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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

If Taiwan Falls, What Happens to America?

At sea aboard USS John C. Stennis, December 18, 2001 - After an early morning round of flight operations, an F/A-18 Hornet awaits the next round of combat flight operations aboard the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). Stennis and her embarked Carrier Air Wing Nine (CVW-9) are supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Jayme Pastoric
011218-N-9769P-047 At sea aboard USS John C. Stennis, December 18, 2001 - After an early morning round of flight operations, an F/A-18 Hornet awaits the next round of combat flight operations aboard the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). Stennis and her embarked Carrier Air Wing Nine (CVW-9) are supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Jayme Pastoric

War games and tabletop exercises can tell us what it might look like if China attacks Taiwan. But they say little about why Taiwan matters and is worth defending. A new study examines what Americans would lose if they lose Taiwan — and what might happen next. 

The first thing to know is that Taiwan is now a very big deal. America’s political and military leaders are increasingly convinced that the Taiwan Strait is the strategic nerve center of the world. No other flashpoint is as structurally unstable, as politically vexing, and as likely to draw the world’s superpowers into a war. 

The second thing to know is that an invasion is no longer unthinkable. Through both word and deed, Chairman Xi Jinping is signaling his intention to annihilate Taiwan’s government. A large body of evidence suggests that China is getting ready to do something terrible. There is a growing concern in Washington that it may no longer be a question of if Xi plans to attack Taiwan, but rather when and how

Thinking It All the Way Through 

Conflict is not inevitable, and it is debatable whether or not China’s high command is operating according to a cast iron timeline. For all we know, Xi is convinced that a campaign of coercion will succeed at crumbling the Taiwanese government’s ability to resist annexation. 

An understudied aspect of the Taiwan defense debate is what would happen after it was all over. What might happen if the People’s Republic of China succeeded in conquering Taiwan? How would that impact the national security of the United States? 

Naturally, a lot would depend on how the war unfolded and what the U.S. did (or didn’t do), but several troubling implications would remain constant irrespective of how it happened. Taiwan has outsized strategic value for America due to its extraordinary political character, its unique military and intelligence capabilities, its critical role in global high-tech supply chains, and its geographic location in the heart of East Asia. 

Regardless of how the Republic of China (Taiwan) was captured by the Chinese Communist Party, the world would have lost a leading democracy, and the security architecture of the region would be altered. This would be a traumatic – and probably catastrophic – event in the history of American foreign policy.      

When a Democracy Dies 

At the time of this writing, Taiwan is ranked among the top 10 freest countries in the world. In 2022, Freedom House gave Taiwan a composite score of 94 out of 100 when it came to measures of global freedom (in comparison the U.S. ranked 83 and China ranked near rock bottom). The U.S. and many other countries have robust relationships with Taiwan, and Taiwan is widely considered by governments across the democratic world to be a responsible, like-minded partner and a model of good governance. 

If Taiwan was conquered, however, it would become an occupied territory ruled by China’s one-party dictatorship. The free and independent country that used to be Taiwan would disappear, and a repressive police state would emerge. 

The Communist Party can be expected to employ terror tactics against the local Taiwanese population. The mass surveillance and control complex that is omnipresent in Xinjiang and Tibet would likely be installed. A local proxy government under the direct control of Beijing would rule the islands, and all territory formerly administered by the ROC government would be harshly policed.  

Having lost one of its best democracies, the international community would be in the presence of a growing sense that illiberal forces were on the march and authoritarianism was spreading. The loss of Taiwan could lead many governments to experience a crisis of confidence. Observers might draw the conclusion that China’s Marxist-Leninist model was superior – or at the very least ascendant – and liberal democracies too weak to resist the new world order that Beijing was creating.   

Lost Military and Intelligence Capabilities  

If Taiwan falls, its military bases and intelligence facilities would be occupied by the PLA. The Chinese navy can be expected to base its ships and submarines in Taiwan’s deep-water ports. The naval bases on Taiwan’s east coast would be especially valuable for the PLA, which for the first time in its history would have unencumbered access to the deep waters of the Pacific. 

After annexation, Chinese bombers and missile units based on Taiwan would be able to hold U.S. forces at risk of surprise raids. PLA Navy surface action groups and aviation units based in Taiwan and the Penghu islands could threaten a blockade of Japan and South Korea by cutting off their primary sea lines of communication. The top of the South China Sea would be “corked” – providing PLA ballistic missile submarines with a maritime bastion and further reinforcing China’s military dominance of Southeast Asia. 

The U.S. would lose access to a critical information gathering hub, and the American intelligence community would lose its primary window into China. Taiwan is an irreplaceable source of Mandarin language training and all-source intelligence on China. Without Taiwan, the Pentagon and CIA would likely begin producing flawed analytical products, leaving policymakers ill-informed and prone to making strategic mistakes. In the wake of a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan, U.S. intelligence failures could increase dramatically.         

Shattered Supply Chains        

Today, Taiwan is the United States’ 8th largest trading partner and a pillar of our knowledge-based economy.  A cross-Strait war would likely cost millions of Americans their jobs, and trillions of dollars would be lost. The loss of Taiwan would deeply impact the health of the U.S. economy and could trigger an economic depression in America and across the world. 

A recent report asserted that “Taiwan may be the most critical link in the entire technology ecosystem,” due to its dominance in the chip sector, original equipment manufacturing, original design manufacturing, and role as a central hub for producing technology-related materials. In other words, whoever controls Taiwan controls the future of the Internet and the global economy. 

Harsh Geostrategic Realities

By seizing Taiwan, the PRC would have effectively carved out a powerful sphere of influence for itself in Asia using violent methods. This could have grave implications for international law, the idea of national self-determination, and the principle of state sovereignty. 

The fall of Taiwan would likely undermine perceptions of U.S. global diplomatic and military leadership, straining (and possibly breaking) the American alliance system and the United Nations System. China would probably be viewed as the most powerful nation in the world and the prime mover of the 21st century. 

Leaders would experience trepidation as Beijing marched toward its vision of a new centralized, authoritarian world order. Nuclear arms racing would almost certainly accelerate and could spiral out of control. This would be a new age of empires. And jungle rules.         

America Gets a Vote

To appreciate why deterring Beijing from attacking Taiwan matters, we must carefully consider the consequences of failure. Facing up to the existence of stark scenarios is only the first step. The next step is acting to forestall aggression before it culminates into a preventable war.  

Given the strategic importance of Taiwan, the U.S. government should give more consideration to the benefits of establishing a significant presence of at least 1,500 special operations forces and marines in Taiwan for training, advisory, and liaison purposes. Ship visits, joint Taiwan Strait patrols, and routine senior leader delegations from Washington to Taiwan are additional low cost and high impact options that are available. Only bold activities are likely to upset Xi Jinping’s calculations and shake his confidence. 

The worst thing Washington could do would be to give too much credence to Beijing’s “red lines”, which have no basis in international law and have been purposefully designed to ensure Taiwan becomes increasingly vulnerable and easy to conquer. 

To protect their own nation’s vital interests, American leaders must frustrate those of the Chinese government. Taiwan’s future may be in doubt, but its fall is undoubtedly something America cannot afford to let happen.     

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Author Expertise and Experience    

Ian Easton is a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy. This article draws heavily from The World After Taiwan’s Fall, edited by David Santoro and Ralph Cossa. Reprinted with permission. 

Written By

Ian Easton is a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy. He also wrote The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia. He previously served as a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs (JIIA) in Tokyo, a China analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Virginia, and a researcher with the Asia Bureau of Defense News. Ian holds an M.A. in China Studies from National Chengchi University in Taiwan and a B.A. in International Studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He studied Chinese at Fudan University in Shanghai and National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.