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Shinzo Abe Wants the U.S. to Promise to Defend Taiwan. That’s a Mistake

Taiwan
Image of F-16 Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In a recent op-ed for the LA Times, Japan’s ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued that the United States should clarify its intention to fight a war with China in the event that Xi Jinping orders an invasion of Taiwan. His intervention came as a delegation of US lawmakers visited Taiwan to signal America’s support for the island.

US leaders should reject Abe’s advice. It is true that Taiwan needs a stronger deterrent against China, and it is understandable that Taiwan’s friends are anxious in light of what is happening in Ukraine. But asking the United States to issue military threats against Beijing will not help to ensure stability across the Taiwan Strait.

China is a nuclear-armed state. For this reason, it will never be certain that a sitting US president would choose to respond to an invasion of the island by sending American forces into battle against the People’s Liberation Army. To do so would be to risk World War III, and the annihilation of the United States along with it.

Of course, the fact that China is a nuclear-weapons state does not make it inconceivable that the United States would rush to Taiwan’s defense. Perhaps US leaders would calculate that a war over Taiwan could be prevented from “going nuclear.” Alternatively, they might interpret a Chinese invasion of Taiwan as an existential threat to US national security – a war worth fighting.

But when push comes to shove, it is far more likely that any US president would respond to a Chinese attack on Taiwan the same way that President Biden has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: by resisting calls to join a war that could quickly escalate to involve the use of nuclear weapons.

No matter how much people in the United States care about Taiwan – and they care a lot, if opinion polls are any guide – the imperative to avoid nuclear war will always weigh more heavily on the minds of America’s leaders. It would not fool anyone in Beijing if the United States announced that it was ready to enter a war over Taiwan at a moment’s notice. China will always have good grounds to doubt the credibility of such statements.

Fortunately, there are other ways to deter China from invading Taiwan.

Most obviously, the United States can and should continue to help Taiwan bolster its own defenses. One lesson from the war in Ukraine is surely that defenders have important advantages that invaders can struggle to overcome. If it invests in the right weaponry, Taiwan can leverage these advantages in a way that will raise China’s expected costs of conquest – perhaps even to the point that forcible reunification becomes unaffordable in the minds of rational Chinese leaders.

In addition, Taiwan should threaten to implement a targeted “scorched earth” strategy in the event of an invasion, including the destruction or disablement of its vaunted semiconductor foundries. Given that China’s economy is largely dependent upon Taiwan for the import of high-end microchips, such a threat would go a long way toward convincing China that a war across the Taiwan Strait would do far more harm than good. The point is not that Beijing desires Taiwan for its industrial capacity, but that Taiwan can leverage the fact of cross-Strait economic interdependence as a defensive weapon aimed at the heart of the Chinese economic miracle.

Meanwhile, East Asian powers (including Japan) should signal to Beijing that an invasion of Taiwan would provoke the same sort of response as Russia now faces in Europe: hardened political and public opinion, massive hikes in military spending and shifts in defensive doctrine, and an overall regional security architecture that will make even a successful conquest of Taiwan seem like a strategic blunder for Beijing. Russia’s leaders did not expect that Europe would respond with such vigor and unity to its war against Ukraine; China’s top brass must be left with no doubts whatsoever.

Finally, concerned states in East Asia and beyond should lay the groundwork for a coordinated economic and political response to any unprovoked aggression against Taiwan. The wide-ranging sanctions levied against Russia can serve as a good model in this regard – a potent reminder to China that a decisive portion of the world’s states are unafraid to act in defense of international law and order whenever a flagrant violation takes place. If there is any doubt that an attack on Taiwan would constitute such a breach of the peace, then it must be removed – now.

None of these threats rely upon the United States is willing to risk World War III with China; most can be made by Taiwan and regional powers acting independently of Washington and according to their own national self-interest. This is why they are credible, and stand a good chance of deterring China from contemplating invasion in the first place.

For America’s part, the best strategy is to support Taiwan and regional partners as they go about formulating their own autonomous deterrents. The United States can and should maintain its longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” about whether it would intervene militarily – a posture that has the benefit of complicating China’s strategic calculus while not committing the United States to anything obviously self-defeating.

At the same time, however, the United States should insist that all parties – China, Taiwan, and regional allies – commit to upholding the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. This means giving Beijing solid reasons to believe that the goal of peace unification has not already been missed, and Taipei reassurance that force will not be used to snuff out its democratic system.

It is understandable that Abe, whose home country has such a strong incentive to preserve Taiwan’s de facto political independence from Beijing, is keen to avoid a repeat of the Ukrainian war on Japan’s doorstep. But imploring the United States to adopt a policy of “strategic clarity” is the wrong approach. The lesson of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that Washington will always be loath to risk a nuclear war in defense of a non-ally, and rightly so.

Dr. Peter Harris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with Defense Priorities and a 1945 Contributing Editor.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Ghost of Kiev, Russia's bane

    April 19, 2022 at 10:37 pm

    Abe is just as dumb the as the fat orange chimp. He needs to get his country out of the economic gutter before he can ask for promises from the US.

  2. Him

    April 20, 2022 at 4:27 am

    There you have it in writing: all military alliances around the world are scrap paper. If an aggressor nuclear-armed nation like Russia, China, North Korea or eventually Iran, attack another nation, if that nation’s allies try to assist, the aggressor will threaten to nuke them. So all the allies back off. i.e. what we’re now seeing in Ukraine.

    Effectively, this means that literally every nation that had fantasies of having a semblance of protection, because of an alliance with the United States – they need to face reality. The cavalry ain’t coming. You’re on your own.

    What this proves is that nukes are useless as a deterrent. For many decades, it was unquestioned that having nukes would deter the other side. Now this proves nukes are useless as a deterrent.

    Nukes are actually only useful as a bullying tool that bully-nations use to take over the world. Hence, Putin shows how to use nukes to bully the world: “You help Ukraine, and we nuke you”.

    It doesn’t work the other way. No one could imagine the United States declaring the China: You attack Taiwan and we nuke you.

    The game is up. The charade is gone.

  3. Slack

    April 20, 2022 at 5:54 am

    China could so very very very easily put the screws on jap’s abe folks and start tightening them by just forbidding nippon commercial planes from transiting chinese airspace.

    Suddenly abe folks might just wake to their senses and start saying ‘hey, all problems can be solved by negotiations, not through uncle sam’ s military muscle.

    TROUBLE IS,….. IN A FEW YEARS’ TIME, with US hypersonic weapon systems planted at china’s front doorstep, uncle sam might be reluctant to listen to abe folks’ advice.

  4. Jimmy John Doe

    April 20, 2022 at 6:06 am

    Too many people have the idea that china is extremely eager to walk across the taiwan strait and take over the island.

    They conveniently forget that china hasn’t (so far, or up to now) even moved against quemoy islands which are just 6 km away, or matsu islands just about 18 km off the mainland while taiwan is about 180 km.

    Moreover, there is the massive PavePaws radar in north-eastern taiwan that watches everything along the fujian coast plus deep into the province. Ya can’t walk over without first blazting the radar to smithereens.

    Real life ain’t same as hollywood movie scripts.

  5. Him

    April 20, 2022 at 6:42 am

    Err, @Jimmy John Doe, the reason why we have the idea that china is eager to walk across the Taiwan Strait is because Xi keeps reminding us.

  6. Kevthepope

    April 20, 2022 at 1:42 pm

    Can’t have a decent article without Chinese trolls hitting up afterward. One can tell by the blatant racist “Nippon” comments. What the author misses is the pain of sanctions- not enough pain- and the threat of China using nukes against the US- hysterical when the US has a massive advantage in them against China- is simply a bunch of wimp left wing crap. If the US said it owned Cambodia and invaded, the Chinese would not sit idly by with sanctions and a worry that the US will nuke it. They’d jump in to protect their own interests. Considering all the tech going through Taiwan these days, the US if it used the policy of sanctions and no intervention is telling China “take it, we’ll forget about it since the US has short memory”, and then next up on the plate will be Vietnam. The reason China has not hit the little turd islands next to it for the lack of using one’s head (trolls, this means you) is because it gains sh*t from doing so. They want the prize. And if the US and West keep threatening sanctions, all that will happen is you will have an Authoritarian version of the Warsaw pact that will have a massive set of trade between its member states starting with Russian/China/North Korea and some Middle Eastern and Central Asian states. The Soviet Union didn’t collapse due to not trading with the West, it spent itself to death and was not exactly an ideal melting pot of different peoples. The US/Japan/Aussies and heaven forbid, India, need to keep Taiwan separate until they and China can agree or disagree to unite. In the meanwhile, Taiwan needs to start spending more on its defense if it wants more US and Allied help, since they sure ain’t poor, and China needs to drop the we own the South Pacific talk. China either hits for Taiwan if they feel the US still has weak leaders or is overextended, or they will wait way past the current leader’s lifetime in office to when they have the same amount of nukes as Russia and the US, and then watch out. That watch out will extend to Russia too, as the entire eastern part of Russia may be on the menu as well due to some recollections of territory held by China in Manchuria in the past.

  7. Joe Comment

    April 21, 2022 at 1:52 am

    Jimmy John Doe: Mainland China tried attacking Matsu and Quemoy in the 1954 and 1958 Taiwan Strait crises but did not succeed. Based on everything they say and do about the Taiwan question from that time to this, the only reason they don’t try again is that they are waiting for a time when they can win easily. You disagree? Then can you point to any official statement from the Mainland to support your opinion?

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