Whither Taiwan

July 28, 2021 Updated: August 1, 2021

Commentary

As Beijing erases freedom in Hong Kong, disrespects the visiting U.S. deputy secretary of state, and vastly increases the number of its nuclear missile silos, the question of the fate of Taiwan inevitably comes to mind.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Xi Jinping is making no secret of the fact that bringing Taipei under Beijing’s authority is perhaps the CCP’s fondest desire. By doing so, Xi would effectively redraw China’s borders to equal those of the Qing empire, whose collapse helped spawn the Party. This would make Xi perhaps the greatest Chinese Communist hero of all time, even surpassing Mao Zedong and certainly assuring himself an embalmed presence in Tiananmen Square next to the great helmsman.

What stands in the way of Xi essentially repeating in Taiwan what he’s doing now by crushing Hong Kong? Taiwan isn’t a nuclear power. It doesn’t field a massive people’s army, nor does it possess a naval fleet of significant size. Nor does it have formal defense alliances with other states. The two things working in its favor are a rugged terrain that makes invasion from the outside difficult and a quasi-formal defense assurance (not alliance) from the United States.

The U.S. Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 reads: “The United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

Thus, the United States isn’t formally committed to defending Taiwan in the event of an attack from mainland China by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

For many years, this situation didn’t matter. The U.S. Seventh Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan, patrolled the Western Pacific and the South China Sea and effectively assured the safety of Taiwan in the absence of any significant Chinese navy or air force. Indeed, in the 1990s, when China made threatening moves toward Taiwan, President Clinton sent an aircraft carrier attack group through the Straits of Taiwan to warn Beijing that it had best back away from any military action, which it promptly did.

In recent years, however, the build-up of the PLA navy and air force, as well as of its ground forces, and Beijing’s seizure of and building of military structures upon South China Sea islets and reefs has significantly changed the situation. Included in this build-up has been a more aggressive posture by Beijing toward Taiwan, with PLA naval and air forces routinely flying and sailing in threatening patterns and even sometimes crossing into Taiwanese air and sea space.

In the past few years, there have been reports that in the “war games” that are often conducted by the U.S. military to test how their forces would perform in a possible defense of Taiwan, they don’t perform well. Indeed, it has been reported that more often than not, the U.S. forces lose to China in the war games.

Of course, games will never be the same as the real thing. But this turn of the apparent advantage in the strategic situation of Taiwan has elicited increasing suggestions in Washington that the United States should back away from any commitment to defend Taiwan and that it should completely change its strategy from defending the First Island Chain (Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore, and Straits of Malacca) to defending the Second Island Chain (Japan, Iwo Jima, Palau, and Sunda Strait). Others argue for the release of a clear statement of U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack.

USS John S McCain
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) conducts a routine Taiwan Strait transit on Feb. 4, 2021. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda/U.S. 7th Fleet)

Thus, the key question today is: “What must be done?”

It’s important to understand that a failure of the United States to defend Taiwan would greatly undermine the credibility of formal U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, and NATO. On the other hand, those alliances mean that those countries also have a strong interest in maintaining the effective independence of Taiwan. Thus, they too should seek to support Taiwan in various ways, such as helping to upgrade its forces and by committing actively to cooperate with a U.S. defense of Taiwan should the necessity arise. The weight of all these countries is greater than that of China, and it must be made clear to Beijing that an attack would result in a unified front against it.

At the same time, Taiwan must seriously prepare to defend itself. In World War II, Germany had plans to invade and conquer Switzerland. Yet, it never did so, despite the fact that Switzerland’s neutrality made Germany’s defense of Italy and Austria much more difficult. Germany didn’t invade because the Swiss had heavily fortified their already rugged country. Every mountain pass would have been a mighty battle for the Germans. It would have been like fighting with a porcupine. Similarly, Taiwan is a rugged country. It must now make itself into a porcupine.

It’s also very important to remember that while Xi Jinping is very powerful, he’s also exposed. If his policies fail, he will, at the very least, be deposed and perhaps even executed. Indeed, if the failure is big enough, the power of the CCP itself could be at stake. Under any circumstances, attacking Taiwan would be a gamble. Taiwan, the United States, and the rest of the free world must make it clear to Xi that it would be too much of a gamble, even for him.

Clyde Prestowitz is an Asia and globalization expert, a veteran U.S. trade negotiator, and a presidential adviser. He was the leader of the first U.S. trade mission to China in 1982 and has served as an adviser to presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. As counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, Mr. Prestowitz headed negotiations with Japan, South Korea, and China. Mr. Prestowitz’s newest book is “The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership,” published in January 2021.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Clyde Prestowitz
Clyde Prestowitz
Clyde Prestowitz is an Asia and globalization expert, a veteran U.S. trade negotiator, and presidential adviser. He was the leader of the first U.S. trade mission to China in 1982 and has served as an adviser to Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama. As counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, Prestowitz headed negotiations with Japan, South Korea, and China. His newest book is "The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership," which was published in January 2021.