The US’s Taiwan Policy Could Provoke Another Dumb and Dangerous War

The Taiwan Policy Act has advanced through a Senate committee by a bipartisan vote. It’s the latest instance of the US chipping away at the “One China” policy. The result could be the very war the bill is meant to deter.

Two Taiwanese military corvettes sail during a Navy Drill for Preparedness Enhancement ahead of the Chinese New Year, amid escalating Chinese threats to the island, in Keelung, Taiwan, on January 7, 2022. (Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As one war rages in Europe, ravaging one country while sending economic shockwaves across the globe, the conditions for another war, with equally disastrous potential, might be brewing a continent away. And if it does break out, we will one day be able to look back and say it probably wouldn’t have happened without a series of pointless provocations from leaders in Washington.

Last week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved by a seventeen-five vote the Taiwan Policy Act, called by its authors “the most comprehensive restructuring of U.S. policy towards Taiwan since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979,” which was to set the ground rules for US relations with Taiwan after Washington reestablished diplomatic ties with the mainland. The new bill’s headline provisions entail a change in US policy to treat Taiwan as a “major non-NATO ally” and to that end authorize $6.5 billion worth of military aid for training, equipment, and weapons, as well as prepare a suite of sanctions should a Chinese attack on the country materialize.

The text of the bill was reportedly changed after Joe Biden’s administration expressed concerns that its original language would shred the “One China” policy that’s underlain stable and peaceful relations between Beijing and Washington for decades. Rather than being “designated” a major non-NATO ally, as the bill’s text first put it, Taiwan will now “be treated as though it were designated” the label, and there’s no longer a “direction” to change the name of what is effectively Taiwan’s US embassy but rather a “recommendation.” At the same time, lawmakers have added $2 billion more of military aid to the original sum of $4.5 billion.

These changes haven’t reassured the Chinese government, which still views the bill as a challenge to the One China policy. That careful diplomatic arrangement involves Washington’s recognition of Beijing as the sole legitimate government of all of China while remaining agnostic on the question of which government is sovereign over Taiwan and opposing the island’s absorption back into the mainland by force.

“The one-China principle is the political foundation of China-US relations,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in the wake of the bill’s approval:

If the bill continues to be deliberated, pushed forward or even signed into law, it will greatly shake the political foundation of China-US relations and cause extremely serious consequences to China-US relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

The bill is still a ways away from passage, since it’ll have to pass the whole Senate and the House as well as be signed into law by the president. But further progress is not out of the question, since there’s significant bipartisan buy-in in Washington for a more confrontational US policy toward China. The Taiwan Policy Act was authored by both Democrat Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Republican hawk Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote on the Senate panel. One of its supporters is Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), generally considered one of the more progressive voices in the Senate, who led his own delegation to Taiwan just last month.

According to its proponents, the rationale of the bill is to serve as “credible deterrence” against China. Supposedly, this will reduce the chance of a “military offensive” by Beijing against the island by not “show[ing] weakness in the face of Chinese threats” and “by raising the cost of taking the island by force so that it becomes too high a risk and unachievable.”

But as former US Naval War College professor Lyle Goldstein told Jacobin last month, the bill could easily have the opposite effect, leading Chinese leadership to decide that invading now is its best option, since ever-intensifying US military support for the island may make delaying a potential invasion more costly for it. Even one of the ‘yes’ votes on the Senate committee, Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), explicitly acknowledged this risk. “We’re doing something that’s highly provocative and bellicose,” he said.

This is just the latest Democrat-led provocation this year over China, which has long made clear that it sees the issue of sovereignty over Taiwan as a core national interest over which it is willing to go to war. House Speaker Representative Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) controversial August visit to Taiwan inflamed tensions and sparked Chinese reprisals in the form of threatening military drills and breaking off dialogue with Washington. Since then, at least three more delegations of US officials have replicated Pelosi’s trip, while the US Navy has continued a long pattern of sending warships through Chinese waters.

Needless to say, any decision by Beijing to attack Taiwan will constitute a choice on the part of the Chinese leadership, and that leadership will rightly bear responsibility for what follows. But US leaders will bear the full weight of responsibility for the consequences of their decision to engage in a series of “highly provocative and bellicose” actions that pointlessly raise the likelihood of armed confrontation.

And a Chinese attack on Taiwan would be disastrous, for more than just the inhabitants of the island. We’ve already seen the destabilizing global effects of a great-power confrontation in Europe. It would be magnitudes worse when it comes to China, whose economy is far more central to the global economy on a number of dimensions. Unlike Russia, China is a major lender and the leading trade partner to much of the globe. It’s also far more directly tied to the fortunes of the US economy. (Estimates are nearly a quarter of a million jobs were shed as a result of Donald Trump’s trade war with China, the trade impact of which would be dwarfed by that of any war over Taiwan.)

From a purely strategic standpoint, the US moves are puzzling. Even in normal times, knowledgeable observers in recent years have perceived a high risk that the United States would lose any war with China over Taiwan. Today, those prospects would be even worse as the United States now finds itself heavily committed — in fact close to a cobelligerent  — in a separate war against another major power. (Among other things, that war has seen US weapons reserves depleted by an unprecedented stream of arms shipments to Ukraine.) If a crisis over Taiwan develops, sooner or later these sobering facts will become more generally known to Americans, raising the likelihood that it will be the United States that finds itself deterred from taking military action in the Taiwan Strait. Virtually no one would deny that Taiwan is incomparably more important to the Chinese leadership and public than it is to Americans.

We are not yet at a point of no return in this conflict. But avoiding the worst will mean putting concerted pressure on not just the Biden administration, but on Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well, to chart a drastically different — that is, saner — course on policy toward China. If we fail to do that, the consequences would be incalculable.