Additional Thoughts on Taiwan

I recently expressed some doubts as to the wisdom of American officials’ (and pundits’) escalating war of words with China over Taiwan. Those doubts have received a lot of “pushback,” as the expression goes, and I wanted to respond, and also raise a few other considerations. 

First a bit of background and housekeeping. My essay was based on an unscripted talk I gave at the second “National Conservatism” conference, during which I asserted that the last American fleet (i.e., big) aircraft carrier sunk in battle was the USS Yorktown at the Battle of Midway, in June 1942. I was immediately nitpicked over this claim. Therefore, knowing I would be nitpicked again for repeating it, I included in my draft the following footnote, which the editors at The Federalist deleted. Not casting any aspersions; I know editors hate footnotes, and for understandable reasons. But this time I include in the main text what I wanted to say in the prior piece: 

After making this point at NatCon, I was nitpicked on two fronts. Some alleged that in fact the last carrier sunk was the USS Bismarck Sea, off Iwo Jima, in February 1945. But Bismarck Sea was an escort (i.e., light or small) carrier and I specifically said fleet carrier. Others pointed to the fleet carrier Hornet, lost after the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942. But I deliberately didn’t count the Hornet because, technically, she wasn’t sunk in battle but abandoned by her crew, after which the American Navy made an unsuccessful attempt to scuttle her. She was later sunk, unmanned, by the Japanese after the battle was over. In any event, it’s been a very long time since America lost a carrier in war. Whether one counts the last instance as June or October 1942 (or even February 1945) hardly changes the point.

I suppose I could have said “last fleet carrier lost to enemy action,” in which case Hornet would have been the correct answer. However, given the way modern anti-surface warfare weapons work, it seems unlikely that, in the event of naval war with China, the crew of a Nimitz (or Ford) class carrier will be able to abandon ship in advance of being sunk. Hence the Hornet—but not the Yorktown—seemed an inapt comparison. Those wishing to persist in insisting that I can’t tell a sunken carrier from a sunken living room may have the last word.

While we’re dealing with nitpicks, I have also been accused of making up the assertion that the 2020 Bonhomme Richard arson was motivated by a love triangle. I suppose we can’t really know because the human heart is opaque, etc. But there are reports that this was the arsonist’s motivation, or at least part of it. As with so many inconvenient details that contradict the official regime narrative, you will not find this mentioned in the American press. But Fleet Street doesn’t care about our pieties and in fact often relishes flouting them, provided the material is salacious enough. 

There were many other nitpicks: When was the precise date of the Enterprise Captain’s relief? Would a sunk carrier go down in the Taiwan Strait itself or somewhere North, South or East of the island? Does it really count as “accountability” if a 20-year-old (at the time of the crime) Seaman apprentice is convicted of the Bonhomme Richard arson? 

None of these, nor many others, touch on the main points. Stipulate them all, and all the problems I raised remain. 

I am accused of “not caring” about, or even being anti-, Taiwan. I deny that utterly. I have never been to Taiwan—though I did visit pre-handover Hong Kong, so I have some idea of what a free Chinese society looks like. As a lover of freedom, I naturally—just like John Quincy Adams—wish the best for free peoples everywhere, including the Taiwanese. But just as for JQA, the question for us is not whether to wish for the best, but what to do about those wishes. 

As I said in the prior piece, the best thing for Taiwan—and for the United States—is the preservation of the status quo. (China expert David Goldman, at NatCon, agreed.) Loose talk about conflict, from people in positions of power, is not conducive to maintaining the status quo. You might retort that neither are articles questioning whether America can or should defend the island. But I have no power. My role, as a concerned American citizen, is to warn fellow American citizens what they might be getting into if they heedlessly follow our elites, out of patriotic and/or principled motives, into war with China. 

I am also accused of favoring, or at least of appeasing, China. It is alleged that I do not see China as an adversary. Of course, I do see China, in many respects, as an adversary—but it is primarily an economic and social adversary. China seeks to harm our economy with dumping, other unfair trade practices, and industrial espionage. It seeks to harm our society with fentanyl exports. The amount of domestic spying it engages in (and that we tolerate or ineffectively oppose) is staggering and shameful. 

All these, and many others, strike me as much more urgent concerns, for us, than the fate of Taiwan. Those who accuse me of “indifference” or abandonment of Taiwan should answer why and how their insistence on prioritizing the defense, from the same threat, of a foreign people over their own people is not also indifference or abandonment—or worse. 

I raised a number of questions which would seem to require satisfactory answers before the United States commits itself to war in the Taiwan Strait. Those questions all boil down to two: Can the United States defend Taiwan? and, Would it be wise to try? To the best of my knowledge, no one has attempted an affirmative answer to either. One in particular, with whom I am (supposedly) on friendly terms, said that even to raise these questions shows “how little” I know about American interests. That insult would have more force if backed up by even a single answer to one of the questions I raised. 

Such as, for instance, this one: How would it be in America’s “interests” to lose a fleet carrier, not have any plausible response, and then be forced to eat the loss or resort to nuclear retaliation? Alternatively, this (or some other critic) could show that our fleet carriers are not at substantial risk, or are not needed to defend Taiwan, or that we have plausible non-nuclear retaliatory options, or that a nuclear strike would not provoke wider war and untold devastation. If all four of these are too much, how about demonstrating just one

Jim Hanson says, correctly, that I did not note the 1954 Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which did in fact bind the United States to the defense of Taiwan, but from which we withdrew in 1979. But I did note that it’s impossible to have a treaty with a non-state entity; thus withdrawal from the 1954 agreement was an inevitable consequence of withdrawing formal recognition from Taiwan. One may regret that necessity, as Hanson does, but I don’t see any way around it. (Personally, had I been president in 1979, I would not have done what Carter did but would have stuck with Nixon’s calculated ambiguity; but I was in fifth grade at the time.) 

Hanson questions the constitutionality of that withdrawal. He may be right, but we also have to admit that so-called “constitutional” questions these days (and for many decades prior) are resolved by one standard: whatever the courts say. Plus, as a practical matter, the judicial branch long ago gave up challenging the abrogation of treaties, both out of deference to the executive’s Article II powers in foreign affairs, and in recognition that the courts have no way to enforce a contrary judgment. 

Hanson would like to see American power used to deter a Chinese invasion—as would I, provided or assuming we don’t make threats we can’t back up. My point, or fear, as expressed in the prior piece, is that through bluster we might end up in a shooting war that we lose, or else be forced to back down on the eve of one our big mouths helped to cause. 

But there are other ways to deter, and I believe those ways are operating even as we speak. China likely has the power right now to invade Taiwan. Yet it hasn’t. Why not? Partly “to win without fighting” and “to capture the enemy’s territory intact.” But also because of the enormous geopolitical price Beijing knows it would pay even in the event of victory. 

I am not one of those who believes that China pines for world domination. To say nothing of other considerations, in thousands of years of Chinese history, this has never been a Chinese ambition. (Compare, by contrast, Alexander or the Romans—or the Holy Romans.) But, as far as I can tell, China does want to dominate East Asia and the Western Pacific. It may seem paradoxical, but conquering Taiwan would present a serious setback to that ambition. Whatever problem such an action might solve, it would create many more. Other countries in the region, already wary, would become outright terrified—even hostile. Cooperation would grind to a crawl. Many would arm up, and potentially even go nuclear. Having conquered one, China would have put itself into the position of having to conquer all—or let the dream go. And it’s highly unlikely that China could conquer all, especially in the teeth of a nuclear Japan. 

Leaving aside such dire considerations, China would at the very least face a degree of global and regional distrust, even hatred, that would dwarf her present PR problems, which are considerable. And that’s before we get to the inevitable, innumerable sanctions and other attempts by various countries to disentangle their economies from China’s, in ways that would devastate the latter’s. 

Speaking of deterrence, one point which I raised at NatCon, but not in my piece, and which critics are now citing as an omission, is the extent to which Taiwan is mounting its own deterrent strategy by cornering the world microchip manufacturing market. Some sources place Taiwan’s global share of this market as high as 92 percent. Since these days everything runs on microchips, a disruption in chip supply threatens to halt the global economy. Taipei, it seems, wishes to convey to all parties the message that, in the event of a conflict over—or, especially, on—the island, everybody loses. The hope appears to be that, everybody knowing this, no one will try. Making one’s territory indispensable to all is not a bad strategy for a small government lacking the population or weaponry to take on a great power, not to mention for a people who doubts the ability or resolve of its allies to defend it. 

Hanson is, I think, right to say that, while the Taiwan Relations Act may not be a treaty, many perceive it as such. This is not, however, a reason to act as if it were, especially if such action is against American interests—and double-especially if we can’t deliver on our supposed promise. 

Isn’t it plausible, even likely, that the Taiwanese built their island into “chipmaker-to-the-world” precisely because of doubts the United States will—or can—defend them? They know, better than anyone, that the Taiwan Relations Act is neither a treaty nor a guarantee. As the party most directly concerned, they above all others are the most likely to have developed a Plan B. That’s before we even get to what conclusions they must have drawn—what any rational people must have drawn—from our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan. Does the United States of the 2020s look like a power willing to meet, or capable of meeting, its military commitments? Is it plausible that a people smart enough to corner 92 percent of the global microchip market can’t see this? 

To the counterargument that Taiwan’s chip-making capacity is so important that we’re compelled to go to war, I respond with what I said above—that in the event of such a war, everybody loses. And also, shouldn’t this fact even more urgently drive us to re-domicile as much chip-making capacity as possible, as fast as possible? I find it hard to understand so-called American “patriots” who urge the defense of a foreign land on the ground that a vital industry born and raised in the United States has been relocated overseas. It may be an unfortunate fact that this is the way things are now (and who let them get that way?), but are we supposed to accept that unfortunate fact in perpetuity—and then plan in perpetuity our forward defense strategy around it? 

Others allege that China has no real claim to Taiwan and so my argument about China’s view of its territorial integrity has no merit. But Chinese claims on Taiwan go back to 1683—exactly a hundred years before the United States took possession of the Ohio River Valley. One may dismiss all this as illegitimate, but it’s not therefore irrelevant. The point is: what do the Chinese themselves think? They think Taiwan is part of China, period. They will, if pressed, fight for it, even if some autodidact foreigner insists they’re wrong. To the statesman making decisions, the musings of the latter count for nothing compared to the determination of the former. 

My final point, to which I alluded above, is that America today has a lot of problems—primarily domestic ones. Ours are not small problems. This is not 1969, when churlish people complained about going to the moon because poverty and alienation had yet to be conquered—but when, in reality, the America of that time was about as successful as any society in history.

The America of today is one in which the middle has been crushed for three decades. It’s one that can’t, or won’t, control its borders or police its streets. Its governing organs can’t perform basic functions but can leap to action to track down grandmothers who entered the Capitol without a tour pass. Real incomes and even life expectancies have been declining for whole demographic groups. It’s a country that not only lost the longest war in its history, against an opponent weaker than any since Panama or Grenada, but that couldn’t even extract itself without humiliation. 

Against all this (and much more), we’re supposed to believe not only that we can, or even that we ought, but that we must prioritize the defense of an island 6,500 miles away—and a three-hour tour from the might of a formidable, rising superpower. 

Victor Davis Hanson (whom I fear would disagree with much of what I say here) has observed, of California’s doomed “train to nowhere,” that societies incapable of solving pre-modern problems—such as picking up trash and not using streets as toilets—turn to impossible postmodern dreams. When modern neocons and neolibs insist that we “must” defend Taiwan, I hear an echo of that same longing. 

America is as incompetent as it’s been since the Carter Administration at least. It may be the most incompetent “great power” in history. Maybe not, but it often sure feels that way. In any case, it seems ridiculous to worry so much about a faraway island beyond our power when we can’t even agree to let people go outside without a mask. 

I wish I lived in a country capable of defending Taiwan, and other bulwarks of freedom on the edge of the free world, while still managing American affairs in the best interests of American citizens. I was born into such a country. I know what one looks like well enough to know that I don’t live in one any more. And neither do the “conservative” Taiwan hawks. Perhaps the younger among them pine for something they can only imagine. 

One hallmark of the liberalism that’s dominated American politics over my lifetime is the notion that moral worth is contingent on how much one “cares” and that it’s imperative to try to “do something” even if that something is expensive, counterproductive, and forecloses the doing of many other doable things. 

On Taiwan, too many “conservatives” sound like this precisely because they think exactly like this. They prioritize sentiment over fact, wishes over reality, and tough talk over concrete capability. Of those who’ve weighed in so far, I exclude Jim Hanson, who is genuinely concerned about what might go wrong. But the rest seem wedded to a formula: Taiwan good, China bad, freedom good, appeasement bad. All those things may be true and yet it still might also be true that America can’t, and shouldn’t, get involved in a war with China unless its own territory or some absolutely core interest is at stake. 

In this, the conservatives are joined by the . . . I don’t even know what to call them . . . regime apparatchiks? Democratic hawks? One thing my little foray into this issue shows (not that I didn’t already know it) is that there is a big official constituency for conflict with China over Taiwan and it doesn’t brook questions. 

My message to them would be not to worry. I am sure that if you want war with China, you will find a way to get it. The national security state gets its way on most everything these days. Certainly, I have no power to stop it. At worst, I might convince a few thousand people that your myopia is insane. I hope to have done that. I don’t delude myself that it will give you any second thoughts.


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About Michael Anton

Michael Anton is a lecturer and research fellow at Hillsdale College, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and a former national security official in the Trump Administration. He formerly wrote under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus when he was a senior editor of American Greatness. He is the author most recently of The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.

Photo: Ships in the South China Sea, Taiwan, February 2nd, 2021. An Rong Xu/Getty Images