Washington Should Deter an Attack on Taiwan

It might not be easy, but it’s better than a full-scale war.

On Thursday it was reported that two dozen U.S. special operations forces have been on the ground in Taiwan for the past year providing training to Taiwan’s forces. This comes after a week of intense Chinese military threats against the island, including more than 100 sorties from Chinese warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. The security situation has deteriorated to the point that Taiwan’s foreign minister asked Australia for help as it prepares for a possible war with China. As the dangers of war over Taiwan grows, it is essential that Washington and its allies work together to deter a Chinese attack on this vulnerable island democracy.  

The risk of a war over Taiwan is real. China has the intent—and it is working on building the capabilities—to retake the island. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) takes an unreasonably expansive view of its territory, believing that any land previously controlled by Beijing needs to be taken back. From Beijing’s point of view, therefore, Taiwan is a renegade province, and it has been clear that it will use military force if necessary to reclaim it. Chairman Xi Jinping has not been shy about articulating this goal. Earlier this year, he said that “Solving the Taiwan question and realizing the complete reunification of the motherland are the unswerving historical tasks of the Chinese Communist Party and the common aspiration of all Chinese people.”  

This is not a bluff. China is investing in military capabilities, like amphibious warships, tailor-made for a Taiwan invasion. Adm. Philip Davidson, who served as head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command until earlier this year, predicted that China will try to invade Taiwan within “the next six years.” 

A successful CCP invasion of Taiwan would be a disaster. Taiwan, a longstanding U.S. partner and thriving democracy, would lose its freedom. The episode would set the precedent that China can gobble up its neighbors by military force with impunity. Other countries would see China as ascendant and question the ability and willingness of the United States to play its traditional international leadership role. And China would possess a new military base of operations on Taiwan that would allow it to more easily project power against other U.S. treaty allies with which it also has territorial and maritime disputes, including Japan and the Philippines. 

These interests are significant enough that the United States would likely (and in our view should) fight to defend the island. But fighting a major war with the CCP in its own backyard would be bloody, costly, and difficult, and the United States might very well lose.  

Instead of suffering either of these fates, the United States and its allies and partners should work to establish a more effective deterrent in the Taiwan Strait. The most likely path to war would be because Xi miscalculates—he might assume that he can get away with an uncontested invasion of the island when in fact he cannot. The goal of U.S. policy, therefore, should be to help Xi not to miscalculate. Washington should be clear that the United States has the will and the capability to deny a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 

The first step is clarifying the U.S. commitment. The United States vows to defend formal treaty allies like Japan and South Korea, but it provides only an ambiguous security pledge to Taiwan. Since the 1970s, the United States has recognized the People’s Republic of China as China’s only legal government, and it “acknowledges” Beijing’s view that Taiwan is within its domain. Washington pursues a policy of preserving the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. It says that it would oppose either China retaking the island by force, or Taiwan declaring independence. Moreover, the Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress in 1979, provides for strong informal ties between Washington and Taipei, including annual arms sales to Taiwan to contribute to its self-defense. 

But would Washington defend Taipei if attacked? It is not at all clear. This is a problem. Xi may be persuaded to attack in the hope that the Pentagon would stay out.  

We should disabuse him of any such notion. The United States should end a policy of ambiguity for Taiwan, and make it clear it will be willing to use military force if necessary to repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. U.S. allies and partners with militaries capable of operating in the region, such as Japan, Australia, India, Britain, and France, should join in this pledge. Other allies, such as the smaller countries of NATO, may not be able to send aircraft carriers, but they should warn Beijing that any attack on Taiwan would lead to other forms of retaliation, such as economic sanctions. Deterrence will be strengthened if China believes an assault on Taiwan would trigger a rupture with the entire free world. 

Of course, deterrent threats are ineffective if they are incredible, so the United States, Taiwan, and their allies and partners must also invest in the capabilities necessary to deny China a successful assault on Taiwan. As Obama-era Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy argued, the Pentagon needs to cultivate the ability to sink China’s navy within 72 hours. This will require investments in submarines, anti-ship missiles, and other emerging technologies to target China’s ships, while also bolstering missile defenses to protect U.S. allies, bases, and forces in the region. Meanwhile, Taiwan should invest in the capabilities it needs for its own self-defense, including anti-ship missiles, as well as improved means of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. 

Some will argue that the United States should not, or would not, fight a war over Taiwan. But time and again over the past century the United States has been drawn into wars it did not anticipate or had hoped to avoid. If China invades Taiwan in the coming years as Adm. Davidson predicts, would the United States find itself in a major war with China? Let’s not find out. It would be much better to convince Xi not to attack in the first place.