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.