Taiwan will increasingly be seen as US’s strategic liability

Since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, there have been three strands of thought in the US about the appropriate relationship between the US and Taiwan. 

The mainstream view considers Taiwan neither a strategic asset nor a strategic liability, and deems “strategic ambiguity” as the right strategy, seeking to deter Taiwan from pursuing independence and Beijing from achieving national reunification by military means. The hawkish view sees Taiwan as a crucial strategic asset of the US, critical to its national security, global hegemony and international credibility. With the inexorable rise of China, advocates of the hawkish view demand that the US pursue “strategic clarity”, pledging to militarily defend Taiwan in case it is “invaded” by the mainland. This view has gained some traction in recent years because more and more US politicians and policy experts are worried about Beijing attempting to achieve reunification by nonpeaceful means. The bipartisan Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 sponsored by US senators Bob Menendez and Lindsey Graham, which would recognize Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally”, is the most recent expression of “strategic clarity”.

There is yet another strand of thinking that regards Taiwan as increasingly a strategic liability to the US. Its proponents are concerned about the deteriorating relationship between the US and China, and the possibility of a deadly US-China war over Taiwan. Various proponents of this view call for a reduction of the US commitment to Taiwan and avoiding war with China. The view of Charles L. Glaser, a consistent proponent of cutting the US commitment to Taiwan, is representative. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2021, Glaser declared that as a declining power, “the best option (of the United States) may be to cut back on its commitments. In East Asia, that would mean giving Beijing greater leeway in the South China Sea, letting go of Taiwan, and accepting that the United States is no longer the dominant power it once was in the region”.

It is noteworthy that in all three strands of thinking, the peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland is not an option. Even for those who see Taiwan as a strategic liability, the island is not supposed to be jettisoned by the US. At the very least, the US should continue to strengthen Taiwan’s defense capabilities through continuing arms sales and forging closer economic ties with it. Interestingly, only the most hawkish of the hawks urge the US, if necessary, to go to war with China to prevent its reunification, whereas the rest of the political and policy community refrains from committing to the military defense of Taiwan. Not surprisingly, all three strands of thought consider a divided China in the best interest of the US.

Given the baneful anti-China milieu in the US, particularly in its political and policy circles, it is inconceivable that the “Taiwan as a US liability” view will have much impact on the US stance toward Taiwan soon. On the contrary, for the time being, Beijing’s increasingly hard-line approach toward Taiwan has to a certain degree strengthened the political influence of the advocates of “strategic clarity”.

However, now that Beijing has embarked on a step-by-step project to speed up the process of reunification, my view is that, for several reasons, the view that “Taiwan as a US liability” will gain more influence in the days ahead.

In the first place, the unstoppable rise in the military power of China and its dreaded anti-access/area-denial capabilities in the West Pacific, convincingly displayed in the large-scale military drills around Taiwan Island in August, means that there is no certainty of American victory in a war with China in the vicinity of Taiwan. War-gaming by American strategists has shown that the US might even be defeated in some scenarios. Some American military experts have repeatedly pointed out that at present, the US is not well-prepared militarily and lacks sufficient capabilities to take on a formidable foe like China. Elbridge Colby laments that “there are serious questions about whether the United States can actually win a war against China over Taiwan”. Senator Mike Gallagher bemoans that “at present, the United States is on track to lose a war over Taiwan”. Whatever the strategic importance of Taiwan to the US, it is unlikely that the US would launch a costly comprehensive conventional war against China for the sake of Taiwan’s defense, let alone allow itself to be embroiled in a nuclear war or World War III. Of course, harsh sanctions would be thrashed on China by the US and its allies, but then the latter would also suffer tremendously, and China might yet not be deterred.

Second, it would be difficult for the US to gain the support of the American people and its allies to go to war with China over Taiwan. It is highly unlikely that the American people would be prepared to pay an extremely high price to defend a faraway island irrespective of whatever rationale the anti-China hawks can come up with. The allies of the US, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region, would be horrified by a US-China war and its devastating repercussions throughout the region. Even staunch US allies such as Japan and Australia might urge the US to refrain from a war with China simply because their interests and safety would be endangered.

It is clear by now that the portrayal of Taiwan as an “independent country” that is under mortal threat by China, arduously disseminated by the US and its allies, has not been endorsed worldwide. Most developing countries, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region, … would see the conflict between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan as an internal matter of China

Third, all along, American military experts have been critical of Taiwan itself for insufficiently shoring up its military capability, “cunningly” failing to devise an effective asymmetrical defense strategy, abstaining from stiffening the will and morale of the Taiwan people to defend the island, and being overly dependent on the US for its defense. Moreover, the disparity in the military power of the Chinese mainland and Taiwan has been widening rapidly. To the consternation of many American strategists, whichever nonpeaceful strategies Beijing would use against Taiwan, be it a comprehensive blockade or military occupation, it is not likely that Taiwan could withstand the mainland’s offensive for a long period. It would be wishful thinking on the part of some American strategists that a war of attrition between the mainland and Taiwan would wear down and weaken China to the advantage of the US. It is more likely that Taiwan would succumb to the mainland militarily within no time, and probably even before the US could take any action to “rescue” it. Hence, to continue to insist that Taiwan is a strategic asset that the US could or should defend at whatever cost would be, practically speaking, meaningless.

Fourth, irrespective of whether the war between Russia and Ukraine is a long one or a short one, the relationship between Russia and the West will be irreversibly toxic and tense for a long time to come. The US and its European allies will continue to be committed to hostilities with Russia. The turbulent and chaotic situation in the Middle East will not allow the US to turn its back on the region and concentrate its strategic assets to counter China. It is also likely that the US and its staunch allies would have to deal with the military might of both China and Russia at the same time if a war over Taiwan were to break out, a maneuver that they would find difficult to succeed. America’s most prominent strategists, Henry Kissinger and the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, have more than once admonished US policymakers to prevent China and Russia from being its foes at the same time; otherwise, the US would suffer from fatal strategic overreach or overextension. To take on China militarily for the sake of Taiwan in the context of US-West-Russia hostilities would be folly par excellence on the part of the US.

Finally, international reactions to the formidable and effective military drills of China’s People’s Liberation Army around Taiwan Island in August should alert the US as to the possible international responses to a US-China war over Taiwan. It is clear by now that the portrayal of Taiwan as an “independent country” that is under mortal threat by China, arduously disseminated by the US and its allies, has not been endorsed worldwide. Most developing countries, especially those in the Asia-Pacific region, have taken an indifferent or nonchalant stance. Even though quite a few of these countries might be sympathetic to Taiwan, the fact that they all have subscribed to the one-China principle means that they would see the conflict between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan as an internal matter of China, where they have little moral or legal right to bother with. Therefore, since the one-China principle and the principle that Taiwan is an integral part of China are also accepted by the US and its allies, to go to war with a country that they recognize to protect its breakaway province that they do not recognize as an independent country would be tantamount to preventing China from achieving national reunification and hence morally unjustifiable. Accordingly, a US-China war over Taiwan could never draw worldwide support both morally and politically. Many developing countries would simply see the US as attempting to maintain its global hegemony by trying to forcibly and unjustly contain a rising China.

From the perspective of the long-term security and interests of the US, a wise and more-sustainable approach toward the Taiwan question would be to play a constructive and sincere role to facilitate China’s peaceful reunification and contribute to world peace. The US should encourage Taiwan, when it still has substantial bargaining chips, to start negotiations with the mainland over reunification based on “one country, two systems” and maximize the benefits to be gained from national reunification. By playing a constructive role in China’s reunification, the US would be in an advantageous position to strike a deal with China over the Western Pacific to have the long-term interests and security of the US, Japan and other allies better taken care of by China. Alas, as of now, the prospect of such a farsighted strategy being adopted by American politicians and policy experts is dim. Shortly, one can expect more provocative actions from these shortsighted and self-seeking people. In due course, however, I expect the US to return to soberness and pragmatism, and increasingly see Taiwan as a strategic liability. This more realistic conception of Taiwan will then prompt the US to significantly change its position on the Taiwan question.

The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.