Representative Tom Tiffany (R-Wisc.) first introduced legislation calling for the United States to resume formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in September 2022. It created significant buzz by highlighting an increasingly vociferous faction of the US government that seems to believe that war with China is unavoidable. This is further evidenced by US military officials, such as US Air Force General Mike Minihan, publicly stating that war with China over Taiwan is inevitable.
These direct attempts to undermine strategic ambiguity, and the attitude of resignation in some US leadership, only increase the odds of the United States needlessly going to war with China over Taiwan. Not only would US intervention be unnecessary for Taiwan to defend itself, but it could turn Taiwan into a disaster similar to the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan, albeit a more costly one where we face off with another world power.
To avoid this, the United States should retain the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, espousing strategic ambiguity, and continue to sell weapons and give training to Taiwan so that it might successfully deter China or defend itself from invasion.
TAIWAN DOESN’T NEED AMERICAN TROOPS
Taiwan would not need direct US military intervention in a war with the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan has been building its defenses in partnership with the United States since 1954, becoming one of the most well-defended locations on the globe. Between 2017 and 2021, Taiwan purchased over $18 billion in weapons from the United States, such as hundreds of Harpoon missiles, dozens of aircraft like the F-16 or C-130, and a plethora of Mk-48 heavy torpedoes. Taiwan has island bases throughout the strait, such as those in the Kinmen Islands or at Penghu, stocked with a permanent garrison of 60,000 troops and dozens of rocket launchers, 155 mm howitzers, and attack helicopters.
These defenses mean a Chinese invasion would have to be very large to be effective. US involvement would only exist to place US troops between Taiwan and a tidal wave of Chinese offensives, with diminishing returns due to a job already well done by Taiwan. Additionally, Taiwan might simply need to outlast its opponent rather than fight them off with American help. This could be, in part, due to China’s frequent riots and protests, some of which are growing more violent. In fact, Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor has counted 708 riots and protests in the year 2022 alone. Such domestic unrest could seriously shorten China’s war stamina by incurring costs at home that sap manpower from efforts abroad.
A war against Taiwan without US interference could further alienate China from its people. To make matters worse, in 1971, China painted itself into a corner with the UN’s General Assembly Resolution 2758, where its claim that Taiwan is part of China was ratified. As a result of this long-held stance, Chinese soldiers may be demoralized by orders to wage war on people who are ostensibly Chinese citizens, thereby spiking the political costs and risks to regime security for the Chinese Communist Party.
WHY US INVOLVEMENT MAY HURT TAIWAN
Not only is Taiwan’s need for US intervention debatable, but American involvement itself might harm Taiwan’s chances of success in a military conflict by turning it into a new forever war. Salient parallels can be drawn with past wars like Vietnam or, more adequately, Afghanistan.
Taiwan may not want to be caught in the middle of a US-China war, and further US provocation of China might spook Taiwan away from its typical posturing and toward a preemptive reconciliation with China.
Whether it was through the dumping of 20 million gallons of chemical weapons on Vietnam’s forests in 1962 or through the 2012 murders of over a dozen civilians in Kandahar, Afghanistan, US actions have repeatedly pushed civilians to support groups like the Viet Cong or Taliban by painting Americans in a bad light. US involvement in a cross-strait war could have a similar unifying effect on Chinese civilians or soldiers, mitigating anti-war riots and bolstering domestic commitment to fight in a war they otherwise may have objected to.
US officials cannot allow themselves to be baited into sacrificing American lives in ways that will ultimately strengthen their enemies’ resolve to win, especially when wars like those in Afghanistan or Vietnam were so unpopular to begin with. In 2010, 60% of Americans were dissatisfied with the US government’s involvement in the Middle East, and in 1969, 52% of Americans were strongly opposed to the Vietnam war.
US involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and its desperation to defeat its ideological opponents, led to escalation. If the United States intervened in a Sino-Taiwan war after decades of tensions with the Chinese Communist Party, 21st-century versions of this escalatory tendency could include new technologies like artificial intelligence, biological warfare, or even neurological warfare. Peer-to-peer combat between two global superpowers could bring devastation on a new scale.
US intervention would also most certainly close the door on detente for the Chinese Communist Party, lest they risk losing face, leading to a protracted war potentially outlasting Taiwan’s resolve or ability to fight. This would place the burden of continuing the war squarely on American shoulders, reminiscent of our decades-long conflicts over Saigon or Kabhul.
Despite US urgings, Taiwanese officials insist on questionable weapons that arguably would not strategically help Taiwan in an amphibious conflict. For example, the government of Taiwan has been asking for M1A2T Abram tanks since 2018. These types of weapons are only useful if Chinese invaders breach the first and second lines of defense. Taiwan might be requesting these weapons because they don’t expect to contain fighting to amphibious coastal defense and may expect significantly depleted forces by the time the combat breaks into inland territories. With this in mind, it would be up to the United States to carry the burden of maintaining the front lines, a burden which we may not be ready to shoulder.
In fact, not only would US involvement in the conflict inflame China’s drive to win or better their odds of victory, but the potential of involvement itself could propel Taiwan into the arms of the Chinese Communist Party before an invasion ever happens. Taiwan may not want to be caught in the middle of a US-China war, and while it might be happy to continue posturing and playing both sides, further US provocation of China might spook Taiwan away from its typical posturing and toward a preemptive reconciliation with China. This is evidenced by sweeping electoral victories by the pro-detente Kuomintang (KMT) party following Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif) visit to Taiwan in August 2022, where 13 of the 21 cities and counties up for grabs were stolen from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The KMT most notably took four of the six biggest metropolitan areas accounting for 70% of Taiwan’s population.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
While not exactly the same, there are certainly aspects of America’s past forever wars that could be easily reflected in a Sino-US conflict over Taiwan, aspects that US policymakers must be cognizant of when considering closer alignment with Taiwan. The United States’ role in such a conflict could quickly spiral out of control, with potentially apocalyptic consequences for armed conflict between two nuclear states.
Americans must learn from past military failures. With these risks in mind, US policymakers should forego any motions that inflame cross-strait tensions and limit US options over the Taiwan question. High-ranking officials should take a more optimistic stance with regard to Taiwan’s ability to defend itself and forego the preconceived notion of a US war with China. In other words, US officials should work to maintain strategic ambiguity to prolong peace and work through other means to contain Chinese aggression.