Taiwan Strait: What Is at Stake and How to Prevent a Conflict

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Taiwan Strait: What Is at Stake and How to Prevent a Conflict

An interview with David Sacks.

Taiwan Strait: What Is at Stake and How to Prevent a Conflict
Credit: NASA/ GSFA

Taiwan is now a focal point on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Preserving the status quo in the Taiwan Strait in the face of growing Chinese power and assertiveness is a challenge not just for the Unites States but also other nations including Japan. For a view on what is at stake and policy prescriptions, Jongsoo Lee interviewed David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the author of a recent CFR paper, “Enhancing U.S.-Japan Coordination for a Taiwan Conflict.”

What is Taiwan’s importance to China and the United States? Can China be a great power without control over Taiwan? 

China considers Taiwan to be a “core interest” and a remnant of its unfinished civil war. To Chinese leaders, the country’s “rejuvenation” can only be achieved once its territorial integrity is “restored” and Taiwan is the missing piece. Thus, from their perspective, China cannot be a great power until it brings Taiwan under its control. When cross-strait tensions rise, Chinese leaders remind their American interlocutors that Taiwan is the most sensitive issue in the bilateral relationship. Put plainly, Taiwan is likely the only venue that could trigger a full-scale war between the United States and China.

The United States has a unique relationship with Taiwan: It does not recognize Taiwan (formally the Republic of China) as a country and does not maintain official diplomatic ties with the island, but at the same time it has a much deeper relationship with Taiwan than it does with most countries that it formally recognizes. Taiwan is the United States’ eighth-largest trading partner, works with the United States on a range of transnational issues, and is a vibrant democracy that shares American values. The United States also has an obligation to provide Taiwan with sufficient arms to enable it to maintain a self-defense capability and to have the capacity to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

The immediate stakes in the Taiwan Strait are clear, but the biggest shift I’ve seen in recent years is a growing recognition that what happens in the Taiwan Strait will have enormous ramifications for the entire Indo-Pacific. In my view, a growing number of policymakers have correctly concluded that if the United States were to stand aside in the face of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, its allies and partners would come to question whether they could rely on the United States for their security. Those countries would then either accommodate China or hedge against it by growing their militaries and developing nuclear weapons. Either development would result in diminished U.S. influence and increasing instability. Ultimately, unanswered Chinese aggression against Taiwan could very well precipitate the establishment of a Chinese-led order in the region most critical to America’s continued security and prosperity.

How would you assess the risk of an armed conflict over Taiwan?  Under what scenarios could there be an armed conflict?

It is hard to handicap the risk of an armed conflict over Taiwan, but the chance of conflict is certainly not insignificant and has increased over time. This is due to a number of factors. I would point to eroding deterrence in the Taiwan Strait, as China’s rapid military modernization has focused above all else on preparing for a conflict over Taiwan, while Taiwan has neglected its own defense and the United States has been preoccupied with conducting counterterrorism operations in the Middle East. Since Tsai Ing-wen’s election, China has steadily increased its pressure on Taiwan, while there is very little support in Taiwan for pursuing further integration with the mainland and Taiwanese identity continues to rise. Here, I would add that China’s crackdown on Hong Kong has accelerated these trends, serving as a warning to the Taiwanese for what their future would look like under mainland rule. Finally, while Xi Jinping has not set a firm deadline for unification, he has stated that China’s “great rejuvenation” must be achieved by 2049, and asserting control over Taiwan is a prerequisite for accomplishing this objective.

Generally, there are two scenarios that observers have focused on as potential triggers for conflict: a Taiwanese declaration of independence or a PRC decision to attack because its leaders concluded “peaceful reunification” could not be achieved. To me, a formal Taiwanese declaration of independence is no longer an acute risk: The majority of Taiwanese voters support maintaining the status quo and understand that pursuing de jure independence would all but guarantee a Chinese attack. In addition, the United States has repeatedly stated that it does not support Taiwanese independence, and Taiwan knows that if it is seen as provoking the mainland, then U.S. support will erode and it could choose not to come to Taiwan’s defense. Therefore, I believe U.S. policy needs to focus on deterring a Chinese attack, which is the far greater risk.

The Chinese Communist Party is due to hold its 20th Party Congress later this year. How are this and other domestic factors in China likely to affect the possibility of Beijing using force against Taiwan?

My sense is that Xi Jinping will not precipitate a crisis before the Party Congress because he wants to reassure party elders that he has a handle on China’s relationship with the United States and cross-strait relations as he vies for a third term. A conflict in the Taiwan Strait could complicate his plans and invite opposition.

Looking ahead, though, once Xi essentially ensconces himself as the leader of China for life, I do not see many internal barriers to him ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan or resorting to force if that is the path he is determined to take. Given the extent to which he has replaced collective rule with one-man rule by establishing himself as the party’s “core” and promoting “Xi Jinping Thought,” I doubt anyone would dare to express serious opposition to his proposed moves on Taiwan. We also know that, given Xi’s previous experience leading provinces with close business ties with Taiwan and where Taiwanese businessmen resided, Xi believes he has a unique feel for cross-strait relations and can navigate this relationship better than the professionals in China’s bureaucracy. So there are few checks on his power, and it is unlikely he would take advice from others that contradicts his own thinking.

How would you compare the current Taiwan Strait situation with previous Taiwan Strait crises? What can we learn from earlier incidents?

It might sound obvious, but the biggest difference is just how much China’s growing power has altered cross-strait dynamics. During the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, China could not even locate the U.S. aircraft carriers dispatched to the vicinity – now, we worry that China’s “carrier-killer” missiles will be able to sink U.S. aircraft carriers hundreds of miles from China’s coast. Prior to that crisis, Taiwan spent more than China on defense and enjoyed a qualitative edge, but now China’s military spending dwarfs Taiwan’s and it fields capabilities even more advanced than Taiwan’s.

When we used to think about early warning indicators for a Chinese attack, we knew that China would have to move significant forces to its coast opposite Taiwan before commencing an assault and believed that this offered us an opportunity to prepare. Now, China already has most of its military assets pre-positioned in the Eastern Theater Command, which sharply reduces our warning time. Thus, the current situation is perilous and will get worse on the trajectory we are on.

If China were to take over Quemoy (Kinmen), Matsu, and other small islands currently administered by Taiwan, should the United States risk a war with China over these outlying islands?  Is there a danger of this happening?  

The 1954 mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Republic of China (which the United States terminated in 1979) covered Taiwan and the Pescadores (Penghu), thus excluding Kinmen, Matsu, and Taiwan’s other small islands. If the United States was unwilling to defend these islands when it had a formal treaty obligation to come to Taiwan’s defense, it is hard for me to imagine it would defend these islands today. Given that these islands are fundamentally undefendable, I do not think it makes sense to stake U.S. credibility on its ability to defend them. Doing so would also be a distraction – we need to focus on being able to defend the main island of Taiwan, and Taiwan’s military needs to also prioritize this mission.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo said recently: “A Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency, and therefore an emergency for the Japan-U.S. alliance.” Is his statement true? Will a Chinese attack on Taiwan trigger a military response from the Japan-U.S. alliance?

Abe’s statement is true – a Chinese attack on Taiwan would constitute an emergency for Japan because it would severely undermine Japan’s security. If China were to station PLA forces on Taiwan, Japan would find it much more difficult to defend its territory, as the PLA would be only 110 kilometers from Yonaguni Island and much closer to the Senkaku Islands and Okinawa. Given that China views the Senkaku Islands as a part of “Taiwan Province,” Beijing could attempt to seize them during a conflict over Taiwan. In addition, with control over Taiwan and its military installations throughout the South China Sea, China would be in a position to threaten Japan’s import-dependent economy during wartime.

I also believe that this increasing outspokenness by Japanese leaders regarding Taiwan reflects their belief that what happens in the Taiwan Strait will have enormous implications for the future of the Indo-Pacific. If China were to use force to successfully annex Taiwan, it would be in a much stronger position to establish hegemony in the region, which is not in Japan’s interest.

Should the United States choose to come to Taiwan’s defense, it would need to make full use of its assets and forces on Japan. This is simply a matter of geography: Guam is 1,720 miles away from Taiwan, while bases on Okinawa are under 500 miles away. At a minimum, the United States would expect Japan to expeditiously agree that it can use its forces on Japan to defeat Chinese aggression against Taiwan. Given China’s growing military might, however, the United States will need far more Japanese support. This could include: Japan assisting with search and rescue operations and noncombatant emergency evacuation; providing logistical support; sharing information and intelligence; protecting sea lines of communication; conducting choke point control and mine-sweeping operations; defending U.S. forces based in Japan, all the way up to engaging in joint combat operations alongside the United States.

You have called on the United States and Japan to increase their coordination and preparation for a Taiwan conflict.  Do you expect this will take place? Should the coordination and preparation also involve other nations such as Australia and the U.K.?   

I believe preparing for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait should become a major priority for the U.S.-Japan alliance and should drive force posture, procurement, and bilateral operational planning and exercises. Simply put, this should be a major part of the agenda whenever national security officials from both countries meet. I recently wrote a paper that details how the United States and Japan can increase their coordination and preparation and outlines steps both countries should pursue over the next five years. I won’t list all of my recommendations here, but I would highlight the critical importance of the following: creating the conditions for smooth prior consultation on the use of U.S. assets in Japan for the defense of Taiwan; getting a better sense of the assistance Japan would be willing to provide; and doing more to leverage Japan’s western islands. I expect the U.S.-Japan alliance will increasingly focus on Taiwan because the situation is grave, there is a convergence of interests, and leaders in both Washington and Tokyo recognize that this needs to happen.

Of course, this coordination and preparation should not be limited to just the United States and Japan, because involving additional countries will complicate China’s calculus and increase deterrence. Australia is a natural candidate, and I believe that there is also scope to do more with South Korea and the Philippines. European countries can also contribute to deterrence by warning China of the severe economic consequences it would face if it used force against Taiwan.

In your opinion, how can the current Taiwan Strait standoff be peacefully resolved? Is there a long-term solution to prevent a recurrence of crises?

It is hard for me to see a resolution of cross-strait differences because I cannot think of a proposal that would be acceptable to both China and Taiwan. Instead, our objective should be maintaining the status quo, which I understand is not the ideal state of affairs for the Taiwanese people, but I would argue is better than all of the other potential alternatives and has allowed Taiwan to flourish. For things to stay the same, however, a lot has to change. I am worried about eroding deterrence and the possibility that Xi Jinping will be tempted to use force against Taiwan. That is why the United States needs to focus on preparing for a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, shift military resources to the Indo-Pacific, enhance coordination with Japan, and update its declaratory policy by shifting to strategic clarity.

We often focus on the failures of U.S. foreign policy and the list is long, including the Iraq War, a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a failure to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons. But I would argue that the U.S. policy toward Taiwan has been one of the great successes of post-war foreign policy. We’ve not only avoided a war in the Taiwan Strait, but also put in place policies that allowed Taiwan to become an economic juggernaut and one of Asia’s few democratic success stories. The challenge for U.S. foreign policy now is to make the necessary adjustments to account for a more powerful and assertive China and ultimately preserve peace in the Taiwan Strait for the coming decades. In this sense, Taiwan is not so much a problem to be solved but a situation to be managed.