If the Unthinkable Occurred: America Should Stand Up to China over Taiwan

"Nothing would be more dangerous than for Beijing to conclude that aggression would go unpunished and that the United States and a coterie of key allies do not have the will or the capacity to intervene."

In back-to-back articles published in recent weeks, Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, posited that China has become too powerful, and too critical a player in the global economy, for the continuation of tacit U.S. security guarantees to Taiwan, the island-nation that Beijing regards as an inalienable part of China. In White’s bleak worldview, the risks of major conflict—perhaps even nuclear war—are too enormous, and consequently, Taiwan should simply be abandoned to its “inevitable” fate. Not only is this wrong, it’s a very dangerous proposition.

I would first like to thank Professor White for his response to my article “Don’t Let China Swallow Taiwan,” which gives me an opportunity to expand upon and to refine my earlier observations on the subject. Although I have strong disagreements with his argument, his is a position that has enjoyed a modicum of traction in some circles, and as such, it is essential that it be properly countered.

To start with, Mr. White’s response to my piece hinges on a misreading of the assumptions that underlie my argument. I do not, as he claims, subscribe to the “widely held assumption” that the United States is “willing [to] go to war with China to prevent Taiwan being forcibly united with the mainland.” In fact, given the unwillingness or inability of the international community to stand up to Russia over tensions in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, I fear that the United States and its Asian allies may not be inclined to take action to prevent the forced annexation of Taiwan, the Taiwan Relations Act notwithstanding. On my most optimistic days, I am agnostic on the matter. But I do maintain, however, that the international community should be willing to stand up to China and signal that commitment accordingly. Nothing would be more dangerous than for Beijing to conclude that aggression would go unpunished and that the United States and a coterie of key allies do not have the will or the capacity to intervene.

Another flaw in White’s argument is that it only provides binary options—capitulation, or the descent into major (perhaps nuclear) war and the collapse of the global economy. He leaves no room for other (and in my opinion, far more plausible) scenarios. The key to the continued existence of Taiwan (or the Republic of China) as a free, democratic and independent state lies not in the ability of the island and its security guarantors to defeat China in a major war, but rather in the strength of its deterrent, a concept that is inexplicably ignored by White. Everybody agrees that major war in the Taiwan Strait, especially one that drags the United States and perhaps Japan into hostilities, would be as devastating as it is undesirable. But the answer to that reality isn’t the abandonment of one’s principles (not to mention that of 23 million people), but instead a firm commitment to war avoidance. As I argued in a previous article, a multifaceted deterrent strategy involving both military and nonmilitary components (sanctions, naval embargo and so on), combined with clear red lines based upon international law, would lower the risk that China—export reliant and beholden to foreign energy sources—would miscalculate and choose the military option to resolve the Taiwan “issue” once and for all.

Ironically, White seems almost convinced that China would be willing to engage in nuclear war over Taiwan, an assumption that is both untested and portrays the leadership in Beijing as a bunch of deranged nihilists. For all its faults, and despite the official rhetoric depicting Taiwan as a “core issue,” it is in my view unlikely that the Chinese Communist Party would unleash its nuclear arsenal over the matter of Taiwan; in fact, I would advance that it is probably unwilling to gamble China’s economy over Taiwan by launching major military operations—all the more so if there is a promise that such a course of action would result in a concerted response on the part of the international community. The logic of deterrence is that it diminishes the likelihood that the international community would be faced with the maximalist options given us by White. (The bluster only works if we believe it—and Beijing wants us to believe it just like the good professor seems to do—as winning without a fight is a foundational element of Chinese military strategy.)

If, however, Beijing were committed to a nuclear policy and willing to cause and suffer millions of deaths to annex Taiwan, a country that is 1/267th the size of China, then I would say that we have all the reasons in the world to oppose it, as giving in to its blackmail would unleash upon the world a beast of unmitigated evil.