The world loves America. More accurately, people everywhere love living off the US. They want aid programs, military alliances, trade preferences, security guarantees, and more. Some even want Washington to go to war when they won’t, which is often.
The Case for Taiwan and American Intervention
Almost charming is a British journalist writing in a British publication telling Americans to prepare for battle with the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan. So said the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman. He recently insisted that economic, strategic, and political considerations “make a compelling case for the US and its allies to protect Taiwan.”
Yet he must know that the allies won’t act, at least militarily. They have forever fallen short on defending themselves in Europe, and have even been retreating from their promises to do more in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The likelihood that the same countries would send any military forces, let alone in meaningful numbers, to challenge Beijing in its own geographic neighborhood is infinitesimal.
Consider the embarrassing 2021 voyage of Germany’s Bayern. “The dispatch of this frigate to the Indo-Pacific region shows Germany’s commitment to our shared values,” opined Berlin’s top uniformed official, Eberhard Zorn, even as his government asked China for a friendly port visit to Shanghai—which was summarily rejected. Germany will have a tough enough time making its own forces battle worthy for Europe, let alone creating a force capable of challenging the People’s Republic of China.
That disappointing reality probably increases Rachman’s enthusiasm for US intervention in a Taiwan crisis. If Washington doesn’t act, Europe certainly won’t do so. However, first he should explain what his country would do to help America. And what the rest of Europe would do.
This question is especially important since a Sino-US conflict would be more like past “big wars,” such as Vietnam and Korea, than the Global War on Terrorism conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, with the added potential for nuclear escalation. Indeed, Lyle Goldstein of Defense Priorities warns that one or both sides might feel pressure to use nuclear weapons.
Anyone refusing to commit their nation’s future and people’s lives to a China fight has no credibility in urging Washington to wage such a fight. Nevertheless, assume that the frumpy 60-year-old Rachman would suit up for the first British assault on Beijing. He made three basic arguments for America to risk war several thousand miles from home, roughly 100 miles off China’s coast, comparable to Cuba’s distance from America.
His first concern was political freedom. For instance, he wrote, Taiwan, as “a thriving and prosperous society, is living proof that Chinese culture is completely compatible with democracy. Its existence keeps alive an alternative vision for how China itself might one day be run.” Maybe, but today, at least, few Chinese appear to look at Taiwan as a political model. Moreover, most Chinese who I have met believe that Taiwan is part of China and should return to Beijing’s rule, a sentiment held by otherwise liberal-minded students as well as Chinese Communist Party apparatchiks.
Rachman also worried that allowing Beijing to entrench “autocracy … across the Chinese-speaking world would have bleak political implications for the world.” Yet the widespread democratic retreat has little relation to China. Moreover, backsliding by India, Pakistan, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico probably matter much more in their respective regions than anything China has done or likely will do.
In any case, neither of these arguments are serious casus belli. A negative impact on democracy would be worrisome, but would not justify waging a destructive war, which likely would have far more harmful impacts on democracy. As Randolph Bourne famously warned, “war is the health of the state,” illustrated in recent years by the rise of the expansive national security state. Taiwan likely would be effectively destroyed even if nominally victorious. A conflict could not help but adversely affect America’s other friends in East Asia. Even if the US prevailed, Beijing likely would prepare for a rematch, leaving the region unstable and endangered.
Rachman’s second claim is that if the PRC seized Taiwan “then US power in the region would suffer a huge blow. Faced with a prospect of a new hegemonic power in the Indo-Pacific, the region’s countries would respond” by accommodating China. So far, however, most of the countries in the region, even the Philippines of late, have responded to Beijing’s growing strength by increasing their military capabilities and neighborly cooperation. Although the PRC is far stronger than any one of its maritime neighbors, they can mimic its reliance on anti-access/area denial strategies. The possibility of friendly proliferation also could create a substantial deterrent against Beijing. In any case, while “accommodation” might be seen as undesirable, in most cases war would still be far worse.
Finally, Rachman pointed to “the implications of Chinese dominance of the Indo-Pacific would also be global, since the region accounts for around two-thirds of the world’s population and of gross domestic product.” He is particularly concerned about Taiwan’s world-spanning semiconductor chip industry. Yet so far the PRC reigns supreme economically, not militarily. To the good, greater regional wealth will enable China’s economic partners to assert and defend their interests too. Taiwan’s dominant semiconductor is unlikely to survive a war, and the product can be manufactured elsewhere with sufficient investment, the argument behind the $53 billion 2022 CHIPS and Science Act.
Is War the Only Choice?
It is one thing to recognize challenges and threats. It is quite another to go to war over them, especially when there has been no serious discussion about the issue with the American people. Rachman urges “sticking up for Taiwan,” but military action is not the only means to do so.
The outcome of a Sino-American war is difficult to predict. However, most every study and game predict enormous human and materiel losses. The PRC has several advantages, such as geography. China likely would enjoy air superiority, an unsettling factor for the US, which for the last century has expected to rule the skies. Without Japan’s willingness to turn its territory into a missile pin cushion the US would have difficulty deploying sufficient forces nearby. China need only concentrate on East Asia, while Washington, convinced that it must continue to defend the entire world, dissipates its military force.
Finally, Beijing’s interest is much greater than America’s. Washington’s claims are largely derivative and modest, that, for instance, if China defeated Taiwan, the former would be better positioned if it chose to attack more of its neighbors. In contrast, the Chinese people have two direct, compelling reasons to care about the island. First is nationalism, the belief that Taiwan has been wrongly stripped from Chinese control. Second is strategic. The PRC no more wants American or allied bases on Taiwan than the US wanted Soviet bases in Cuba. That doesn’t mean it is impossible to deter China, but it would be very difficult to do so in this case.
Ultimately, the US government, and particularly the American people, need to decide what is worth “sticking up for” with military means. Nearly half of Americans believe China-Taiwan tensions are a serious problem for the US and would back Washington’s involvement. However, most have little to no idea what a Sino-American conflict would entail. Debating whether America’s interests warrant war is far more important than, say, discussing the propriety of “strategic ambiguity,” by which Washington refuses to publicly admit that it has decided to go to war if the PRC invades.
Sometimes war proves necessary, even inevitable. However, those occasions are extraordinarily rare. Conflicts usually turn out much worse than expected. Before loosing the Dog of War, US policymakers should carefully and coldly evaluate the costs and risks versus the likely benefits.
Taiwan is an attractive friend and deserves to decide its own political future. The only stable, peaceful solution is mutual forbearance, with the US, China, and Taiwan eschewing threats and avoiding confrontation. America and its allies should assist Taipei against any attempt at coercive reunification, selling weapons for defense and developing a credible sanctions package in response to malign Chinese activity.
However, Washington should not turn its support for Taiwan into a trial of military force on the battlefield. A conventional Sino-American conflict would be terrible. A nuclear Sino-American war would be catastrophic. Not every good thing on earth is worth a war. No matter what foreign journalists and analysts might tell the US.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, 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.