For decades, China’s bellicosity toward Taiwan has risen and fallen with the political tides in China, Taiwan, and the U.S. It has increased dramatically over the past two months, accelerated by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who appears to be building up to an attack on Taiwan in the next few years. His air forces have been practicing for such an attack with hundreds of sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
Mr. Xi is China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. If we take his words seriously, as we must, we have to conclude that he will attempt to annex Taiwan forcibly in the next two to five years.
Taiwan is a democracy, independent of Beijing and a significant US ally. The questions, then, are whether we should defend Taiwan militarily and, if so, can we?
The “should we” question has been debated since President Nixon opened relations with Communist China in 1972. On August 19, President Biden startled the Pentagon, NATO, Taipei, and Beijing when he said, “We made a sacred commitment to article 5 that if in fact, anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”
Before Beijing could react to Mr. Biden’s promise to defend Taiwan, one of his senior advisors quickly retreated from it, saying that US policy toward Taiwan hadn’t changed. Since then, Mr. Biden has spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The president keeps referring to an “agreement” with Mr. Xi that Taiwan’s future would be decided peacefully, but Mr. Xi demonstrates no such agreement.
Mr. Xi said earlier this month that annexation of Taiwan can and “must be fulfilled,” adding (as Don Corleone might have) that “peaceful” reunification would be in the interests of the Taiwanese people. He also said, “The Taiwan issue arises from national weakness and chaos” and will be resolved with national “rejuvenation.”
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen answered him by saying that, “Nobody can force Taiwan to take the path that China has laid out for us…This is because the path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan nor sovereignty for our 23 million people.”
Ms. Ing-Wen’s statement came close to the declaration of independence that China has often said would lead to war. She and her cabinet are clearly worried. Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, has said that China will be able to mount a full-scale attack on Taiwan by 2025 and suffer only minimal losses in the ensuing war.
Mr. Biden’s position on Taiwan, other than his quickly renounced statement of August 19, has been weak and vague. Mr. Xi, knowing that Mr. Biden and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Milley will not defend Taiwan, will probably make his attempt to annex it while they are in office.
The “should we” question has to be answered in terms of America’s vital national security interests, those which we must defend. We have many national security interests around the world, but few are vital to our survival as a nation.
Our vital national security interests are to preserve the freedoms the Constitution guarantees us here at home. We must also have freedom of the seas, the skies, space, and the cyber world. It isn’t clear that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would implicate those freedoms. Thus, the “should we” question regarding Taiwan is a very close call that an incumbent president will have to make.
Though we have no NATO-like obligation to defend Taiwan, we have to respect that allies such as Japan would rather fight China over Taiwan than over their own homeland.
Since late June, Japanese officials have spoken of the need to defend Taiwan. For example, on June 28, Deputy Defense Minister Nakayama said that Taiwan is a brother democracy that must be protected. On July 7, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said that an attack on Taiwan would be an existential threat to Japan.
The Japanese are clearly correct. If China annexes Taiwan by force, Japan and Australia would be China’s next logical targets. Japan has said that it would join us in defense of Taiwan. Because we stand for freedom and because our allies would be vulnerable should Taiwan fall, the answer to the “should we” question on the defense of Taiwan is a reluctant “yes.”
If we intervened in a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the result would be a general war with China, the kind of peer-against-peer conflict we have avoided as President Eisenhower chose not to defend Hungary against Russia in 1956. Such a war would cost thousands of American lives along with major naval vessels and hundreds of aircraft.
It would be an unlimited war – on land and sea, in space, the cyber realm, and everywhere else war can be conducted – for which our forces and defenses are unprepared. If we committed our forces to the defense of Taiwan, we could well be defeated.
The best course for us is to try to deter China from attacking Taiwan. Strengthening our military relationship with Taiwan, even holding joint exercises with Taiwanese forces, would infuriate Mr. Xi. Still, it might deter him long enough for his aggressive regime to come to its end.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”