There are perhaps only a handful of things we actually know with any degree of certainty about the strategic intentions animating the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite. One of them is that they plan to conquer Taiwan. Beijing has made the subjugation of Taiwan’s democratic government the granite pillar of its party-state policy, wrapped it in iron, and shined bright lights on it so that everyone knows to avoid collision.
Students of introductory-level Chinese politics courses learn that the annexation of Taiwan is a matter of paramount importance to the CCP. So why is it so difficult for policymakers to accept this well-documented fact and prepare accordingly? Why do so many politicians, policy advisors, and security experts continue to take peace for granted?
The CCP’s reprehensible behavior amid the COVID-19 pandemic, its genocidal actions against religious minorities, and its shocking imposition of a draconian security law on Hong Kong should serve as a wake-up call.
The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act is being considered in United States Congress. Penned by representative Ted Yoho (R-FL) and supported by Michael McCaul (R-TX), two senior members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, this extraordinary Bill aims to strengthen the commitment of the United States to defend Taiwan in the event of an armed attack. If passed and acted upon by the executive branch, it would go a long way toward shrinking the probability of CCP miscalculation and war.
Yet, with the exception of some visionary members of Congress, few in Washington and Taipei seem to believe that an earth-shaking tragedy could be coming. The first term of the Donald Trump administration is winding to a close and little has been done to address the fundamentals of this strategic problem. To be sure, a number of remarkable and positive strides have been made to enhance US-Taiwan relations. But these have been erratic (the Trump-Tsai phone call), Pentagon-led (regularized arms sales), and on the margins (friendlier official rhetoric).
President Trump has invested the lion’s share of his political capital on a long-overdue trade confrontation with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). President Tsai (蔡英文) has invested her time and attention on long-overdue trade deals with Southeast Asia and the United States. Both are wise to decouple their strategic industries from the CCP. However, their focus on trade seems to have foreclosed top-level consideration of other important issues.
Problems of war and peace can only be solved at the White House. They require an attentive President and a functioning interagency process. If US government leaders currently have a strategy to prevent a CCP attack on Taiwan, they are hiding it well. More likely, they have no idea what they might do in a conflict and are passively waiting and hoping Beijing won’t force them to make a decision.
What about the prospects for a Joe Biden administration in 2021? To date, there have been no early indications that the members of Team Biden are inclined to accept the perceived cost of rethinking Taiwan policy. Yang Kuang-shun (楊光舜) pointed out in a recent report, “Team Biden’s policies on China and Taiwan,” that they seem intent on reducing US-PRC tensions and reestablishing cooperation with the CCP on issues such as climate change, global health, and nuclear proliferation.
And here we come to the fundamental problem: if Washington signals its resolve to defend Taiwan, the CCP could lash out. Knowing that risk, American leaders avoid it. This kind of short-sighted behavior is like a cruise line captain steering his ship north, into iceberg country, to avoid patches of rough water in the south.
Just as it would be better to deal with sea-sick passengers than to hit an iceberg, it would be better for Washington to accept temporary tensions with Beijing rather than to invite war-provoking strategic miscalculation. Is a trade or climate change deal really worth neglecting the threat of a Chinese Communist invasion of Taiwan?
So far, both Republicans and Democrats have continued to avoid hard questions when it comes to Taiwan defense policy. The time when America could avoid choosing between doing what is easy and what is right has long since passed.
The irony is that the United States has a superb toolkit for deterring authoritarian adversaries from invading their weaker democratic neighbors. Here’s how it typically works: Washington establishes robust political and economic relations with the democracy, makes defense commitments, and guarantees it will follow through with those commitments by putting US troops in country.
The US then strengthens interoperability with the allied country by engaging in combined military exercises. It speaks loudly on the ally’s behalf at the United Nations. The President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense routinely visit the ally to let everyone know how much the alliance matters.
The American deterrence toolkit works so well that it has become a common sense approach. Seventy years of practice has shown time and time again that when the United States is clear about its willingness to use force to protect its friends, even the worst dictators will compromise rather than risk regime survival. In spite of threats to the contrary, Stalin never rolled his tanks into West Berlin. Khrushchev famously “blinked” and pulled his nuclear missiles out of Cuba. Putin has not invaded the Baltic states. Kim Jung-un has not turned Seoul into a sea of fire.
Wars have occurred only when ambitious dictators saw American indecision and miscalculated. That’s why, in 1950, Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea. That’s why, in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
That’s why, in the 2020s, Xi Jinping (習近平) is probably going to invade Taiwan if nothing major changes.
Hard questions cannot be avoided forever. Washington cannot be strategically ambiguous in perpetuity and still hope to prevent CCP aggression toward Taiwan. Arms sales and quiet diplomacy worked in the past only because the PRC was weak. Today, the cross-Strait military gap is large and tensions are rising. Beijing’s appetite for power is manifestly growing with the eating.
In the ancient story of international relations, war is the ultimate man-made disaster. War is what happens when strategy, diplomacy, and intelligence all fail. The deterrence toolkit that keeps Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Australia, and nearly 50 other friendly nations safe from war is also needed for Taiwan.
Fortunately, the United States and Taiwan still have time to deter a CCP attack and preserve the peace. Unfortunately, they lack a plan for using the deterrence toolkit. They need to get one. The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act offers just such an opportunity.
Ian Easton is senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat.
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