Second, China’s rise to great power status is still uncertain. With an economy still only about half the size of the American economy, China faces immense challenges, including a rapidly aging society, the danger of getting stuck in the “middle income trap,” severe environmental pollution, and the need for fundamental and painful economic reforms. Since China’s continued and rapid rise in relative power is neither assured nor limitless, there is no reason for Taiwan to capitulate early.
Third, the military conquest of Taiwan is an extremely unattractive option for China. Beyond the considerable risk that the operation would fail to put Chinese troops in control of the key Taiwanese cities, a war would be immensely costly to China. War would disrupt the Chinese economy and could cause domestic social and political turmoil. An attack on Taiwan would also partly destroy the island, lowering its value and necessitating large outlays for reconstruction. Most significantly, the Taiwanese people would be angry and difficult to rule for generations afterward.
Fourth, for the medium term, the U.S. military will remain more capable than the PLA. If the Chinese believe the United States would fight for Taiwan even at the risk of losing a couple of U.S. warships, the prospect of a war might deter the Chinese leadership from opting for a military attack on Taiwan amidst a political crisis. The regime has robust tools for managing public opinion; nationalist pressure is unlikely to force leaders into a policy they believe would be disastrous.
Finally, the Obama administration began with a relatively accommodating stance toward China, only to see the Chinese respond with accelerated efforts to undermine U.S. global and regional leadership and bully governments friendly to the United States. Some analysts argue that a tougher U.S. policy toward China is warranted. If so, continuing and even upgrading U.S. support for Taiwan is an appropriate response.
PRC coercion against democratic Taiwan would challenge the basic principles of the liberal regional order as well as U.S. reliability. America’s strategic leadership in the region is more in question than at any time since the Vietnam conflict, and arguably since the end of the WWII. If the United States intends to continue making the investment necessary to maintain the normative, institutional and security arrangements that uphold peace and prosperity for most of the Asia-Pacific region, Taiwan should be considered a crucial place to make a stand, not a liability to be abandoned in a strategic retreat to more defensible ground. If the Taiwanese people choose to resist pressure to unify with China, Washington should support them with robust arms sales that suit a sensible and efficient strategy for defending the island.
Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. He specializes in Asia-Pacific security issues. His latest book is Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security (Columbia University Press, 2013).
Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy