While in Tokyo, a reporter asked President Joe Biden if the U.S. would defend Taiwan. The president’s response, “Yes.” When pressed, Biden reiterated, “That’s the commitment we made.” Biden elaborated that, “The idea that (Taiwan) can be taken by force, just taken by force, it’s just not appropriate. It would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine. And so it’s a burden that is even stronger.”
Biden’s statement riled diplomats in D.C. and communist bosses in Beijing with a White House spokesman once again pressed into clean up duty, saying, “…our policy has not changed.”
The People’s Republic of China considers the self-ruled island nation of Taiwan to be one of its provinces even though the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled there.
The U.S. has a stronger security pledge to Taiwan, via the Taiwan Relations Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, than it made to Ukraine in 1994. But America’s commitment to protect Taiwan from any attempt by China to take the island democracy by force has always been couched in “strategic ambiguity”—meaning that America’s policy was to leave everyone in the region guessing as to what we would do.
Strategic ambiguity served two purposes. First, America’s “will we or won’t we?” stance complicated China’s war planning. If China invaded Taiwan but didn’t also attack American forces in the region at the onset of hostilities, then the U.S. would be better able to help Taiwan stave off attack. Second, it was feared that a clear declaration of support for Taiwan would encourage Taiwan to pursue a formal declaration of independence from China, thus goading China into war.
But strategic ambiguity isn’t what it used to be. China is much more powerful than it was in 1979. American credibility is at a nadir in the wake of last year’s embarrassing collapse in Kabul and the failure of deterrence in Ukraine. And, while no doubt tempered by Russia’s difficulties in its ongoing effort to subdue Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party sees itself as having distinct advantages over Russia and the West in terms of its party discipline, ability to command a vast economy, and control its population.
Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton sees a link between Ukraine and Taiwan, connecting his vote for $40 billion in aid to help Ukraine to defend itself against Russia’s invasion as necessary because if China sees weakness on Ukraine, it will go for the jugular in Taiwan.
What’s at stake in Taiwan? Why should America care? There are three broad reasons why the U.S. has a major national security interest in seeing Taiwan’s democracy continue.
If Ukraine is important to feeding the world as the fifth-largest exporter of wheat, then Taiwan is vital to the world economy as the third-largest exporter of computer chips.
But integrated circuits aren’t Taiwan’s only crucial exports—the island democracy also exports its ideals, showing 1.3 billion citizens of China that there is an alternative to the Chinese Communist Party, one that honors human rights. Taiwan’s democracy is ideological kryptonite to the China’s one-party dictatorship. As a result, so long as Taiwan is self-governed and free, China’s ability to threaten America and the Indo-Pacific region is limited.
And lastly, Taiwan is the lynchpin of the first island chain running from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines to the island of Borneo. By taking Taiwan, China’s military position would be greatly strengthened, along with its ability to force its neighbors into its orbit at the expense of American national security and trade ties.
Due to bad weather and treacherous currents in the Taiwan Strait, 90 miles from China, the optimum times for China to invade Taiwan are April and October. Should China invade, the conflict will look vastly different than Russia’s war in Ukraine, which is foremost a land fight.
For China to seize Taiwan, it must first gain air superiority and then knock out Taiwan’s navy. And unlike Russia’s invasion of non-NATO ally Ukraine, China must assume from the start that America and Japan will swiftly come to Taiwan’s aid, meaning that China will launch a first strike on American and Japanese naval and air assets. Thus, unless successfully deterred, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is likely to be a high-intensity affair from the first hour, with American ships, submarines, and air bases targeted by hundreds of Chinese missiles.
The Biden administration is faltering and uncertain, reflecting the leadership at the top. Republicans are likely to sweep the midterm elections due to Biden’s terrible track record on inflation, domestic energy and the economy. But one area where Republicans must do all they can to bolster the Biden administration is Taiwan policy. A Chinese takeover of Taiwan is fatal to America’s standing in the Pacific—the most important region to America in the 21st Century.