We have argued that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is determined to conquer Taiwan, and that the U.S. must deter this outcome for our own national survival. While the CCP’s intent has been constant since 1949, Xi Jinping now has the capability to execute a military invasion of the island. As early as this Autumn, we could see Xi and the CCP attempt strong coercive measures, like a blockade of the island, or more probably an invasion. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has not provided Taiwan with the necessary conventional capabilities to defeat a blockade or an invasion.
Biden’s inaction is damaging to U.S. national security interests because Taiwan is strategic to the United States’ national security for four reasons.
The first is economic; Taiwan is a vibrant and wealthy economy—and a superpower in computer chip production. Any damage to its factories, including their destruction, or conquest by China, will reverberate for many years throughout the U.S. and global economies. There may come a day when the U.S. is no longer dependent upon Taiwanese chips, but that day is not today, and will not be for many years.
Second, Taiwan occupies a key geopolitical real estate position that both Beijing and Washington recognize. For China, Taiwan is the cork in the bottle of the first island chain, and so prevents the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) from easily accessing the entirety of the Pacific Ocean. Physical control of Taiwan further expands the PRC’s power, from defending its ports from mining and to the sustaining of its Sea Line of Communication from the East and South China Seas.
Third, in the realm of political warfare, Taiwan is a strong democracy. Its very existence demonstrates what the PRC might have been had the Chinse Communist Party (CCPP) not come to power. The people and government of Taiwan are a daily reminder of this reality and why the CCP is an illegitimate regime.
Fourth, Taiwan is a symbol of U.S. credibility to resist Chinese aggression and thus to sustain its viability. Standing with Taiwan, provides a tangible indication that the U.S. will resist the PRC’s expansionism and will do so with substantial investment from U.S. and allied forces. Every year as both Republican and Democrat administrations maintain arms sales to Taiwan, it reminds Beijing, and the rest of the region, that no matter how contentious domestic U.S. politics become, there is a core American polity who understand the consequential importance of standing firm against the predatory actions of the PRC.
Were Taiwan to be conquered by the PRC, the humanitarian consequences for the Taiwanese people would be horrific as their democracy would be lost—falling under the yoke of the CCP. The CCP would no doubt tout that the “Beijing Consensus”—a euphemism for tyranny—is on the march, and that the “Washington Consensus”—democracy—is receding on the tide of history. In sum, if Taiwan were to fall under the control of the PRC, U.S. strategic national interests would suffer a tremendous blow.
As such, before the PRC attacks it is important to identify how U.S. interests would be affected if Taiwan were to fall. In essence, were Taiwan to fall, U.S. national security would be greatly harmed for the following reasons.
First, the acquisition of Taiwan’s dynamic population of almost 24 million and $800 billion economy would be a great fillip to the PRC’s perceived comprehensive national power and a relative, and significant, loss for the U.S.
Second, even more significantly, the loss of Taiwan’s chip production would be a major, even mortal, blow to many firms and a colossal shock to the U.S. economy. The next largest chip maker, South Korea’s Samsung, as well as other firms like Intel would not be able to address the shortfall. Having conquered Taiwan, South Korea would essentially be surrounded and under great pressure from the PRC, North Korea, and Russia. That pressure would push Seoul to abandon its alliance with the U.S. and to drift into the PRC’s orbit. This would impact all levers of national power, most concerning would be the economic pressure on companies like Samsung that will be coerced to end cooperation and sales with the West in favor of the PRC.
Third, the PRC’s invasion and occupation of Taiwan would mean Japan would be the only opening to the west for Seoul. In an environment where South Korea’s strategic choices will be informed by significant threats to its economy this would be catastrophic for Seoul’s survival. This is particularly likely if South Korea were to remain non-nuclear. Under such circumstances, it is unknown if Seoul would acquire nuclear weapons, rather than bandwagon with Beijing. The recent tri-lateral summit in Washington between Seoul, Tokyo and the U.S. is an encouraging sign—now in peace time—but in a strategic environment where the PRC occupies Taiwan this necessity may dramatically change.
Fourth, other U.S. allies, including Japan and the Philippines would fall under the shadow of an emboldened PRC. Japan would confront difficult choices, including immediate danger to the Senkaku islands. While it is hoped Tokyo would resist the PRC, including through nuclear proliferation, to keep its alliance with the U.S., such an assurance cannot be counted on if America would fail to step forward and defend Taiwan from an invasion by the PLA. For the Philippines, everything would depend upon the U.S.’s willingness to provide a credible extended deterrent given the PRC’s expansion would not stop at Taiwan. Having been betrayed by the Obama administration in 2012 at Scarborough Shoal, and today under tremendous pressure at Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippines is already in the front lines of the PRC’s expansion. The fall of Taiwan will require a major U.S. military presence in the Philippines if Manila is to stand against Beijing. Absent a strong U.S. presence, the pressure for Manila to bandwagon with Beijing would be irresistible. Were Manila to yield, Beijing would secure the eastern flank of South China Sea and thus have de facto control of it.
Fifth, two of America’s treaty allies would also be impacted by the PRC’s successful invasion of Taiwan, Australia and the Kingdom of Thailand. While the Australians have been steadfast partners in the fight against the PRC, the fall of Taiwan would essentially allow the PRC to extend a “bar of steel”—the PLA—from the eastern shores of Taiwan to the PRC’s recent positions of influence in the Solomon Islands and out to Kiribati, the sight of the WWII fight at Tarawa. This Oceanic Sea Line of Communication would effectively cut Australia, and New Zealand, off from the U.S. and the rest of the free world. Likewise, the Kingdom of Thailand, with whom the U.S. has had the longest alliance relationship in Asia, would be under even more pressure to go along with Beijing’s strategic design for Southeast Asia. In essence, the fall of Taiwan would be the equivalent of a metaphorical aneurysm for America’s alliance structure in Asia.
Finally, a CCP-occupied Taiwan would allow the PRC’s military to have a new military base from which it has direct access to the Pacific for the PLAN and PLAAF to project power against U.S. forces in South Korea, Japan, those in the Australia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, as well as those in Guam, Hawaii, Alaska and even in the U.S. homeland.
Accordingly, from the economic to military domains there should be no doubt that the defense of Taiwan is a vital national security interest to the United States and should be pursued by the U.S. government with the vigor and immediacy given the current environment as the PLA daily increases its noose around Taiwan. Taiwan is in immediate danger, which must be addressed now.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.