Taiwan's Balancing Act
Although Washington should not sacrifice Taiwan to placate Beijing, it must also refrain from using it as a stick for beating China.
The most important, though conditional, deterrent message that the United States sends with respect to the cross-Strait relationship is its recurring statements opposing any forcible alteration of the status quo. This message should continue to be reiterated regularly at the highest levels of government. The United States should also maintain the military capability to make the message credible and clear to Beijing. Strengthening niche capabilities particularly relevant to a Taiwan scenario, such as submarine and anti-submarine warfare as well as mine and counter-mine capabilities, can highlight U.S. deterrence, though displays of strength linked to explicit statements centered on Taiwan are not only unnecessary, but could prove inflammatory and counterproductive.
Taiwanese capabilities are also critical to the effectiveness of deterrence. Encouraging and supporting Taiwan’s acquisition of asymmetric military technologies—survivable systems that can boost its ability to implement a denial strategy—would buy time for U.S. mobilization in the event of a crisis and discourage Chinese leaders from concluding they might use force to quickly achieve a fait accompli. The relevant systems to bolster Taiwan’s defensive resilience include surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles and radars systems, as well as weapons that can prevent China from establishing amphibious bridgeheads in the early stages of an invasion. Such systems are consistent with Taiwan’s new Overall Defense Concept and have the added advantage of not providing offensive capacity, thus contributing to, rather than undermining, crisis stability because they shore up deterrence through forceful, but defensive, steps.
If the aim of deterrence is to prevent war, the same end is also served by observing the commitments that the United States made to China when it recognized Beijing in 1979. In particular, Washington should avoid steps that suggest a movement towards officially recognizing Taipei. This does not require it to drop its longstanding policy of supporting Taiwan’s inclusion in international bodies that include non-state actors more generally, such as UN agencies like the World Health Organization. But Washington should, for example, oppose any legislation that would mandate senior level government-to-government contact or coordination or U.S. military deployments or visits to Taiwan. Moreover, the president, exercising the prerogatives of commander-in-chief, should refuse to implement any such legislation that might be passed.
The steady stream of statements by U.S. retired military leaders, activism by individuals with direct ties to the Taiwanese government, and pro-Taiwan legislation by Congress may give Beijing the impression that a wholesale reassessment of the agreements the United States reached with China is underway. That could confront Chinese leaders with the choice between losing legitimacy at home by failing to defend a central pillar of Chinese foreign policy, on the one hand, and, on the other, risking a major war by taking military steps intended to communicate their resolve to Washington. The United States could also be confronted with a terrible choice: remaining on the sidelines after having provoked China and put Taiwan in harm’s way or risking a war with nuclear-armed China in order to defend Taiwan. Even if the United States were to achieve a military victory, a very cold, fragile and possibly short-lived peace would follow.
Finally, the United States should exercise caution in wading into the back-and-forth political skirmishes between Taipei and Beijing. Since most Americans are, for all intents and purposes, oblivious to changes on the Taiwanese side, in practice, this means not overreacting to Chinese moves. China has certainly adopted new coercive diplomatic and economic measures to isolate and demoralize Taiwan’s DPP leadership. Yet these steps cannot be separated from incremental and episodic Taiwanese moves towards open declarations of separateness, which, at a certain point, may become difficult to distinguish from independence.
Moreover, the Chinese pressure tactics taken to date do not even remotely threaten the Republic of China’s (ROC) existence. True, in recent years, China has induced several states, most recently El Salvador, to abandon Taiwan and establish diplomatic relations with the PRC, but these defectors have been small countries and therefore unimportant to Taiwan’s economy, let alone its security. Their withdrawal of recognition does scant material harm to Taiwan, which has survived, and indeed thrived, despite having seen many far more powerful countries do the same—the United States included.
China does have many other options to squeeze Taiwan short of using force, and some of these measures would threaten the island’s economic viability, necessitating a more fundamental rethinking of U.S. policy. But the moves made by Beijing thus far are better viewed as sparring by both Taiwan and China. Heavy-handed U.S. action may simply spark more consequential moves by China, for which the United States may not have an adequate response, which is to say one that avoids creating a crisis.
The current situation in the Taiwan Strait does not fully satisfy any of the three most interested parties: the PRC, the ROC and the United States. But so far, although the three have skirmished at the boundaries and their positions have evolved and sharpened over time, each has wisely avoided precipitous moves to remake the political and strategic landscape, realizing that the status quo, while not optimal, is safer than the feasible alternatives. The Taiwan dispute will not be resolved anytime soon, but it should be managed prudently until that proves possible. The consequences of intemperate words and deeds in the Taiwan Strait could prove deadly—especially now, as discord between Washington and Beijing continues to deepen. A sensible strategy requires that the United States not use Taiwan as a hammer with which to beat Beijing or treat it as a tradeable commodity that can be used to mollify the Chinese leadership.
Eric Heginbotham is a principal research scientist in the Center of International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at City College of New York/cuny and senior research scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.