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What Should America Do if China Invades Taiwan?

If China chooses war over Taiwan, there will be no “good” choice for America. But the president and Congress are obligated to make the decision that best preserves American freedom, security, and prosperity.

F-16. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
F-16. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-Te, a 2024 presidential candidate, will visit the United States on Saturday to meet with American officials. China warns the visit is “like a gray rhino charging at us.” In China, this metaphor is used to indicate a big, obvious threat that needs to be dealt with.  

As that charged language indicates, tensions between the U.S. and China remain strained. Beijing’s preparation for future combat continues to accelerate, and Washington must contemplate the pros and cons of fighting a war with China.

It should be an article of faith for any American Congress or president that the decision to fight a conventional war should only be taken under the most dire of circumstances — when the U.S. has been attacked or is threatened with an imminent attack, and all diplomatic and peaceful means of resolving a conflict are exhausted. In any circumstance short of a direct attack against our country, people, or allies, the United States should measure such decisions against the most rigorous criteria designed to ensure the security, viability, and prosperity of the country.

Taiwan: Fundamentals to Influence Choose-Refuse Decisions for War

The legislative and administrative branches of government must meet a few requirements before choosing any war. These non-negotiable criteria should be obvious, but Washington’s decisionmaking over the past few decades indicates that they are not, so laying out a rational, logical framework is necessary.

First, American leaders must understand that any war in the modern age against a peer or near-peer is going to be costly. The U.S. will lose men and women in uniform and some percentage of our tools of war, and the impact on the economy will likely be high. Even in the best-case scenarios where the U.S. prevails, the road to recovery in all categories will be uncertain and painful. Leaders must also acknowledge it is possible the U.S. could lose.

Second, our leaders must soberly calculate whether fighting a war is likely to improve the country’s condition, relative to the results of the U.S. refusing to choose war. Neglecting to make this basic assessment is one of the biggest failures of American government in the wars it has chosen since World War II.

The past half-century is littered with conflicts the United States chose to wage without weighing the cost of fighting versus the cost of not engaging. A list of such conflicts includes the Vietnam War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the 20-year fiasco in Afghanistan, the 2011 attack on Libya, the 2014 excursion into Syria, the support of Saudi Arabia in its war with Yemen, and a perpetual military engagement on the African continent. 

None of these conflicts was forced on Washington. All were chosen, and the cost to the United States has been astronomical. Benefits have been paltry, or, as I argue, entirely absent. 

But while the human and economic costs of these wars of choice have been high, they are nothing compared to the consequences the U.S. could suffer if our leaders unwisely choose to fight a war with China.

Cost of Refusing to Fight

Many pundits and analysts suggest the cost of not fighting is greater than the cost of refusing to fight. Some reasons given are theoretical at best and unlikely to manifest. But some of the arguments about the costs of non-intervention to the United States and the Western world are genuine and worth addressing. One argument is that the impact on the global economy would be severe, ushering in the possibility of a new depression, not merely a recession. Such an outcome would be likely, in my view, and not merely possible.

Citadel founder and hedge-fund billionaire Ken Griffin told CNBC last year that if the U.S. were to lose access to Taiwanese semiconductor chips, whether from war or another disruption, “the hit to US GDP is probably on an order of magnitude of 5% to 10%. It’s an immediate great depression.” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly warned that war over the Taiwan Straits “would destroy world trade worth $2.6 trillion, according to Nikkei Asia. No country could shield itself from the repercussions.” Those are real and likely consequences of war between China and Taiwan, whether the U.S. fights or not.

Another oft-cited cost of America staying out is that doing so would hand China an unsinkable aircraft carrier that would allow Beijing to project power farther into the Pacific. Meanwhile, American credibility would be destroyed. Militarily there would indeed be some tactical benefit for China to possess Taiwan, but it does not hold strategic decisiveness. It would only move the Chinese military roughly 100 miles further into the Pacific — still 6,699 miles from the U.S. West Coast. 

The claim that this would end American credibility is feeble. Unlike treaty allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia, America has no mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, and thus there is no existing obligation for the U.S. to fight a war on Taipei’s behalf. Staying out of a destructive war would not compromise Washington’s word. 

By staying out of that fight, the U.S. maintains its full military power, undiminished by fighting. The Chinese military would suffer significant destruction of its military power, which would take decades to repair, leaving it much weaker than the U.S. throughout the Indo-Pacific. One of the “costs” of turning down war, then, is that U.S. national security would be strengthened in contrast to China’s. The credibility of America’s strength to its treaty partners would be increased, not diminished.

The impact to the global economic order of a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be severe and possibly just as bad as experts warn, and that fallout would have to be managed in any event. The harsh reality that almost none of the advocates of American military intervention like to address, however, is that by choosing to fight, the U.S. simultaneously suffers economic loss and a degraded national security capacity. It might never recover from such a dual loss.

Cost of Choosing to Fight

Many of those who advocate choosing to fight a war with China over Taiwan point to numerous wargame simulations that show a full-throated American intervention likely prevents a Chinese takeover. They too often ignore that even a so-called victory comes at a price that is far higher than any benefit. In January, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published the results of 24 iterations of a computer simulation involving a war in the Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan in which the U.S. enters on Taiwan’s side. The results were sobering.

In no case did China attain a decisive victory. Looking purely at the scoreboard, some might calculate it supports the idea Washington should set as a policy its willingness to fight for Taipei. But the cost to the United States in that successful defense was catastrophic. In 18 of the iterations, the U.S. lost an average of 484 combat aircraft, 14 warships — including at least two elite aircraft carriers — and tens of thousands of American servicemembers. Even this outcome is based on assumptions that might not prevail in the event of a real war.

According to the CSIS study, preventing Chinese success was predicated on the U.S. being able to “strike the Chinese fleet rapidly and en masse from outside the Chinese defensive zone.” Yet as the study pointed out elsewhere, the United States would run out of critical classes of attack missiles “in less than one week.” If China stockpiled enough ammunition and war stocks to sustain a fight for months, the U.S. could suffer even higher levels of loss and no longer be able to interfere with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) operations. The Chinese might succeed.

An outcome where America is unable to prevent a Chinese victory, while suffering egregious and irreplaceable losses, is far from a fringe possibility. It would deal a severe loss to U.S. prestige and would seriously damage America’s ability to defend its interests elsewhere in the world. All the economic consequences of a Chinese attack discussed earlier would also be in effect. 

Now tabulate the costs to America of intervening in a China-Taiwan war.

The U.S. military would be seriously degraded, requiring decades and trillions of dollars to restore. Thousands of our most trained and experienced airmen, marines, sailors, and soldiers would have been lost, requiring a generation to replace. The U.S. economy would likely tumble into a severe depression when it could least afford it. 

And that is the cost if the U.S. succeeds in preventing China from completing its conquest of Taiwan. If China prevails, America would additionally suffer serious loss of reputation among allies and adversaries. History shows that when great powers suffer such serious military and economic losses, they rarely fully recover.

Nothing in war is ever guaranteed or easy to predict. One doesn’t have to look any further than the Russia-Ukraine war to see that. But using the most advanced computing tools and reasonable assessments of the likely range of outcomes of a war between the U.S. and China shows that the risks to America in choosing to fight Beijing would be too high in any scenario — and potentially catastrophic if things go wrong. By any judicious assessment, therefore, the U.S. should not fight a war against China on behalf of Taiwan. 

The Benefit of Choosing Wisely

The most prudent course of action for the U.S. government at present is to support the continuation of the status quo — on both sides of the Strait, and between Beijing and Washington. Strategic ambiguity has served the interests of both the United States and Taiwan for decades, allowing the island nation to become a bastion of democracy in the Indo-Pacific and an economic powerhouse. While many in Taiwan want full independence, the vast majority simply want to be left alone to live their lives as they see fit and further their economic interests.

The United States likewise benefits from the perpetuation of the status quo, in both economic and security terms. The status quo allows the U.S. to continue its nearly $700 billion in mutual trade with China, to support and benefit from Taiwan’s chipmaking prowess, and to keep the peace in the Indo-Pacific. Any war will disrupt this beneficial balance. If war comes, the question will be whether America takes the path of significant cost, or of possibly catastrophic cost.

Washington’s hands are not tied, however, if Beijing should one day make the fateful choice to try and conquer Taiwan. There are ways to increase the costs to Beijing. Washington could impose sanctions on China that, in combination with their combat losses, could add even more pressure to their economic burdens. U.S. leaders could strengthen relationships with treaty allies in the region to ensure all are united and prepared to make good on mutual obligations should any be attacked. There are also many diplomatic actions that could be taken to further isolate Beijing and make their combat operations increasingly difficult and expensive.

One may immediately argue that economic and diplomatic actions will not save Taiwan from invasion and potential loss in war. Such criticism is valid at face value. It would not save Taiwan. The harsh truth, however, is that if Beijing eventually chooses war, they will invade whether the U.S. intervenes or not. 

If China chooses war, there will be no “good” choice for America. But the president and Congress are obligated to make the decision that best preserves American freedom, security, and prosperity. Even when there are no good choices, there are bad choices which must be avoided. The cost to the U.S. of intervening in a war between China and Taiwan could range from highly destructive to an utter military defeat.

A defeat at the hands of the PLA in the Taiwan Strait would deal America an incalculable loss. It would be uncertain whether the U.S. would ever recover its pre-war level of global influence and power.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” He is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

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Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.