With the possibility of a U.S.-China military clash, some in the United States might argue that Taiwan’s value to the United States does not rise to the “vital” level, thus making the possibility of abandonment more likely. Alternatively, abandonment might occur if China mounts a blitzkrieg action and achieves a Crimea-like fait accompli before the United States has time to plan for or execute a coherent response.
However, abandonment, whether through action, inaction or delayed action, would have its own costs for the United States, namely the impact on the credibility of American promises and assurance to its allies in the region. Although Taiwan is not formally a U.S. ally, it is largely viewed—due to its past treaty relationship with Washington from 1954 to 1980—as a beneficiary of America’s “protective sphere” in East Asia. In addition, the aforementioned Taiwan Relations Act makes it clear that any effort to resolve the Taiwan issue “by other than peaceful means” would be a “grave concern to the United States.” If the United States did not honor its own law and make good on its pledges toward the maintenance of peace around Taiwan, other U.S. allies might begin to question the value of their own alliances with Washington.
Among other things, this might result in undesirable hedging or bandwagoning behavior as traditional U.S. allies in the region seek out other potential partners, with which the United States may have less than congenial relations. In addition, U.S. allies, such as Japan or South Korea, which are dependent on United States extended deterrence guarantees (the so-called “nuclear umbrella”), may begin to doubt the credibility of such guarantees and seek to develop their own strategic capabilities, which would likely not be in the U.S. national interest over the long term.
On the Chinese side, the costs of any military settlement of the Taiwan question could be equally significant. First, a military option would likely result in massive destruction of property and widespread human carnage. In addition, the economic impact would be devastating for Taiwan and would likely spread to China given the large amount of Taiwanese investment on the mainland.
Second, the images of a Chinese military assault on Taiwan, which would spread via social media and other means, would be disastrous for China’s long-term reputation. It would confirm that China cares little about international norms, rules or values. It would also cast a dark shadow over all of Beijing’s foreign engagements, including its expansive “Belt and Road” initiative. Moreover, it would put countries contemplating long-term commercial arrangements with China on notice that their engagements may be both ill-advised and even dangerous.
Thus, the Taiwan issue is not simply about Taiwan. It reflects and encompasses the larger dynamics of China’s rise, the U.S.-China relationship, and the future of American power in the Asia-Pacific region. In other words, the Taiwan issue is as much about the future as it is about the past. Moreover, as China moves gradually toward a deep authoritarianism under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, Taiwan’s democratic system and associated values provide a bright example and potential model for “alternative governance.” However, the question of Taiwan’s security—and the island’s long-term political status—continues to be an unsettled one, which means the military scenario cannot be totally ruled out. The recent passage of the Taiwan Travel Act may have elevated that risk to an entirely new level.
Paul Smith is a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions expressed in this essay are that of the author.