When U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken traveled to China last week, differences over Taiwan were at the top of the agenda. Taiwan remains the likeliest flashpoint that could draw the world’s two largest economies and two nuclear-armed powers into a direct conflict.
China has intensified its military, economic, and diplomatic coercion of Taiwan, seeking to isolate the island and advance its goal of unification. As tensions rise, it is imperative to understand why Taiwan matters. Our recent Council on Foreign Relations-sponsored Independent Task Force explains that the U.S. has vital strategic interests at stake and that Taiwan’s fate will have major implications for U.S. interests around the world.
Physically, Taiwan sits astride some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and prevents China from projecting power far beyond its shores. If China were to annex Taiwan and station its military on the island, it would be able to limit U.S. military operations in the region and hamper our ability to defend our allies.
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Geopolitically, should we fail to counter Chinese aggression against Taiwan, our allies would have doubts about whether they could rely on us. China’s military, if occupying Taiwan, would be only seventy miles from Japanese territory and 120 miles from the Philippines. Our allies, questioning whether we would or even could come to their defense, would be faced with a difficult choice: drawing closer to China or taking their security into their own hands, potentially to include developing nuclear weapons. Either outcome would result in diminished U.S. influence and increased regional and global instability.
Economically, given Taiwan’s dominance of semiconductor manufacturing, Chinese aggression would also trigger a global economic depression and shave trillions of dollars off economic output. During a Chinese blockade or attack, Taiwan’s production and shipment of semiconductors would come to a halt, leading to a shortage of nearly every product that contains technology, from smartphones to computers and cars.
Ideationally, Taiwan’s fate also has implications for international order, which have been magnified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If China were to successfully absorb Taiwan, it would establish a pattern of authoritarian countries using force to attack democratic neighbors and change borders. The most basic pillar of international relations—that countries cannot use force to alter borders—would be severely undermined.
Taiwan is one of Asia’s few democratic success stories, but if China were to take the island by force its democracy would be extinguished, and its twenty-three million people would see their rights severely curtailed. As this would come in the wake of China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, the ramifications would be even greater.
The stakes are clear, but our Task Force assesses that deterrence is eroding and is in danger of failing. While a military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait is neither imminent nor inevitable, the U.S. and China are drifting toward a war over Taiwan. U.S. policy will need to evolve to contend with a more capable, assertive, and risk-acceptant China that is increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo.
Restoring balance to a situation that has been allowed to tilt far too much in China’s favor will be difficult and the path we need to travel is narrow. In practice, deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan should be our military’s top priority in the Indo-Pacific. We should pursue a bilateral security cooperation program with Taiwan that includes joint exercises and inviting Taiwan to participate in relevant multilateral exercises. We should seek greater clarity from our allies on the assistance they would provide during a Chinese blockade or invasion and define their roles. Weaknesses in the U.S. defense industrial base need to be repaired to ensure that the U.S. military can respond to Chinese aggression if deterrence fails.
Importantly, Taiwan also has to address its weaknesses and invest more in its defense. Beyond improving its active-duty military force, Taiwan needs to overhaul its reserves. Taiwan also needs to improve its resilience by addressing shortfalls in energy, water, and food security. It should also do more to incentivize companies to diversify their operations away from China.
In recent years, much of the policy debate regarding Taiwan has centered around whether the U.S. should explicitly commit to come to Taiwan’s defense, replacing strategic ambiguity for strategic clarity. More important, however, is that the U.S. be unambiguous in its support for Taiwan.
The U.S. should assist Taiwan in reducing its economic ties with China, which remains Taiwan’s number one trading partner, giving Beijing a source of leverage. The U.S. should negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Taiwan, diversify supply chains in critical sectors to reduce the risk from potential Chinese economic retaliation, build resiliency in global semiconductor manufacturing, and respond to China’s economic coercion. Such steps would help the U.S. and its partners maintain freedom of maneuver during a crisis.
As the U.S. embarks on this ambitious agenda, what it does will be just as important as what it does not do. The U.S. should maintain its one China policy, which has helped maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and continue to emphasize that it seeks a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues between the two sides.
A guiding principle should be to focus on substance over symbolism. This means not taking steps that could be construed as supporting Taiwan independence. Cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries should be low-key and conducted outside of the public spotlight. High-level visits to Taiwan should be encouraged when there is a compelling rationale, but the U.S. should use discretion when deciding who should go and when.
Making long overdue adjustments will be difficult, but a failure to adapt would be far more dangerous. The future of the world’s most economically critical region could hinge on it.
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