Should America Give Up on Taiwan?

As China becomes more assertive, can the United States continue to serve as a guarantor of Taiwan’s security?

Republic of Korea F-16 fighter jets prepare for takeoff, May 7, 2008
Republic of Korea F-16 fighter jets prepare for takeoff, May 7, 2008 (Steven Weng)

As China rises and is becoming more assertive in its region, America’s security commitment to Taiwan may well become more problematic in the near future. Should the United States simply give up on the island?

Increasingly, China and the United States will have to coordinate trade and security policy as the two are economically interdependent and both have an interest in preventing nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula and conflict in the South China Sea.

China still regards Taiwan a renegade province and has scores of missile fielded across the Taiwan Strait. America’s longtime alliance with the island nation could hamper progress in Sino-American relations.

In a study last year, the RAND Corporation recommended that the United States rethink their military support for Taiwan. Over the last decade, a security imbalance has developed across the Strait with the Chinese now quite capable of obliterating the Taiwanese air defense with combined missile and airstrikes within a matter of days.

The United States wouldn’t be able to bring enough fighters to the battle to offset China’s quantitative superiority. It hasn’t enough fighter planes stationed nearby, on Taiwan and in Japan, nor could it dispatch enough aircraft carriers to the site in time to effectively repel an invasion. In short, “the United States and Taiwan can no longer be confident of winning the battle for the air in the air,” warned RAND.

In order to restore balance, RAND recommended either dispersing American fighters across a larger number of bases or seek to pose the same kind of threat to China’s air force bases as it presents to those on Taiwan and Okinawa, Japan. That would require fielding an addition six hundred missiles in Taiwan however neither the United States nor Taiwan currently has a missile with the appropriate, midrange characteristics.

Moreover, the United States are ill prepared for an unconventional assault which could include cyber attacks on Taiwanese infrastructure and a quarantine of shipping flowing to and from the island.

The geographical asymmetry (i.e., Taiwan being just a few hundred miles from China and America all across the Pacific), “combined with the limited array of forward basing options for American forces — and China’s growing ability to mount sustained and effective attacks on those forward bases — calls into question Washington’s ability to credibly serve as guarantor of Taiwan’s security in the long run,” according to RAND.

American policymakers would have to determine whether the independence and security of Taiwan is sufficiently important to them “to rely not on a decreasingly credible conventional deterrent, but instead on the threat that any attack on Taiwan would risk a broader, more dangerous conflict between China and the United States.”

If not, RAND wonders, where will Washington be willing to draw the line? The Philippines? Korea? Japan?

With another decade of improvements in the [Chinese military] like what has been seen in the past ten years, these issues may become troubling indeed for the United States leadership.

Writing for The Diplomat, Michael Mazza of the conservative American Enterprise Institute argues that Taiwan still matters for the United States. “As China rises and puts increasing pressure on its neighbors — many of whom are American allies — it’s essential that those allies consider the United States to be a dependable security partner,” he writes.

Across East Asia, smaller nations are worried that with China’s mounting economic clout, it will becoming more assertive militarily as well. Recent years have seen several instances of forceful Chinese diplomacy and neighboring countries being intimidated. It is why even Vietnam has been reaching out to the West for protection. East Asia may like to profit from China’s industrial power but it has little desire to become its exclusive sphere of influence.

An annexed Taiwan would also present formidable security challenges to the United States.

In the event of conflict in East Asia, the “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” as Douglas MacArthur referred to Taiwan, “will provide mainland China with strategic depth that it currently lacks,” according to Mazza. It would enhance its ability to threaten Japan’s southern flank, including the American presence in Okinawa, and allow the Chinese navy to more easily exert control over the Luzon Strait, the waterway connecting the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea.

Control of the Strait is necessary for China to achieve its dual goals of enforcing its claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea and of keeping foreign military forces out of that body of water.

Mazza concludes that only by continuing to nurture its relationship with Taipei and by continuing to shield the island from aggression from the mainland can America hope to ensure peace in East Asia.

Considering the difficulty of effectively maintaining that security guarantee at a time of fiscal consolidation at home, policymakers in the United States may well make a different calculation.

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