California Rep. Kevin McCarthy has indicated that one of his first acts as House speaker would be to goad the People’s Republic of China into a war with America. Of course, McCarthy didn’t put it that way. Last year, when current House speaker Nancy Pelosi was planning her visit to Taiwan, McCarthy declared, “I’d love to do it as speaker.”
It is not a given that McCarthy will be speaker. Given the GOP’s narrow margin and divided caucus, his victory is uncertain. But if he does secure the position, he is likely to go to Taiwan, and he would be flooded with requests from other members to join him. The consequences could be catastrophic.
McCarthy did not specify why he was determined to visit, but support for Taiwan is the reason given by those who make the pilgrimage. More important, even if it is left unsaid, is that the move is a good way to spite the People’s Republic of China. McCarthy might also want to match his celebrated predecessor. None of these is a good reason to make the trip.
An Unsteady Balancing Act
The Republic of China, as Taiwan is officially named, deserves to decide its own future. Despite Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official fantasy that multitudes of Taiwanese want to return to the motherland, there is very little popular support to come under Beijing’s control in any form. The vast majority of Taiwan’s people, especially the young, identify with Taiwan, not China, and that majority continues to grow. Most Taiwanese have grown up with little to no personal connection with the mainland.
Moreover, no sane Taiwanese wants to live under Xi’s increasingly brutal dictatorship. The PRC once put forward Hong Kong as a model for “one country, two systems.” That seemed plausible through 2019, when popular protests in Hong Kong blocked local legislation to allow extradition to China. But Beijing’s direct imposition of a new so-called national security law ended the delusion. The law snuffed out criticism of Beijing and opposition to the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong. It ended the fantasy that reunification for Taiwan could mean anything other than abject submission to the CCP. Unfortunately for the Taiwanese, they live barely 100 miles off China’s coast, and the Chinese people as well as their government believe that the island remains part of the PRC.
Taiwan, known at the time as Formosa, was seized by Japan in 1895. At the conclusion of World War II, the territory reverted to China. But when communist forces led by Mao Zedong won control of the mainland in 1949, the U.S.-backed Kuomintang government moved to Taiwan, claiming to remain the legitimate government of all China. The U.S. eventually abandoned that fiction. With Richard Nixon’s opening to the PRC and Jimmy Carter’s recognition of Beijing, Washington accepted that there was only one China.
Still, Washington has maintained unofficial relations with Taipei, operating an American Institute in Taiwan staffed by former Foreign Service officers who return to the State Department afterward. The U.S. continued to sell arms to Taiwan and unofficially provided military protection, perhaps most dramatically during the 1995-1996 flare-up over the policies and election of Lee Teng-hui, who was seen by Beijing as moving Taiwan toward independence. When Beijing announced missile tests and a simulated amphibious assault near Taiwan, the U.S. dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to nearby waters. Lacking the military capability to either invade Taiwan or counter the U.S., Beijing had to back down. Unsurprisingly, the humiliation spurred an ongoing military buildup. China now has the world’s third-most powerful armed forces and second-highest military expenditures.
No Reason to Visit
Although the U.S. armed services remain stronger than China’s, Washington dilutes its strength around the world. American policymakers are bizarrely determined to protect every prosperous industrialized state and rich autocracy that claims to be a friend, even if they refuse to handle their own defense. Hence the U.S. devotes billions to indirectly underwriting Europe’s welfare state, provides de facto bodyguards to Persian Gulf royals, and enables Japan and South Korea to shift responsibility for their defense against China and North Korea onto American taxpayers.
While the outcome of a U.S.-PRC war over Taiwan is difficult to predict, both geography and concentration of forces would give China the advantage. (Imagine Beijing trying to protect Cuba from an American assault.) Most wargames suggest that the U.S. would lose. Even victory would be extraordinarily costly — the sinking of a single American carrier could result in thousands of deaths — especially if the conflict went nuclear. And a U.S. victory likely would be temporary, much like the German defeat in World War I. Beijing almost certainly would rearm for a second round. Washington officials who imagine that a few dismissive words from the imperial city will deter the PRC from defending what it believes to be an existential security interest are fools who risk lighting a fuse akin to that which set Europe aflame in the summer of 1914.
This context shows how counterproductive a presumed McCarthy visit would be. Like Pelosi’s Asian adventure last year, there would be no policy point. Congress votes on international issues, but the executive branch dominates foreign policy execution. The speaker can learn everything necessary for making policy from an online dialogue with Taiwanese officials. The real purpose of such a trip would be to antagonize China.
The desire to do just that is understandable. Xi has snuffed out a host of limited but still important liberties at home. While veering toward totalitarianism, the PRC is threatening to use its growing military power more aggressively. Pelosi long demonstrated a genuine commitment to human rights in China, while McCarthy’s interest appears to be more that of a mini-me, hoping to receive a bit of reflected glory from his predecessor’s escapade. Whatever the case, intentions matter little. A visit would inevitably light a spark at what may already be Asia’s most dangerous flashpoint, with a real possibility of triggering conventional and possibly nuclear war between two of the planet’s greatest military powers.
Any American who claims to know the plans of the denizens of Zhongnanhai is lying. However, the best guess is that they don’t want war. Their objective is to intimidate Taiwan into a negotiated surrender. Although Xi likely would like to complete reunification on his watch, a failed military action could be fatal politically. So Chinese behavior remains reactive, responding to perceptions of U.S. and Taiwanese policy. The more likely it seems that Taipei, backed by Washington, is on a course toward independence, the more urgent the task of reunification becomes to Beijing. It is widely believed that a declaration of independence would trigger some sort of violent PRC response. Actions seen as leading toward formal separation would push China in that direction.
While Pelosi and McCarthy might see their visits as affirming American support for Taiwan and thus enhancing deterrence, the outcome is likely to be much different in practice. Chinese leadership might be evil, but it is not stupid. Beijing recognizes the possibility, even perhaps the likelihood, that Washington would intervene in any military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. China’s military buildup is focused on that contingency. Xi and those around him appear willing to risk war if they believe it to be necessary. And provocative U.S. behavior such as high-profile congressional visits make them more likely to believe that it is.
The Path to Conflict
The point is not that American policymakers should avoid offending Beijing at all costs. To the contrary, some actions, such as selling weapons to Taiwan, are warranted, because they directly improve deterrence of a Chinese invasion by helping Taipei defend itself. U.S. officials visiting the island to symbolically give the finger to Xi offend without serious purpose. Yet such behavior is seen as U.S. backing for Taiwanese separatism, embodied by the Democratic Progressive Party of President Tsai Ing-wen.
After the Pelosi visit, I received urgent entreaties from Chinese diplomats and party officials to talk. We have long conducted a civil dialogue (recently interrupted by the COVID pandemic) despite my manifold and oft-expressed concerns over PRC behavior. Their consistent message was concern that Washington was changing its policy. Such a change, they noted, would force Beijing to take a more aggressive stance.
Although it is never easy to assess whether statements reflect regime duty or personal conviction, these seemed to embody both. Their simple but fervent response to my point that the Taiwanese did not want to be absorbed by China was that Taiwan’s future should be determined by 1.4 billion Chinese. Nothing suggested war tomorrow or next year. However, increased Chinese military activity likely will continue. That alone creates risk of military incidents, which could inadvertently lead to a conflict no one wants. If it perceives allied support for separation, Beijing will further accelerate the development of its own capabilities so that it can respond sooner militarily, if necessary.
McCarthy and other legislators should put Taiwan’s future and America’s interest ahead of their personal ambitions. What some undoubtedly would call appeasement is simple good sense: Do not needlessly antagonize a potential adversary. Avoid this especially if your actions make a feared outcome, in this case military action against Taiwan, more likely.
The Constitution invests Congress with important foreign and military policy functions. Oddly, legislators do their best to avoid exercising their most important role, deciding on war. Instead, they prefer to leave that tough decision to presidents, choosing to praise or hector based on the outcome. Although they enjoy posturing provocatively, most are political cowards in practice.
In the case of Taiwan, congressional gamesmanship is making Chinese action against the island, and ultimately a U.S.-PRC conflict, more likely. No one has ever confused McCarthy with a statesman, but if he secures the speakership, he should prove the rest of us wrong and not go to Taiwan. If he really supports the Taiwanese people, he should devote his efforts to bringing calm, and not further fury, to what already may be the most dangerous real estate on earth.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. He is also a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.