In the mid–1970s, China took the first step towards becoming a great power by adopting an open–door policy. Within a few decades, it had become one of the world‘s emerging economic powers. This transformation was a warning to the United States and its allies in the Far East. When China joined the World Trade Organization in September 2001, international relations experts and global economists saw it as a positive step towards further global and regional stability. They argued that China‘s integration into the global financial system would lead to a shift from a power–seeking structure to a more democratic system. John Mearsheimer (a realist) had a different opinion, believing that if China became a great power, it would seek to change the situation for the worse. This was eventually proven to be true, as after strengthening its economic foundations, China invested heavily in its military sector. During the years in which America was preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, China was becoming the superpower of Pacific Asia. This emergence of China as a superpower is a major threat to America‘s interests and those of its allies in Southeast Asia. America has three strategic partners in the Far East with whom China has political, economic, border, water, and territorial disputes. Since the revolution of 1949, the Republic of China has had a territorial dispute with Taiwan, which remains unresolved.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February of last year, many experts believed that China would follow suit and attempt to annex Taiwan. Though China has yet to take any military action, the possibility of such an attack has been a frequent topic of discussion among Chinese leaders. In response, Joe Biden has been adamant that the United States will defend Taiwan and that its independence should be decided by the Taiwanese people, while rejecting any unilateral moves towards independence. The US foreign policy towards Taiwan has been characterized by “deliberate ambiguity“, and Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, recently called on the US to end this ambiguity. He argued that the events in Ukraine have taught us a lesson, and that there should be no doubt in our commitment to defending Taiwan‘s freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law. He believes that the situation has changed, and that the US must change its strategy accordingly.
Could Taiwan Face a Similar Fate to Ukraine?
In 1949, when the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong took control of Beijing, the leaders of the Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai–shek fled to Taiwan and established a new government in exile. For many years, they represented China in the United Nations. In 1979, the United States signed the ‘One China’ treaty with the communist government, and also recognized Taiwan as a separate state. As a result, the United States Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which provided for the United States to supply Taiwan with the necessary equipment and defend it. Currently, both China and Taiwan consider themselves the rightful heirs of the Chinese land, and both have conflicting territorial claims over each other.
Currently, the situation in Taiwan is very similar to that of Ukraine. Both countries are geographically far from the United States. China is more powerful than Taiwan, just as Russia is more powerful than Ukraine. Neither Ukraine nor Taiwan have any official military allies, so they must fight their enemies alone. Since Russia and China are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and have veto rights, it is difficult to rely on the United Nations for mediation.
The situation surrounding Taiwan is worse than that of Ukraine, and if China were to attack Taiwan, this nation would have no close geographic allies to turn to for support. This means that while NATO and the United States supported Ukraine through Europe, there is no such support for Taiwan. America declared from the start that its military forces would not enter the battlefield in Ukraine, but they have been less clear when it comes to Taiwan. It is uncertain whether Joe Biden or future administrations will use military intervention.
Deterrence and Deliberate Ambiguity
Supporters of the US policy of strategic ambiguity believe that this strategy has been successful in maintaining peace between Taiwan and China for the past five decades. This policy works by having a third party, known as the pivot, create deterrence between two rival countries. This strategy is effective when the pivot country has more decisive military power than the two rival countries, the two rival countries are more willing to start a war than the third country, and both sides act logically and rationally. When these conditions are met, the third party can adjust its power to prevent any disruption of the status quo. In this case, the US has not committed to either China or Taiwan, which has helped to prevent war between the two countries.
Taiwan does not meet the first two conditions. However, China‘s military budget has increased fivefold since 2001, and it now has the world‘s largest missile force, the second–largest navy, and the third–largest air force. According to a 2017 report from the RAND Institute, China already had an equal or higher ranking than the US in five of the nine operational areas related to the Taiwan situation. Therefore, in terms of deterrence theory, the US is no longer a major factor.
Since the US has become involved in the Ukraine crisis, China has conducted a large–scale military exercise near the island of Taiwan. This is believed to be a response to the US military activity following Nancy Pelosi‘s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 and President Biden‘s recent comments on intervention.
The issue of Taiwan has become a matter of importance to both China and the United States. China views Taiwan as part of its territory and a source of national pride. The United States must support Taiwan due to its alliances with Japan and South Korea, as well as its international reputation. If the United States fails to protect Taiwan, China may attack South Korea and Japan. Since the 1970s, the United States has pursued a policy of both supporting a unified China under the Communist Party in Beijing and maintaining Taiwan‘s freedom and independence. This has caused uncertainty about the United States‘ willingness to intervene militarily, leaving both China and Taiwan uncertain about whether the US will join the war.
The United States is attempting to restore the balance in order to prevent the possibility of China attacking Taiwan. Analysts believe that the best defense strategy for Taiwan would be an asymmetric defense strategy, which would involve the island being equipped with anti–aircraft, anti–ship, and anti-vehicle weapons that would weaken the war effort. This would also give Taiwan time to prepare for the arrival of American forces, should military intervention be necessary. To further prevent any potential crises, Joe Biden and the United States should continue to provide military aid and advanced equipment to Taiwan. This would enable the Taiwanese to defend their country and send a message to China that the United States would take action if Taiwan were to be attacked.
Although the likelihood of a conflict between China and Taiwan is currently low, this does not mean that China would not launch an attack on Taiwan. The Chinese government believes that Taiwan will eventually become part of China, so they are currently attempting to reintegrate Taiwan into China through economic and social means.