rules-based system over the past 75 years that has produced unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom globally.The United States and its allies have built and defended a rules-based system over the past 75 years that has produced unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom globally. I don’t want to trade that in for a world in which Americans stand by as revisionist autocracies like China gobble up neighbors by military force—or, worse, lose a hegemonic war leading to the end of this order and the rise of a Chinese-led system. (Just look at the way Beijing treats its own people for a vision of what that system might look like.) Those are both pretty dark futures. I think it is worth fighting for the preservation of the current system.

Put that way, the U.S. stake is much greater than China’s interest—which essentially boils down to reclaiming an island.

And, even better, if Washington gets the deterrence equation right—with the right commitments and capabilities—Americans don’t have to fight to defend it. Washington can convince the CCP that it is not in its interest to attack.

EA: Or perhaps a war over Taiwan might cause that international system to collapse. After all, there’s plenty of evidence that the United States might well lose such a war, costing the lives of many Americans and potentially demoting the United States to a second-tier power. And any deterrent that’s plausible enough to be credible might end up leading to actual conflict.

MK: Right. That is why it is important that the United States make the necessary investments to deter the war and, if necessary, win it.

EA: I simply don’t believe that Taiwan is important enough to take that risk. That’s probably why a recent Eurasia Group Foundation poll found that only 42 percent of Americans believe the United States should defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.

MK: As we’ve discussed before, I think public opinion polling on foreign policy is generally pretty meaningless. A different recent poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that Americans support defending Taiwan. It is up to political leaders to decide what is in the national interest and make the case to the American people.

EA: Look, Americans don’t have to abandon Taiwan’s people: Washington can help by providing them with arms and support so they can defend themselves. As Patrick Porter and Michael Mazarr recently put it, “the United States should act as armourer, but not guarantor” in the case of Taiwan. The training forces are a more risky proposition, as they put Americans on the ground, and there is always the concern that a future policymaker might view them as a so-called tripwire force. And a concrete commitment by the United States to actually defend Taiwan is far too risky.

MK: I think it is both/and, not either/or. Taiwan should do more for its self-defense. But the United States and other countries worried about China’s aggression should help. U.S. forces on the ground is a good next step toward strengthening the U.S. commitment to Taiwan.

EA: Well, China might soon be too busy with economic issues to worry about Taiwan. It’s been a bad couple of weeks for the country. On Monday, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced that the administration wouldn’t be removing former President Donald Trump’s China tariffs. And then there’s the Evergrande crisis roiling China’s domestic economy. Have you been following this?

MK: Yes. Many seem to think China is an unstoppable economic juggernaut, but I and others have been arguing for some time that its economy has real weaknesses. The Evergrande crisis shows that China’s previous growth model, relying heavily on debt and unproductive real estate investment, was unsustainable. The CCP appears to be intervening to prop up this particular company, but I suspect this is just the beginning of this story.

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SAKHRI Mohamed

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