Whenever a new resident takes over the White House — or the majority party in the US Congress changes or the China hawks in the US overshadow the doves or the China doves take over the roost — concerned Taiwanese media start asking the question: “If China one day takes military action against Taiwan, would the US fight for Taiwan?”
The US has long adopted a position of strategic ambiguity on the matter, refusing to give a definitive “yes” or “no.”
This strategic ambiguity in the background coupled with China’s obvious military ambitions and four years of US President Donald Trump directly confronting Beijing translates into a rapidly evolving situation. As a result, there are increasing calls for the US to face the issue head-on — to stop avoiding it.
Retired US general Stanley McChrystal, a former commander of US and NATO Coalition Forces in Afghanistan and now an adviser to US president-elect Joe Biden, said in an interview with US Web site Axios this month that “China’s military capacity has risen much faster than people appreciate,” and that the US is running out of time to counterbalance China in Asia and prevent a scenario such as it seizing Taiwan.
He then popped the same question to the US that is being asked by the Taiwanese media: “Are you really prepared to fight for Taiwan?”
So, is it? Or has the US decided that if China were to launch a military attack on Taiwan, it would sit idly by and see whether Taiwan could take on China and, if not, whether it would fall into China’s hands? Has the US decided that it does not have a horse in this race, preferring its least painful option in the short term?
It would be nice if things were that simple, but consider the situation from China’s perspective: If it wanted to consolidate its control farther into the western Pacific — which it does — where would it start to have the greatest possibility of success? Beijing would not start with Japan and its considerable defensive capabilities, or with the Philippines, which is so far from China’s shores.
No, it would start with Taiwan, which sits all on its own so close to China’s coast and does not fall under the UN’s protection.
The US is debating whether China, after it penetrates the first island chain by taking Taiwan, would have satisfied its ambition, or would it be encouraged to take the second island chain and then the third, with the Pacific opening up to it like falling dominoes?
At that point, would Hawaii be beyond China’s reach? Would the US mainland be beyond its reach? Would the White House remain untouchable?
These concerns have merit. China has been allowed to build up islands and atolls in the South China Sea, to build runways and military facilities with complete impunity, while the US sat by and watched it happen. Has the result been peace and stability in the South China Sea, or has China been making a menace of itself?
In the final analysis, if China launched an attack on Taiwan and the US fought on Taiwan’s behalf, the US would essentially be fighting for its own interests.
Chang Kuo-tsai is a retired associate professor at National Hsinchu University of Education.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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