The Fight to Keep Taiwan Free and Democratic Has Just Begun

F-16 Elephant Walk

The Fight to Keep Taiwan Free and Democratic Has Just Begun

While Taiwan’s electoral defiance of Beijing is a good beginning, the fight to preserve Taiwan as a free and democratic U.S. ally is about to get more difficult.


Is Taiwanese president-elect Lai Ching-te’s victory good for the United States?

The Biden administration signaled that it isn’t so sure. While some U.S. officials were quick to publicly admire the health of Taiwan’s democracy and the strength of its electoral process, the president himself declared, “We do not support Taiwan’s independence.” This reflected Beijing’s demands that the United States forthrightly state such opposition whenever the opportunity arises. But it struck a discordant note. Lai forswore such a move, embracing the position of his predecessor, Tsai Ing-wen, that there is a political status quo that he will defend and uphold. Lai has said: “We do not have any such plan [to declare independence], because Taiwan is already a sovereign and independent country, and there is no need to declare independence.” 


Defending Taiwan’s status as a de facto independent country fighting for international space and dignity will be difficult enough. In a psychological blow to Taipei, just a day after the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) victory, the Pacific island country of Nauru switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), giving in to Beijing’s inducements. 

Leaving aside Biden’s misstep, the electoral outcome is very much in U.S. interests. The Taiwanese electorate’s decision to elect Lai while giving the legislative branch majority to the opposition parties reflects the desire of the Republic of China’s (ROC) citizens to inject even more caution into the political system. The Taiwan people want to maintain the status quo and avoid war. A flourishing democracy aligned with the United States in East Asia’s central front of geopolitical competition—the “first island chain”—boosts U.S. diplomatic and military posture in a critical part of the world. But the celebration of Taiwan’s democracy must be tempered by the cold reality that the status quo will not keep itself. Washington and Taipei must maintain it against the PRC’s relentless pressure to change it.

Lai’s pledge that “defense is the bedrock of our national security” is consistent with U.S. interests and policy. He plans to continue with Tsai’s defense modernization and reform program. These plans must move faster, and the United States must be even more forthcoming in helping to transform the island’s military into a modern, effective fighting force. In this effort, Washington must treat Taipei as a quasi-ally with access to the full range of security assistance tools. 

While preserving Taiwan’s status quo is a vital U.S. interest, Taiwan is too small to withstand the full weight of Chinese pressure by itself. Washington will have to carry a substantial load in this effort. Beijing is enjoying its third decade of military modernization. Consider that in recent testimony to Congress, the commander of INDOPACOM, Admiral John Aquilino, stated that in 2022 alone, the People’s Liberation Army added seventeen ships to its already large navy. The Chinese military build-up is the largest in the world since the end of the Cold War. Alongside its naval modernization, the People’s Liberation Army is growing its advanced aircraft fleet and arsenal of conventional and nuclear ballistic and cruise missiles as well as hypersonic missiles. 

As any PLA intelligence officer can see, the comparable U.S. force is getting dangerously small and is stretched even thinner as it supports allies in two wars around the globe. Beijing’s appetite for starting a major war in Asia is unknown, to be sure. However, the size of its military by itself provides many options for the PRC to continue its campaign of harassment, pressure, and intimidation. Beijing’s unyielding coercion is strengthened by its ability to escalate to war. Taiwan and the United States have to live in fear that China’s coercive strategies are a prelude to an invasion and occupation of the island. In tandem with its military intimidation, the PRC leverages what it calls “discourse power” to define every U.S.-Taiwan counter to its coercion as a provocation that will be met with greater force. Hence, Biden’s immediate instinct to reassure Beijing that Taiwan’s election did not mean the United States would “support independence,” as if the United States did anything to orchestrate the political outcome on the island. Beijing’s “discourse power” puts Washington on the rhetorical defensive.

The United States still has time, but not much, to turn things around and redress the dangerous military imbalance across the Strait. Washington should, for example, invest quickly in capabilities that undermine the Chinese “kill chain,” the ability to find, target, and destroy enemy capabilities quickly and decisively. China has never engaged in modern warfare since 1979 and is developing dependencies on its high-tech informational and space systems with which the U.S. military can interfere. But the United States is not moving fast enough.

While the military balance is critical, in this contest with Beijing, words matter too. Contra Biden, Taiwan did not vote for independence, and the President-elect has no plan to seek it. Taipei will not change the political status of the island. President Biden would have been better served by refusing to fall into Beijing’s rhetorical trap. It is Beijing that seeks to change the status quo with its stiff and unrelenting demands for unification. President Biden should have outlined China’s provocations against Taiwan to the American and allied publics. By doing this, he would have regained an edge in “discourse power.” It is worth reminding the world that the United States de-recognized Taiwan, a Cold War ally, based on the assumption that Beijing would work out its differences with Taipei through peaceful means. But after a three-decade-long military build-up, Beijing has abandoned any semblance of a commitment to peaceful resolution.

The United States can start by calling on Beijing to meet with Taiwan’s duly elected leaders without preconditions, something it has not done in eight years. Lai would surely welcome the chance to freeze the status quo in negotiations with his Chinese counterparts. Biden might publicly ask Beijing what it is afraid of. The PRC’s recalcitrance will be on display, and the world can see for itself which country is looking to revise the status quo. While Taiwan’s electoral defiance of Beijing is a good beginning, the fight to preserve Taiwan as a free and democratic U.S. ally is about to get more difficult.

About the Author: Dan Blumenthal 

Dan Blumenthal is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations. Mr. Blumenthal has served in and advised the U.S. government on China issues for more than a decade.

Image: Creative Commons.