On Taiwan, the US Is Recklessly Escalating Potential Military Conflict With China

US policy on Taiwan is simultaneously escalatory and muddled, with Joe Biden making belligerent statements that are then contradicted by his own aides. Enough horseplay: the US must stop behaving recklessly and seek a diplomatic solution to the Taiwan crisis.

The Taiwanese military holds a drill for preparedness enhancement in Chiayi, Taiwan amid rising threats from China. (Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

On May 30, a group of thirty Chinese warplanes flew through Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, an incursion which has become a regular occurrence over the past several years. Since 2013, China has substantially escalated its claims to the semi-independent territory, a shift which is intimately linked to the contemporaneous “pivot to Asia” by the United States.

Current US policy on Taiwan appears simultaneously escalatory and muddled, with President Joe Biden repeatedly making belligerent statements that are then contradicted by his own aides. However, it is unquestionably based on the assumption that US threats will serve to deter Chinese aggression.

Ukraine should demonstrate that this is not necessarily the case, and China’s commitment to an integrated Taiwan is the centerpiece of a new strain of ultranationalist Chinese foreign policy. If maintaining some degree of Taiwanese independence is the most desirable outcome, the United States must stop recklessly matching Chinese escalations, which it played a key role in starting, and seek a diplomatic solution to the Taiwan crisis.

Taiwan’s Tug-of-War

The island of Taiwan has a complex historical relationship with the Chinese mainland. Roughly one hundred miles off the coast of Fujian province in southern China, it was populated exclusively by Taiwanese indigenous people until it was annexed by the Qing Dynasty in the seventeenth century. Settlers from China’s Han ethnic majority steadily colonized the island until Japan seized it in 1895. It briefly became Chinese territory after Japan’s loss in 1945, but in 1949, fleeing the Chinese Civil War, the losing Kuomintang declared Taiwan an independent state, where they ruled in a military dictatorship until the 1990s.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has claimed Taiwan as a province since its foundation in 1949. Meanwhile the Taiwanese Republic of China (ROC), technically the remnants of the pre-Communist government, claims to be the legitimate government of China. It is not recognized as such by the UN or the vast majority of UN member states, including the United States — although the United States is by far Taiwan’s preeminent diplomatic partner and military ally.

Taiwan’s ambiguous status held for nearly sixty years. But since 2013, China has substantially escalated its aggression toward the island. It has built a network of “barrier islands” through the South China Sea partially serving to bolster its territorial claims to Taiwan, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now regularly conducts military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and flies fighter jets through Taiwanese airspace. This escalation is closely linked to the simultaneous change in US policy called the “pivot to Asia.”

The US’s Strategic Ambiguity

The pivot to Asia, the brainchild of Kurt Campbell, Biden’s current Asia czar, refers in short to the US decision in 2012 to reorient its military focus from the Middle East to East Asia. The purpose of the pivot was, of course, to pressure China and stifle its economic and military ascension. The pivot is a controversial policy that has been criticized as being both insufficiently and excessively provocative toward China, but it has undoubtedly brought with it a shift in the United States’ policy on Taiwan.

The United States recognized the ROC as the legitimate government of China for thirty years before shifting to a policy of “strategic ambiguity” in 1979 to improve relations with the PRC. Strategic ambiguity refers to a deliberately contradictory position whereby the United States formally recognizes the PRC’s “One China” policy but indirectly suggests it would intervene to protect Taiwan from a Chinese invasion. This is intended to deter Chinese aggression while also preventing a unilateral declaration of independence from Taiwan.

Even before the pivot was formally declared, the United States had steadily increased its covert support for Taiwanese militarization and independence starting in the 2000s. While Barack Obama’s execution of the pivot was partially interrupted by the emergence of ISIS in 2014, Donald Trump severely escalated tensions with China, dramatically increasing military aid to Taiwan. Trump’s policies have continued uninterrupted under Biden, who explicitly stated that the United States would use military force to defend Taiwan before being contradicted by his advisors.

The situation has only worsened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. Given the relative success of Ukrainian defenders at warding off a quick Russian victory, the United States appears to now be focused on pushing Taiwan into what might be called the “Ukraine model” — an increase in the sales of man-portable anti-air and anti-tank weapons and an urging for the general militarization of Taiwanese society.

China’s “Wolf Warrior” Diplomacy

The United States’ commitment to Taiwan is entirely based on its desire for global hegemony. Outside of small sectors of the population, it is safe to say that the US public’s opinion on Taiwan is relatively marginal. On the other hand, Taiwan is the centerpiece of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. After a period of relative placidity under Hu Jintao, Xi’s ascension to general secretary has initiated a new era of so-called “wolf warrior” Chinese diplomacy, which prioritizes the projection of strength and avenging historical injustices against China.

Jun Tao Yeung argues that, with the ideological and material foundation of communism in shambles ever since the 1970s economic reforms, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has turned to extreme nationalism to legitimatize itself. It has ample historical material to draw on, given China’s chaotic nineteenth and early-to-mid twentieth centuries and the cruel and exploitative treatment it suffered at the hands of Japan and the European and American empires.

As the staging ground of Japan’s invasion of China, the core of the official historical memory of World War II, Taiwan is arguably the crux of this ultranationalism. There’s no doubt that the nationalism on display can be vicious and ugly, and even casual observers have noticed the trend of Western celebrities apologizing for incidentally referring to Taiwan in a way that suggests it is an independent country.

The war in Ukraine demonstrates the dangers of the United States’ stance. In the event that China under Xi is as revanchist and reckless as Putin, which remains unproven, anemic saber-rattling won’t prevent an invasion. It is highly likely that the United States’ constant efforts to encircle and contain China while claiming otherwise are feeding Chinese ultranationalists’ fixation on Taiwan, not tempering it, which in turn raises the pressure for CPC leadership to continue to escalate the situation.

Even if China’s leaders have no genuine interest in invading Taiwan, the best-case scenario is a continuation of the United States and China’s growing cold war — and in the event of an actual hot war, the depth of US commitment is completely untested. Any kind of invasion, much less an outright war, would be catastrophic to the Asia-Pacific region, and in any case, there are plenty of indications that the United States would either leave Taiwan to its fate or even deliberately prolong the conflict.

High-Stakes Games

Michael O’Hanlon, writing for the Brookings Institution, expresses his doubts that the United States could actually help Taiwan. He also observes that the policymakers and diplomats preaching strategic deterrence seem agnostic to the actual outcome of a China-US conflict. Indeed Ivan Kanapathy, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank most of Biden’s China staff are tied to, has written for Foreign Policy praising Biden’s recent “gaffes” as part of a calculated strategy of deterrence, while avoiding any mention of the actual plausibility of US victory.

The truth is that Taiwan is a pawn for both the United States and China to elide the growing contradictions threatening their domestic stability. It is also worth observing that, contra the beliefs of both American policy wonks and PLA officers, the greatest threat to the United States and China is not each other but climate change, which the two nations must work together to reverse.

It is impossible to predict conclusively what actions China will take against Taiwan or how “effective” any US strategy of deterrence will ultimately be. The United States needs to admit to itself that the only way to salvage the situation is diplomacy, coupled with a bold rethinking of its foreign policy toward China.