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Dispelling Illusions over Taiwan

Dispelling Illusions over Taiwan

Xi Jinping says he is preparing China for war, and we should take him at his word.

Connor Pfeiffer

In the coming decade, U.S. leaders face stark choices related to Taiwan. If the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attempts to subjugate Taiwan through economic coercion, naval blockade, or an outright invasion, the American president’s response could lead to war with a nuclear-armed great power, with the risk of significant U.S. casualties. While the debate in Washington on the military and economic means needed to deter the CCP has been intensifying, the politics of initiating and sustaining U.S. support for Taiwan’s defense in a crisis has been less frequently discussed. Currently, most public polling indicates less than 50 percent of Americans support sending U.S. troops to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion.

A presidential decision to defend Taiwan against significant economic or military pressure from the CCP will not be sustainable without strong support from the U.S. Congress and the American people. Additionally, U.S. rhetoric broadcasted at home and abroad to deter the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will not succeed if CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping does not believe there would be public backing for using force to defend Taiwan. This support will not materialize out of thin air in a crisis—it must be built and earned. That will require the executive branch, along with congressional leaders, to make a persuasive case that core U.S. national interests are tied to a Taiwan free from PRC domination.

The Taiwan Challenge

Since 1979, the United States has had no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Instead, Washington has an informal relationship with Taiwan that exists within the legal and political architecture of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA states that the United States considers “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” to be “of grave concern to the United States” and that the safety and security of Taiwan is indivisible from Western Pacific peace and security. Additionally, the TRA directs that, in the event of Taiwan’s security or economy being threatened, the president and the Congress “shall determine…appropriate action by the United States in response.” In other words, the TRA is not NATO’s Article Five: there is no explicit guarantee that the United States will come to Taiwan’s defense should the PRC attack it. The TRA leaves it up to political leaders to decide the scale and character of any U.S. response to specific threats against Taiwan—hence, its frequent characterization as a policy of “strategic ambiguity.”___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Gauging where the American people would stand on defending a Taiwan under attack is difficult. In two of the three recent annual Chicago Council on Global Affairs surveys on U.S. foreign policy, support for sending U.S. troops to Taiwan if the PRC invaded fell below 45 percent (though it spiked to 52 percent in 2021). The 2022 Reagan National Defense Survey indicated only 43 percent support sending U.S. ground troops in such an event. On the other hand, the Reagan survey did indicate stronger public support for measures short of war in a crisis, with a majority favoring the imposition of economic sanctions (60 percent), sending military equipment to Taiwan (56 percent), and moving U.S. military assets into the region (52 percent).

The complexity of a potential CCP campaign against Taiwan makes efforts to marshal political support for a U.S. response a complicated and difficult matter. As Dan Blumenthal and Frederick Kagan outlined recently, Beijing has three distinct but interrelated roads to controlling Taiwan: persuasion, coercion, and compellence. Through persuasion and coercion, the CCP seeks to undermine Taiwan’s will to resist Beijing’s demands by persuading Taipei that the United States and allies will abandon it while putting Taiwan “under the constant threat of ever-escalating violence and political pressure” through low-level PLA operations and other pressure points. Xi’s options to compel Taiwanese capitulation do not just involve an invasion—Blumenthal and Kagan argue that isolating the island would be a natural extension of existing persuasion and coercion-focused measures.

Focusing solely on a full-scale military invasion that involves a pre-emptive strike on U.S. forces ignores the many ways the PLA could seek to subjugate Taiwan. The PRC has other options to instigate a crisis in Taiwan that do not involve attacking U.S. forces immediately or directly. Responding to these cases —be it an economic coercion campaign, blockade, or invasion—could require the use of U.S. military force or put U.S. forces in a position that exposes them to attack by the PLA if the crisis escalates. But regardless of the character of a Taiwan crisis, for the American people to understand what is at stake and to support a U.S. response, their political leaders must have already prepared them for a complex and potentially protracted standoff with the CCP.

Laying the Groundwork

Rallying political support ahead of a potential Taiwan crisis will not be easy. But it is not an impossible task, either—it will not be the first time that a U.S. president or congressional leaders will have had to rally public and political support for the use of force abroad. Making the case will require real investment of political capital by elected leaders in both parties, as well as creative thinking on how to make a sustained case for defending Taiwan in a political culture that rarely thinks past the next presidential election.

The executive branch and congressional leaders should make a strong political case for standing with Taiwan that includes several elements. First, explain the CCP’s openly-stated ambitions to dominate Asia, and how this threatens the security and future economic prosperity of every American. Second, articulate how the CCP’s ambitions in Asia hinge on Taiwan because of the island’s strategic location and economic importance. Third, make clear that this is not a hypothetical threat—Xi says he is preparing the PRC for war, and we should take him at his word. Finally, provide concrete steps for how the United States and its allies can prevail against the PLA in defending Taiwan. Sharing with the public both why Taiwan matters for U.S. national interests and how the United States will succeed would be a stark contrast to the final years or the war in Afghanistan, when political leaders did not make a clear case for why U.S. forces remained there and damaged public confidence through a botched departure.

How Americans perceive NATO and America’s commitment to the Alliance also offers hope for advocates worried about the political challenge of supporting Taiwan’s defense. In 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine heightened the possibility of an attack on a NATO member, 81 percent of Americans still favored maintaining or increasing the U.S. commitment to NATO—the highest level in the Chicago Council survey’s forty-eight year history. The 2022 Reagan survey similarly found that 72 percent of Americans said they would support using U.S. military force to defend a NATO ally attacked by Russia.

The factors contributing to this strong, bipartisan support for NATO can help provide a political path forward on Taiwan. It cuts against the narrative that Americans are simply “war weary” and reticent to use force to preserve national security interests abroad. The support exists because for over seventy-five years, American leaders in both political parties have been making the case to the public about why the peace and security of Europe is a critical U.S. national interest. Furthermore, given the U.S. force posture in Europe, that commitment is visibly credible, both to the public and Moscow. The combination of a clear and often-stated argument connecting NATO support to U.S. interests globally, backed by demonstrated capability and resolve, is something to be emulated—within the constraints of the TRA or a future policy—in the case of Taiwan.

While building support for defending Taiwan, U.S. leaders should avoid sending mixed signals to the public. In the ongoing debate on U.S. assistance to Ukraine, some critics such as Elbridge Colby have argued that continued U.S. investment of significant time and resources there makes it less likely that the American people will be ready and willing to support the defense of Taiwan against a Chinese attack. But the call for the United States to play only a “supporting role” in aiding Ukraine ignores two political realities.

First, given that U.S. support for Ukraine is tied to the longstanding belief that what happens in Europe affects the peace and security of the United States, downplaying this rationale while trying to make a hypothetical case for defending Taiwan will backfire. If Taiwan’s status affects the United States’ peace and security, then on those same grounds, Russia’s ongoing war does as well. Even Taiwan’s leaders are telling the U.S. public that that success in Ukraine helps deter the PRC. This zero-sum argument also risks emboldening wings of both parties that argue U.S. engagement overseas wastes resources better spent at home.

Second, the successes in Ukraine bolster the American public’s confidence in the U.S. capacity to assist a partner in defending its sovereignty. Showcasing the effectiveness of American hard power capabilities can help build a crucial pillar of the political case for defending Taiwan—the ability to prevail. This confidence boost is sorely needed after the disasterous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. American military assistance to Ukraine has already helped the United States better prepare to assist in Taiwan’s defense. It has hastened improvements to defense industrial base’s capacity, created additional urgency at the Pentagon, and resulted in new policy options for arming Taiwan, even if far more still needs to be done.

The Way Ahead

For U.S. leaders, the path forward begins with bringing the Taiwan challenge to a higher level of public awareness; being clear and direct about why a free Taiwan is critical to U.S. interests; then repeatedly making the case. On Capitol Hill, continued engagement from congressional leaders, in line with the meetings between President Tsai Ing-wen and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and current Speaker Kevin McCarthy, as well as the new House China Select Committee, broadly signal the bipartisan case for standing with Taiwan and U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific. Lawmakers should also examine what policy changes would better prepare the United States for a future Taiwan Strait crisis, such as amending the TRA, as proposed in the Taiwan Policy Act, advance authorization of economic sanctions against the PRC if Taiwan is threatened, or even a pre-emptive authorization for the use of military force that clarifies the role of the U.S. military in maintaining free and open access to Taiwan and nearby shipping lanes during a blockade.

Ultimately, however, presidential leadership will be necessary in mobilizing the country to defend national interests. A PLA invasion of Taiwan is one of the most serious challenges that could confront President Biden or his successors, and deterring and preparing for that contingency must be a top presidential priority. As the 2024 presidential campaign intensifies, candidates should prioritize the CCP threat in the Indo-Pacific and devote attention to how the U.S. should respond to threats against Taiwan. A consistent message and strong demonstration of political resolve by the president and Congress, backed by the American people, is one of the surest ways to reduce the likelihood that deterrence fails and military conflict becomes all too likely.

Connor Pfeiffer is the executive director of the Forum for American Leadership and formerly served as national security advisor to a Republican member of the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations and Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Image: Capt. Adam Cheatham, commanding officer of the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67), stands in front of the battle ensign as the ship prepares to sail in a formation in the Philippine Sea, June 3, 2023. (U.S. Navy)