In assessing the value of President Nixon’s opening of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Henry Kissinger called Beijing our best non-NATO ally as to its importance in confronting the Soviet Union. As we look for NATO to play a more significant role in addressing the challenge from China, it is appropriate for us to look at the defense of Taiwan more as we would the defense of a NATO ally threatened by a hostile neighbor.
The current U.S. policy objectives in the Indo-Pacific should be threefold: to preserve the U.S. role and reputation as the security guarantor in the Indo-Pacific, to ensure Taiwan’s democracy, and to aggressively pursue competition with Beijing while preventing great power general war.
Taiwan’s tenuous status and Beijing’s increasingly viable military option of unification by force under President Xi Jinping make it vital for the United States to adopt a more consistent and proactive strategy toward Taiwan. Posturing on the part of Beijing regarding Taiwan’s future must be met with a cohesive strategy from Washington that aligns with the overarching policy objectives of the United States. The current military balance in the Taiwan Strait, the economic incentive for a peaceful option of unification, and the dispersed decision-making in Taiwan point to the need for the United States to address Taiwan’s status.
Policy objectives towards Taiwan that have been promoted by the three communiques—the Shanghai Communique under the Nixon Administration, Normalization under the Carter Administration, and the 1982 Communique of the Reagan Administration—have seen their rationale altered in the interim years.
Balancing the Soviet Union, the original impetus for normalization between Beijing and Washington, has become less imperative for Beijing. This started in Vietnam with Moscow not coming to Hanoi’s defense in its 1979 border war with Beijing; and was furthered by the USSR’s retrenchment throughout the 1980s in Africa and Asia, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and finally, the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Since the 1949 conclusion of the Chinese Civil War between communist Mao and Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist forces, Beijing has reserved the right to use force if necessary to unify its “renegade province” with the mainland. During the opening of China, Mao said that Taiwan was something for which the PRC could wait 100 years. The preponderance of force on the side of Taiwan and the United States, China’s willingness to focus on domestic development, and the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act gave Washington confidence that, should unification occur, it would be born of common interest, principally common economic interest.
Taiwan’s previous KMT president, Ma Ying-jeou, pursued economic integration. While not clearly defined, the acceptance of the 1992 consensus is generally understood as one country, two systems. The economic integration pursued under the administration of President Ma contributed to Taiwan’s growth but has since been rejected as enabling too significant a dependence on Beijing. This was most clearly dramatized by the 2014 Sunflower Movement, in which youth protested a growing economic reliance on Beijing and the resulting increased leverage for the CCP.
Previously, China’s economic dependence on its relations with Washington to achieve desired growth augmented the military imbalance that favored Washington in the Pacific theater. With the PRC economy’s rapid growth, considerable strength, and its numerous trading partners, China’s recalculation of the current economic risks of an invasion may embolden Xi militarily.
With no change to Taiwan’s status, Beijing would also recognize that Washington has still moved forward on a trade war and talk of decoupling economies. Consequently, there is growing doubt in Beijing about the economic advantage of good relations with Washington. The regional military imbalance is also shrinking: the June 2019 Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report stated that Beijing was seeking regional hegemony with an eventual eye toward global hegemony. It pointed to the defense of Taiwan as in the U.S. interest to frustrate this ambition and said that the PRC was arming itself for a viable option of taking Taiwan by force. The increased military capacity of the PLA provides Chinese military analysts with a viable military option achievable at acceptable costs.
The first key question that drives a decision on U.S.-Taiwan policy is the likelihood that Xi might resort to a military option for the unification of Taiwan with the mainland during his term in office. Xi is unlike past Chinese leaders, and his statements suggest that this is a historical event he would like to achieve while in power. Xi, in a January 2, 2019, speech, said that the reunification of Taiwan is imperative for China to meet its strategic ambition of being the dominant regional power. Chinese analysts assert that another motivation for unification is China’s ambition to become a true maritime power. This would mean that China sees the necessity of exercising control of the waters off the first island chain from Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines, to Australia. These waters represent a defensive screen for the United States or the PRC, but the screen is mutually exclusive.
The second key question is whether Xi and the CCP have an increased fear of a de jure independent Taiwan and its potential use by the US in a competition over dominance in the Pacific. Is Beijing’s consideration of a military option based on a desire to achieve this deeply entrenched goal, or is it a response to the fear that Taiwan will declare independence?
Xi’s speech in June 2019 regarding ‘one country, two systems’ provided less assurance than had been previously stated, as Xi was silent on preserving Taiwan’s political institutions and military. Additionally, he added that “legitimate” rights for those in Taiwan would be preserved—“legitimate” presumably being defined by the CCP. Further, Xi laid out negotiations that would adhere to the 1992 consensus where a one-China policy would preclude the participation of the DPP and did not assure Taiwan of its status in negotiations.
In part because of Beijing’s more aggressive policies—popularly described as wolf warrior diplomacy—as well as its rollback of democracy and international agreements in Hong Kong and its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Taiwan is enjoying greater international support than at any time since its removal from the United Nations. This support has taken the form of visits by government officials, increased trade volume, and support for Taiwan in international bodies, including the G7.
The policy most likely to ensure the continued autonomy of Taiwan, in line with U.S. interest abroad, is to enhance deterrence of military unification by Beijing through a more proactive diplomatic, economic, and security policy to preserve the status quo. The aim should be to assist in bolstering Taiwan’s defense in a manner that does not give Beijing an excuse to resort to a military option because they question Taiwan’s eventual unification with the mainland.
Enhancing the deterrence of a military attack on Taiwan by China will require more than a rhetorical commitment to defend the island. It will require planning, equipping, and training for Taiwan’s defense. NATO is successful in part due to the integration of member states’ militaries. Integration works because of each nation’s treaty commitments, joint training, and equipment interoperability. Therefore, individual countries do not need to have each weapon system at an adequate level to provide their own security so long as they do so collectively.
For Taiwan to become an indigestible porcupine, it must prioritize the most resilient and lethal asymmetric systems against an amphibious invasion. For Taipei to focus its procurement and training on these defensive systems, it must have confidence that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense absent a unilateral declaration of independence.
The degree to which strategic ambiguity contributed to deterrence to date is unclear, but regardless, the facts on the ground have changed. To make this deterrence credible, we should sunset strategic ambiguity. The United States should adopt a policy of “strategic clarity,” as argued by Richard Haass, which would allow for an integrated defense of the island. Proponents of strategic ambiguity caution that abandoning the strategy gains the US nothing with Beijing, which currently believes we would come to Taiwan’s defense and plans accordingly.
A clear commitment by Washington may impact Beijing. However, more importantly, it would enable the United States to contribute to an integrated defense without Taipei needing to purchase high-profile weapons from the United States as a sign of Washington’s commitment to Taiwan. Instead, displaying this commitment through strategic clarity would enable Washington and Taipei to focus on asymmetric and long-range weapons, ideally designed to counter an amphibious invasion. The United States could provide Taiwan with cyber defense systems and enable early warning of an attack while allowing Taiwan to learn from Ukraine’s effective civil defense. The Biden administration should consider upgrading the level and frequency of military-to-military contact and joint exercises.
Taiwan’s peace and security are enhanced through its connection to the global economy. Taiwan’s semiconductor production is essential to the global economy and the U.S. technological advantage. If this national capability of Taiwan were to be taken over by Beijing, it would have a significant negative commercial and competitive impact.
If Taiwan’s economy becomes too reliant or integrated with that of Beijing, the CCP can use this economic leverage against Taipei. Taiwan currently has Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with New Zealand and Singapore. Washington should pursue a similar agreement and encourage allies, Japan in particular, to do the same. While the trade issue has not been popular in Congress, given Taiwan's bipartisan support, there is potential for Congressional approval for a Taiwan FTA and Trade Promotion Authority explicitly drafted for Taiwan.