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Are Americans Prepared to Fight a Nuclear War Over Taiwan?

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PHILIPPINE SEA (Sept. 19, 2016) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) fires a standard missile (SM 2) at a target drone as part of a surface-to-air-missile exercise (SAMEX) during Valiant Shield 2016. Valiant Shield is a biennial, U.S. only, field-training exercise with a focus on integration of joint training among U.S. forces. This is the sixth exercise in the Valiant Shield series that began in 2006. Benfold is on patrol with Carrier Strike Group Five (CSG 5) in the Philippine Sea supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Andrew Schneider/Released)160919-N-XQ474-126 Join the conversation: http://www.navy.mil/viewGallery.asp http://www.facebook.com/USNavy http://www.twitter.com/USNavy http://navylive.dodlive.mil http://pinterest.com https://plus.google.com

The consequences of a U.S.-China war over Taiwan need to be understood: A president suffering from an occasional case of verbal diarrhea about political infighting is an embarrassment. A president repeating loose comments about international affairs is dangerous.

For the third time, President Joe Biden declared a new U.S. policy toward Taiwan, only to have his officials insist that nothing has changed. That might mollify the public, but other nations, especially the People’s Republic of China, aren’t fooled.

On his trip to East Asia, intended to convince friends and allies that Uncle Sam can walk and chew gum at the same time, the president’s statement roiled the region. When asked if he would defend Taiwan, he responded “yes,” adding that “it’s a commitment we made.” His words circled the globe at warp speed, appearing to yet again repudiate the policy of “strategic ambiguity,” by which Washington refused to clarify its position toward a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Since the Carter administration dropped diplomatic ties with Taiwan, legally the Republic of China, and recognized the PRC, America’s defense ties with Taipei have been ambiguous. Washington retains unofficial diplomatic ties with the island state and is committed by law to sell the latter defensive weapons. However, Taiwan enjoys neither a defense treaty, as possessed by Japan and South Korea, nor any other formal military commitment. Making U.S. policy a straightforward “maybe.”

The Strategy of Strategic Ambiguity 

In theory, the uncertainty and possibility of forfeiting U.S. support are supposed to deter Taipei from recklessly challenging Beijing. At the same time, the PRC is supposed to avoid taking military action, lest Washington decides to intervene. Voila, America achieves the best of both worlds. However, the opposite result also is possible. The Taiwanese might believe eight decades of cooperation in war and peace mean the U.S. would intervene on the former’s behalf. And the Chinese might decide that no rational American president would risk Los Angeles for Taipei.

In fact, strategic ambiguity looks like an excuse to avoid deciding. As long as policymakers need not give a clear yes or no, they need not clearly decide yes or no. And they can simply hope the contingency never arises.

China is Not Ambiguous About Reunification

However, this strategy is becoming increasingly untenable. There is no sign of an imminent Chinese military action, but noted by the Quincy Institute’s Michael Swaine: “this possibility cannot be discounted over the longer term if present trends continue.” Beijing’s patience appears to be diminishing: Chinese President Xi Jinping has inveighed against the issue being “passed on from generation to generation.” The PRC has increased diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan, while the brutal crackdown in Hong Kong suggests the Xi government has given up citing the special administrative region as an example to negotiate voluntary reunification.

Moreover, time may not be on China’s side. The PRC faces serious demographic, economic, and political problems, which are being increasingly aggravated by the Xi regime’s zero COVID policy. Beijing officials are aware that pro-PRC sentiment in Taiwan is vanishingly small, especially among the young. Finally, of the many possible lessons of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the most important for Xi might be the importance of a quick victory.

Time for the U.S. to Take a Position?

As a result, U.S. policymakers should know their mind. If China acts, they need to be ready to respond. That could mean marshaling diplomatic and economic power around the globe against Beijing. That could mean indirectly striking Chinese interests – for instance, interdicting trade with and air travel to the PRC. Most seriously, that could mean directly intervening against Chinese military forces. Whatever the case, Washington should be ready to act, or not act, and not be caught unprepared if Beijing strikes.

Most importantly, the issue should be discussed now. The largely unstated consensus within the Beltway appears to be that of course, Washington should intervene. To most foreign policy professionals it is inconceivable that America would not respond militarily. The main disagreement of late is over whether strategic ambiguity should be replaced with strategic clarity – by stating a firm military commitment, as the president seemed to do.

Is America Ready for Strategic Clarity?

However, the American people should be consulted, starting now, Admitted Rep. Michael McCaul, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I don’t know how many Americans would want to go to war over a tiny island they know nothing about,” he said. And if they fully understood the cost of defending Taiwan from China – the possibility of conventional defeat and nuclear disaster – they might firmly oppose doing so.

If a crisis explodes, the president should be prepared to act and Congress should be prepared to vote. Most importantly, the latter should fulfill its constitutional responsibility and debate a declaration of war, necessary for a presidential decision to intervene militarily. Such a momentous decision requires an informed citizenry.

Taiwan is China’s most important strategic objective, outside of protecting the mainland. Beijing leadership, along with most Chinese including younger generations – which I have found to be profoundly nationalistic even when otherwise liberal – believe Taiwan to be part of China. The island was stripped from the decrepit Chinese empire by Japan in 1895 and returned after the latter’s defeat in 1945. In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party overthrew the ROC and ousted the Nationalist Party government, which fled to Taiwan. Backed by the U.S. military, the ROC maintained a separate existence but gradually lost the diplomatic game as most of the world, including America, formally accepted only “one China” and recognized the PRC.

For the mainland leadership, reuniting the two – meaning subordinating Taiwan to the PRC – is the final step to end “the Century of Humiliation” in which China suffered foreign invasion and occupation. The only comparable U.S. experience in terms of nationalism at its most raw is the American Civil War, in which northerners refused to allow secession. After the eleven southern states seceded over slavery, the national government fought over the union, and some 750,000 Americans, roughly eight million in today’s terms, died in the process.

U.S. policymakers want to believe that America would triumph. Some, such as former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta, simply assume that the threat to intervene would suffice to protect Taipei and that the PRC would back down. All the US must do is declare its willingness to act, and the Chinese leadership will retreat to Zhongnanhai, heads hung low, and accept American suzerainty forevermore.

Others either believe that America would win, or they just ignore the possibility of losing. Believing it imperative that Washington act, they ignore the likely consequences. Everything simply must turn outright.

Alas, fighting the PRC over Taiwan would be nothing like America’s recent military experience. Iraq and Afghanistan were cakewalks compared to high-intensity war against the well-armed and highly motivated People’s Liberation Army, generously stocked with missiles and an expanding nuclear arsenal. At its worst, air and naval combat between the U.S. and PRC would take Americans back to World War II’s Pacific war, which surely no one wants to relive, with a possible nuclear twist if such weapons were used against America.

And Beijing appears ready for war, if necessary, though that certainly is not its preference. The PRC desires a negotiated surrender by Taiwan. If it comes to war, some PRC officials don’t believe the U.S. would fight, leading to the infamous taunt that America would not risk Los Angeles for Taipei. And that is a fair assumption based on any normal balancing of interests. Taiwan matters far more to China than America. Imagine the PRC announcing that it was prepared to defend Cuba from U.S. aggression. That would seem equally ludicrous to Washington, especially having seen the Soviet Union retreat in a comparable situation six decades ago.

However, most Chinese leaders appear to be more realistic, preparing for U.S. intervention. Beijing benefits from the tyranny of distance – Taiwan is about 100 miles from the mainland, roughly as far as Cuba from the U.S. In contrast, Taiwan is more than 7,000 miles from the American mainland and about 1.700 miles from Guam, the closest U.S. possession. Washington is at a significant disadvantage since it is easier and less costly to deter than project power. Ominously, the U.S. usually loses war games of a Taiwan conflict.

Although Washington is developing strategies to overcome the PRC’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities, it would be difficult for the U.S. to prevail even with access to allied bases in the region. Ground facilities and naval forces would be vulnerable to missile attacks. Moreover, despite Tokyo’s tougher attitude toward China and Seoul’s new conservative government, there is no guarantee that if war loomed either would join the U.S. Doing so would turn them into military targets and guarantee enduring enmity from the PRC. The allies would be especially reluctant to act if they believed Washington was at least partially responsible for igniting the crisis.

Escalation seems inevitable. China could scarcely avoid hitting Guam, a U.S. possession loaded with military facilities, and Okinawa, a Japanese island filled with American bases and personnel. The U.S. would inevitably target mainland installations, a couple of scores of which could be used to support an invasion of Taiwan. Both sides would face strong pressure to retaliate in turn. A recent wargame suggested that Beijing likely would brandish nuclear weapons early in any conflict, with potentially disastrous results.

Ultimately, the U.S. could find itself devoting much of its military budget – at a time of rapidly increasing deficits as America’s population ages – to combatting a rising, distant adversary in its own neighborhood over interests it considers to be vital. And in doing so Americans would be courting a greater chance of nuclear conflict than even during the Cold War. In short, the American people could find themselves risking national bankruptcy and destruction to confront this one contingency: defending Taiwan from China.

The more than 23 million people of Taiwan deserve to set their own destinies. They have created a democratic policy, market economy, and vibrant society. However, risking their homeland is a high price for Americans to pay, too high. War with China means personnel killed, planes downed, ships sunk, and bases bombed. War with China also means the possibility of nuclear-tipped missiles hitting American cities. And even a U.S. victory likely would be transitory, as China could retreat and prepare for another round, rather like Germany between World Wars I and II.

Better to seek a regional modus vivendi, which ensures that Taipei eschews claims of independence and military relationships with other nations, while Beijing reduces military threats and affirms peaceful reunification. 

Washington also should consider the lessons of Ukraine: arming and training Taiwanese forces, preparing global sanctions in response to an attack, and developing asymmetric military responses. The goal should be to put the greatest responsibility on Taiwan while raising the price more for China than for America.

The president’s inability to control his mouth is dangerous. Failing to consider the full consequences of war with China over Taiwan is worse. And expecting Americans to accept without debate the costs and risks of full-scale combat with the PRC is a political crime. The Biden administration should address all three issues before the Taiwan Strait becomes the world’s latest crisis.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Times. Bandow speaks frequently at academic conferences, on college campuses, and to business groups. Bandow has been a regular commentator on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. He holds a JD from Stanford University.

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

28 Comments

28 Comments

  1. Eric-ji

    May 25, 2022 at 1:46 pm

    I hope the American public is not prepared for nor ever wanting, a nuclear war with anyone.

    • Him

      May 25, 2022 at 10:21 pm

      That’s like saying, if you had lived in the mid 1930’s — to use your words – if Europe is “not prepared” for a war, then Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany military build-up will never be used against Europe.

      My guess is you are a Left-learning voter, probably Democrat, or whatever is the Left field in your country.

      The core Democrat ideology is that all people are inherently nice, and that if America stops being nasty, then other nations will automatically revert to their inherent niceness.

      Same ideology in the Democrats’ “defund the police” – namely, that if there weren’t nasty police, then everyone would revert to their inherent niceness.

      It is rooted in rejection of the Christian God, because the Bible’s message is that, even though all people desire to do good, their inherent sinfulness makes them incapable of acting on the good that they desire. In other words, the Bible is saying that the desire to do good is in everyone; it’s just that we can’t do that good, and end up doing incalculable evil.

      (see New Testament, Romans chapter 7, latter part – the first part is an allegory).

      So the Democrat doctrine is, everyone is nice, so if – to use your words – if we are “not prepared” for war, i.e. defund the armies as Western Europe did in the last few decades, then Putin would have seen that we were being nice, and therefore would not have attacked.

      That is interpreting Putin through our ideology of “everyone is nice”. But the Russians see it through the maniac lens of “everyone wants to attack Russia”. So when Putin sees the West in a weak state, he sees it as a chance to strike while the West is weak.

      Accordingly, if America is NOT prepared to fight a nuclear war – then it will happen. Counter-intuitively, when America is willing to be strong and fight a nuclear war – then the result is decades of mostly peace worldwide (i.e. no world war, aside from localised conflicts).

      My concern is that the university system in the U.S. with its Leftward drift has replaced the “peace requires strength” philosophy of old – and replaced it with “if we back off, then the enemy will back off”. I think around 50% of Americans (Democrats) think this way.

      • Jim Higgins

        May 26, 2022 at 9:26 am

        I agree with Him. I married into a Taiwanese family and my relatives there are near and dear to me.

      • I. Martin

        May 26, 2022 at 11:53 am

        Accordingly, if America is NOT prepared to fight a nuclear war – then it will happen. Counter-intuitively, when America is willing to be strong and fight a nuclear war – then the result is decades of mostly peace worldwide (i.e. no world war, aside from localised conflicts).

        Agreed.

      • Joe Comment

        May 26, 2022 at 12:58 pm

        Him: I agree with your overall conclusion (yes the US must help Taiwan), but I don’t think it’s helpful to bring up patronizing religious and political stereotypes while making that argument. For example the author of this piece, Doug Bandow, is a Christian right-winger who worked in the Reagan administration, and he is against US intervention for Taiwan.

  2. Bob

    May 25, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    That would be a hard “HELL NO” from this American.

  3. GhostTomahawk

    May 25, 2022 at 3:28 pm

    How can we possibly expect clarity from a President led by the Easter Bunny? Is this the man in charge? Or is it his handlers called “The White House”, who release statements whenever Joe goes off their script?

    America deserves better. The best we can hope for is to have new GOP leadership and impeach both Joe and Kamala and coups the entire thing. THEN have a real position on Taiwan that isn’t written in crayon and covered in Tapioca pudding.

  4. roland

    May 25, 2022 at 3:49 pm

    Nope….and not a conventional one either.

  5. Tity

    May 25, 2022 at 5:52 pm

    Russian leader Shitler Putrid Puking Pudrid be.oans the help Ukraine receive by way of weapons from the West to protect them selves. They don’t moan about 40,000 terrorists fighting with Russia though and receiving weapons from Iran China the hypocrites. The Russian scum cunts are murdering fuck pigs rapist citizen targeting killers back shooter rapists and and barbarians every one them scum repulsive vile scum terrorists and when the wR us over for atrocities committed by Rusdians chechens who ever the ought to be all tarred and feather hung drawn and quartered then incinerated to get rid of the red communist terrorist sums stinking vile evil smell for ever.Keep throwing nukes cunt putrid and you will be sorry as we will decimate you with saturated nuke strike preemptive and you can’t do a thing about it you barbarian repulsive evil Russian pieces of shitty scum on legs a worl with out Russian cuts will be nice fuck off back to the ice age you cunts

  6. Roger Buffington

    May 25, 2022 at 5:54 pm

    No one is “prepared” for a “nuclear war over Taiwan.” But we cannot safely live in a world where America backs down every time a reckless and warlike nuclear power, i.e. Russia or China, rattles the nuclear sword and couples it with aggression. The question here is whether China cares to engage in nuclear war over Taiwan. I doubt it. There has already been too much backing down of this type in the Ukraine-Russia war.

    • I. Martin

      May 26, 2022 at 11:56 am

      I think it’s time we modernized our nukes. They’re going to be a fact of life well into the future.

    • JMIII

      May 26, 2022 at 5:37 pm

      Strongly agree and Ballistic Missile defense needs to be boosted up. If Russia and China are willing to threaten Nuclear War if they don’t get their way, MAD is dead. We have to face the fact that merely threatening their nation’s destruction won’t stop them from launching. So we better figure out how to block those missiles.

  7. Loki Borson

    May 25, 2022 at 8:19 pm

    It’s could be possible that both the current and previous US presidents were playing the part of the “Madman”… It’s anyone’s guess what either would say when speaking “un-scripted”. Maybe this is the 21st century’s version of strategic ambiguity: say one thing, and then roll it back. Not that I have any confidence in the intelligence of the current administration, but it seems like the mistakes are intentional.

    • I. Martin

      May 26, 2022 at 1:13 pm

      Mistakes and gaffes are Biden.

  8. Stefan Stackhouse

    May 25, 2022 at 9:32 pm

    Just contemplate the globe for a moment. The entire Pacific Ocean separates the US from the PRC. We are about as far removed from each other as any two adversaries have ever been. The vast distance of the Pacific provides the US with the wonderful blessing of strategic depth. Unlike unfortunate nations such as Ukraine, we do not have to deal with hostile adversaries right on our borders.

    Unfortunately, the “best and brightest” inside the beltway have not been willing to leave well enough alone and just focus on strengthening our defensive perimeter. No, they have delusions of being a Eurasian power, and have been merrily engaging in one utterly wasteful and futile intervention after another for decades. None of this has made the US more secure. Indeed, we now have good reason to really worry that the lunatics really will push their luck all the way past the point where the nukes start to fly. They may well end up being the death and ruination of us all.

    I wish the people of Taiwan well. They are in a tough spot, but they do have the advantage of 100 miles of water across the Taiwan Strait, and time and money enough to build up their defenses in preparation against the assault that will inevitably come. We should sell them what they need to defend themselves – now, before the shooting starts. Once the shooting does start, though, this has the potential to end just like our worst nightmares if we try to intervene.

  9. MAGA MAGA

    May 25, 2022 at 10:10 pm

    Mr Bandow, it’s not a question of Americans willing or prepared for use of nukes over taiwan, it’s whether deep state nexus incorporated of usa willing to do it.

    And the answer is YES.

    This is because china has far less(right now) nukes than US, and the ‘handful’ that they currently possess won’t even get pass the US missile defense shield in the pacific.

    History has shown US predatorilly bombed japan and marshall islands with multiple nukes, and what’s china?

    Just a juicier piece of fruit.

    • Roger Bacon

      May 26, 2022 at 1:45 pm

      “This is because china has far less(right now) nukes than US, and the ‘handful’ that they currently possess won’t even get pass the US missile defense shield in the pacific.”

      Sadly, US missile defenses are only about 50% effictive, and that’s before you consider the ICMBs that can alter course during re-entry. If you consider that 50% of China’s nukes would malfunction (made in China!) that would still leave about 150 of their 600 stockpile that could get through.

  10. I. Martin

    May 26, 2022 at 11:51 am

    It is time for American politicians and media alike to start engaging the American public as partners, rather than in an effort to manipulate. The American People are a powerful partner! Americans don’t know what’s at stake–if they did, they would push harder and yes, also demand more, but it would be worth it. Right now, because of public apathy and gutless elites, we stand to lose it all! In fact, the world is on the cusp of destabilization, which benefits no one really. The Chinese will not take over, nor will the Russians–things will simply come apart, and not so slowly at that. We fought two world wars to help stabilize the planet. I think we can take military action to prevent a larger conflict. Appeasement has only provoked conflict–never prevented it.

  11. William R. Hawkins

    May 26, 2022 at 11:55 am

    A fine discussion of everything except deterrence. The best outcome is no war. The best deterrent is for Beijing to have no doubts that to move on Taiwan would be a war China could not stomach. Strategic ambiguity is a disaster waiting to happen. It allows miscalculation in Beijing as happened in 1950 in Korea when the South was left out of our stated defense perimeter. Ukraine happened because Biden declared Kyiv to be outside our defense perimeter. As Churchill said of Stalin, Xi does not want war, only the fruits of war. We can’t let him grab for low hanging fruit that seems available for the taking without risk or cost. The adage as old as history is “if you want peace, prepare for war.” We have to assume Xi is rational and can be deterred; if he is irrational then our problems are worse and require even more preparation.

    • I. Martin

      May 26, 2022 at 1:10 pm

      Agreed, but you have to really be ready to go to war. A bluff won’t work.

  12. Joe Spivis

    May 26, 2022 at 12:51 pm

    Fair question. If the answer is no, then what about South Korea with whom we have a “defense agreement?” Is America prepared and willing to fight a nuclear war over S. Korea…or maybe NATO member Latvia? If an agreement can deter China and Russia, then we need more agreements.

  13. I. Martin

    May 26, 2022 at 1:05 pm

    I think the characterization of “Taipei for Los Angeles” is suspiciously alarmist. China is just as vulnerable to nukes as we are–and nearly all their cities are home to larger populations. Any war that would be fought would start conventionally and it would not go so well for China–especially if the U.S. targeted civilian infrastructure: bridges, power plants, water filtration, etc… It wouldn’t be a piece of cake for us either, but we have a lot more experience than they do. War is always a mess, but the operations of our military would be like a well-oiled machine compared to theirs.

    • Joe Spivis

      May 26, 2022 at 6:35 pm

      Good point. China hasn’t been tested militarily since Korea, and that was over 70 years ago in a limited war. Plus, their navy has never been put to the test. Combat in places like Vietnam and the gulf wars has provided the U.S. with valuable experience in contemporary warfare.

  14. Peter

    May 26, 2022 at 2:01 pm

    So to be clear. America should hide when a uppity communist country tries to push us around? Heck no. We should be funneling advanced arms, weapon systems, and money into Taiwan just the same as Ukraine. Why? What is any different other than aggressor? Ukraine was once apart of ussr, Taiwan was (key term was) part of the previous Chinese country. So if we help Ukraine to be consistent we need to help taiwan. Reasons. Both are democratic, self supporting, free peoples fighting against either autocratic or communist govt’s.

  15. JMIII

    May 26, 2022 at 5:32 pm

    American’s must contemplate what a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would mean for America. We have allowed ourselves to be highly dependent upon Asia for not only many labor intensive manufactured goods and rare earth materials, but also key technological components such as computer chips that are the lifeblood of our economy. China would gain a stranglehold on such supplies. In addition, China would be able to enforce their “9 dash line” territorial claims and control much of Pacific sea commerce. Our reliability as a defense partner would be seen as non-existent and key partners may fall under the wing of the PRC. We would find it difficult to help Japan, Australia, Philippines- key allies -defend themselves if China has control of Taiwan. If we are unwilling to fight a nuclear war to support Taiwan, who will believe we will fight one for these allies?

    Can we be sure the PRC’s ambitions end at the Western Pacific? Given their current track record, a world dominated by the PRC should be abhorrent to every American.

  16. Steven

    May 27, 2022 at 9:06 am

    China’s military is a bunch of junk. A shooting war with the US would last a month. Not to mention Cyber War.

  17. Pink & Blue Prince

    May 28, 2022 at 1:38 pm

    China will not invade Taiwan and doesn’t want a war with the US. WWIII will end future wars because there would be no more world.
    Biden is trying to look as tough as nails because he wants to appease people against his troop withdrawal from Afghanistan which he authorized as Ehud Barack Obama’s VP.

  18. ATM

    June 4, 2022 at 12:00 am

    In a few years China will simply blockade Taiwan without firing a shot and wait.

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