• Matthew C. Mai

A Crisis Over Taiwan?

Updated: Mar 12, 2021


After Chinese military aircraft crossed the midline dividing the Taiwan Strait last week, questions about the nature of America’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense have again come to the forefront. Only days before had President Trump’s national security advisor Robert O’Brien declassified an Indo-Pacific strategy document that identified defending Taiwan, along with other nations in the first island chain, as a core regional security objective for the United States. If this is any indication, it appears that the Overton window for discussing the wisdom of a clear-cut American security commitment to Taiwan has shifted. With a new administration settling in, the Chinese are bound to test the limits of how President Biden will respond to calculated acts of intimidation against Taiwan.

To be sure, in geopolitical terms, a military contest over Taiwan is a losing proposition for the United States; at its narrowest point, only 80 miles of ocean separates Taiwan from mainland China. The most the United States can do for Taiwan in the short term is sell it defensive weaponry that, in the event of an attack, would impose costs on Chinese forces. For its part, Taiwan’s national defense strategy largely relies on area denial tactics that would block access to critical landing points on the island through the use of sea mines, anti-ship missiles, and air-defense systems, as well as force preservation measures that rely on small but highly mobile army and naval units to carry out guerilla operations.

Despite Taiwan’s obvious disadvantages, the psychological interplay between America’s unofficial defense commitment and China’s burning historical desire to annex the island added an additional factor to the strategic calculation. Without complete certainty about the nature of the United States’ commitment to defending Taiwan, the costs associated with attacking the island were largely dependent on how much Beijing was willing to risk to re-gain the “breakaway” province. Thus, the tacit nature of America’s support for Taiwan was enough to give Beijing pause.

Yet, as China continues its ascendancy as a great power, the urgency behind re-incorporating Taiwan as a matter of national pride could turn into an issue of strategic anxiety. Beijing might be facing a situation similar to that of Russia in 2014 when neighbor and historical buffer state Ukraine was simultaneously entertaining offers to join the European Union and NATO after a Western-backed revolution. If the Biden administration does intend to include the defense of Taiwan as part of its strategy to limit China’s geopolitical ambitions, the relationship between Washington and Taipei could evolve into an asymmetric security patronage. Namely, the United States would guarantee Taiwan’s independence and incorporate it into an American-led regional security order designed to balance Chinese power.

The cost of defining a relationship with Taipei in these terms will be that Beijing will view Taiwan as a proxy for American geopolitical influence as Moscow did with the newly installed pro-Western government in Ukraine. For China, a revision of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait would present a military challenge on its doorstep. The landslide re-election of Tsai Ing-Wen last year affirmed that most Taiwanese object to reconciliation with the mainland at the price of national independence. Thus, if the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy document is any indication, the once tacit but officially ambiguous U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan is destined to be viewed in Beijing as an explicit extension of American military primacy in East Asia.

Paradoxically, this means that China might be more willing to escalate geopolitical tensions in the Taiwan Strait even as the American defense commitment would make a preemptive attack irrational. Not too dissimilar from what Kennedy and Gorbachev faced, a crisis could develop where Chinese warships blockade Taiwanese ports receiving shipments of American defensive weaponry. The goal would be to force the United States to sit down at the negotiating table and redefine its relationship with the island. Power having more say than justice in international politics, Taiwan’s fate would then be hashed out bilaterally between the United States and China as the latter tries to alienate American influence while the former attempts to preserve the island’s independence.

While it is not yet clear if the Biden administration will follow the strategy made public late in the Trump era, doing so would not be prudent geopolitics. Instead, adhering to the decades-old policy of strategic ambiguity is a less risky and costly way of deterring Chinese aggression towards Taiwan. Diplomatic gestures combined with episodic tit-for-tat displays of force are enough to give Beijing pause without dramatically raising the stakes. However, if President Biden does decide to guarantee Taiwan’s security as part of its strategy in the Indo-Pacific, a crisis over the island could very well be in the making.

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