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Why Protecting Taiwan Really Matters to the U.S.

12 minute read
Colby is a principal at The Marathon Initiative. He is the author of The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict from Yale University Press.

Why is it worthwhile for Americans to defend Taiwan? In very concrete terms, what’s in it for us?

At this point, there is widespread agreement among Americans that China is a major threat and that U.S. policy needs to address it. At the same time, though, most Americans are rightly opposed to the forever wars of the past two decades and skeptical of more military interventions.

In brief, there is agreement that China is a major challenge, but not on how far to go in confronting it. Indeed, there is a rising strain in American politics that advocates seeking to avoid confronting Beijing in Asia while focusing on reducing our economic dependence on China through reshoring and industrial policy.

But, while steps to strengthen our economy at home make abundant sense, this approach will not suffice for Americans‘ concrete interests. We cannot let Asia go.

It’s worth starting with first principles. What is the rightful purpose of American foreign policy? We can wish others well, but it’s not about pacifying or democratizing the world, as we learned over the last twenty years. Rather, a “small r” republican foreign policy should focus on protecting and promoting Americans physical security, our liberties, our prosperity, and economic security.

If we identify the threats to those goods, by far the most dangerous is a very great power that could attack or undermine them. “Hard” power, namely economic strength and the military might it can provide, is the main thing. Lesser threats by definition can be dealt with more easily. America is roughly 20% of global GDP, and economic productivity is the root of power in the modern world, so this means that only a very great state could hope to become so strong as to menace us. And the only state today that matches up to that description is China.

But China on its own is not strong enough. It too is roughly 20% of global GDP. So how could China pose such a threat to our interests? By dominating Asia. Asia is now again the center of the world, upwards of 50% of global GDP going forward. If Beijing could dominate Asia, it would be in a very strong position to dominate the world—and us.

Now is China actually going to pursue this goal? This could have been the topic of a good debate a decade ago. But now the answer seems fairly clearly to be yes. Beijing’s behavior, and at a deeper level China’s interests, all point in the direction of Beijing pursuing a form of soft imperial control—what we might call hegemony—over Asia. This would likely take the form of formally independent states in Asia orienting their economic, foreign, and security—and ultimately even their domestic affairs—around Beijing’s preferences. Beijing would not directly control them, but it would be the center and leader of the system, and would have immense leverage to enforce its will.

If China becomes dominant in such a way over Asia it will have a controlling influence over roughly half of the global economy. With this power, it will undoubtedly ensure that it is the center, the prime beneficiary, and effectively the director of the global economy. And why not? In this context, Beijing could ensure that China is the richest, most economically secure, and most influential country in the world.

In such a scenario, global trade and commercial flows will gravitate toward and around China. China will have a scale and power to ensure that its companies are the world leaders, that its universities are the best, that its standards are met, and that its rules are followed. It will be the gatekeeper to the world’s largest market area, with unmatched scale—which is of course key to economic development.

To those who play ball with such a China, falling into line in its value chain, following its rules, and toeing its diplomatic line, there will be rewards. But for those who resist, there will be penalties: exclusion from access, tariffs, and sanctions. Think of the economic power America can now wield against Russia in Beijing‘s hands, and at even greater scale.

In this world, American autarky just will not work. First of all, America will be at best roughly 20% of global GDP, a far smaller base for competition, making it likely our economy would be outclassed and left behind by China’s much larger area over time.

Read More: The World’s Future Is in the Hands of China’s Xi Jinping

Even more, though, China will very likely seek to diminish the U.S. This is just basic power politics: America is the only country that can possibly stand up to China. So, to secure its ascendancy, China will seek to weaken and by extension impoverish us. And Beijing will have many instruments to use against the U.S. Meantime, we will be unable to count on our allies. The Asian ones will have fallen under Beijing’s dominance. Fractious and economically anemic Europe will likely cut a deal.

In this world, Americans might be physically secure, given our two oceans and our nuclear arsenal, but we would be much less prosperous and economically secure, and thus also much less free. Most Americans would effectively be working for Chinese companies or their subsidiaries in one way or another, answer to Chinese regulators, and read and consume information curated in Beijing. We’d all be compelled to dance to Beijing’s tune.

To make it concrete: Many if not most Americans agree that there are huge problems with our social media companies and the way they are regulated today. But we are all assuming that Americans have the power to remedy the problem. But if Beijing is dominant over the world economy, that will not be the case. The social media companies will ultimately be answerable to Beijing, and the situation will be even worse.

The fact is, though, that we do not need to speculate. Beijing is already showing us what this world will look like. Observe the way China wields economic sanctions not only against their neighbors but even far off Canada and Lithuania. And as for the nature of their rule, observe Hong Kong, and bear in mind that China is a famously nationalist country and that is how it treats its own people. We have little reason to expect we would get better treatment.

These are the stakes, then. The reader might notice perhaps that neither Taiwan nor China’s military has yet come up. That is not an accident. The stakes here are economic and political: about who has power in the future world economy. And, as has again become increasingly clear in recent years, political power – especially geopolitical power – matters a very great deal for economics. Free and fair markets do not just spontaneously emerge. They are created, sustained, and shaped by politics, and thus by power.

But the means that China will need to use to achieve its ascendancy over Asia are military. And Taiwan occupies a central position along Beijing’s path to this goal.

Kinmen - The Taiwanese Island With Strong Links To China
Chinese sand dredgers are seen from a local beach on September 24, 2022 in Kinmen, Taiwan. Kinmen, an island in the Taiwan strait that is part of Taiwan's territory, is so close to China that the deep-water port of Xiamen, one of China's biggest, lies less than three miles away across the water. It is one of the few areas of Taiwan that mainland Chinese tourists can visit without visas or permits, and has deep ties with the adjacent Fujian province of China.Annabelle Chih-Getty Images

This is because countries are unlikely to accept Chinese hegemony just due to economic sanctions and suasion. Witness the difficulties Beijing is facing with its Belt and Road Initiative, and how even Australia, dependent on China’s imports for its economy, has stood up to China’s daunting economic pressure over the last year. Beijing appears to agree with this assessment, as it is embarking on an historic military buildup of both its conventional and nuclear forces. This is clearly a military buildup designed not only to resolve the Taiwan issue but to project power throughout the region and ultimately the globe. Meantime they are actively preparing for a conflict with us.

In this context, America’s goal should be to prevent China from dominating Asia without a war. That is the optimal aim: a decent peace without war. But the only prudent way to achieve that goal is to be prepared to fight in a way that shows Beijing it just will not gain if it starts a conflict. This is a cliché: if you want peace prepare for war. But the reason it is so clichéd is that it is deeply rooted common sense.

The key to achieving this goal—of blocking China from dominating Asia—is a coalition. The need for this coalition is not rooted in anything about “sacred” alliances or the rules-based international order. It is practical reality necessary to achieve this aim. The U.S. needs a coalition because it is neither realistic nor fair for Americans to take on the enormous task of blunting Beijing’s ambitions alone. Fortunately, there are many countries in Asia that have the will and the way to help stand up to China, like India, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan itself.

The key, though, is to make sure this coalition works—that it stands up and holds together in the face of Chinese pressure and, if necessary, aggression. But we cannot take that for granted. Countries in Asia are quite reasonably wondering whether it is prudent to stand up to China. Most do not want to live under Beijing‘s thumb, but if the alternative is disaster and exclusion from all the goods Beijing has to offer, they are much more likely to cut a deal.

Thus the key to making this coalition work is the conviction that it is prudent—that the coalition, by necessity led by a strong and purposeful America, is powerful and resolute enough to hold together and stand strong in the face of Chinese pressure or aggression.

It’s in this hard-nosed context that Taiwan takes on such importance. We might admire its democracy and entrepreneurial spirit, but those are not enough to justify Americans going to war. Instead, Taiwan is important to Americans for two reasons: because it is militarily critical and because it is a bellwether.

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First, Taiwan is vital to the defense of Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. If China occupied Taiwan, it would pose a much greater threat to these countries and be able to project power deep into the Pacific, a very real possibility as we can see from China’s activities in Solomon Islands and its construction of an enormous oceangoing navy, including aircraft carriers.

Second, Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine. Credibility arguments always deserve to be met with skepticism. But it is only rational for Taiwan’s neighbors to look at how we treat Taiwan as an indicator of how we would treat them. Whether we like it or not, Taiwan’s fate will play a major role in whether countries think America is reliable as the cornerstone of the coalition. Indeed, as a result, if Taiwan fell we would probably have to do far more aggressive things to prove we were reliable at all.

This all adds up to a very significant American interest in Taiwan. But it is not existential. Taiwan is not American territory.

This is where a denial defense comes in. Americans cannot rationally rely on a strategy of total war or prosperity-crashing economic warfare to defend what is, for us, a significant but not existential interest. Rather, Americans need a strategy that is keyed to the importance of the interest. This is what a denial defense does: it focuses on defeating a Chinese invasion of an ally, ensuring Beijing cannot seize and hold their key territory. If that can be done, as Ukraine has commendably shown, then the aggressor basically cannot bring it to heel. And if we can do that for Taiwan, essentially by definition we can do that for our other allies in Asia like Japan, the Philippines, and Australia. And if we can do this, the coalition should stand strong and succeed in its ultimate goal: denying China’s hegemonic aims in Asia.

This is actually a relatively low strategic standard—just denial of the invasion, not conquest, dismembering China, or changing its regime. But it is very demanding in practice because of how strong China is, how near it is to Taiwan and our other allies, and how focused it is—while we are distracted.

But the good news is that it is feasible: If we actually focus more on walking the walk than talking the talk. Taiwan, is after all an island a hundred miles off the coast of China. And America’s military strong suits are in the areas of aerospace, maritime, and high technology—exactly the kinds of things we need we would need to defeat a cross-Strait invasion. These are also areas of strength for Japan, Taiwan, and Australia.

The bewildering—and indeed infuriating—thing is that we are not doing what is needed to build an effective denial defense. The best way to avoid war on decent terms is to show China that we have the ability to defeat their invasion in a manner that is not crazy for us to implement. Yet that is not what our government is doing.

Defending far-off Taiwan and our allies seems to many like yet another foolish military misadventure for our country. But it is not. This strategy is rooted in a practical, hard-nosed assessment of what is in Americans’ concrete economic and political interests. It is not about ending evil in the world or making it safe for Wilsonianism. It is about defending Americans’ security, liberties, and prosperity from a very real—and, in terms of China’s gigantic scale, unprecedented—danger. For that reason, Americans should support it.

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