The U.S. commitment to Taiwan amid rising tensions

Pressure on the cross-strait relationship between China and Taiwan is at its most intense in years. Beijing likely sees the “one country, two systems” solution as a lost cause. The U.S. is playing a delicate balancing game, but its allies are beginning to speak up.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen rising China Taiwan
Beijing is wary of President Tsai Ing-wen, who has called for Taiwan to be stronger and more united in defending itself © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • The cross-strait status quo is increasingly fragile
  • China, Taiwan and the U.S. are preparing for turbulence
  • A conflict could draw in U.S. allies like Japan and Australia

Of all the repercussions of American forces’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the impact on Taiwan would not be top of mind for most. However, China’s propaganda machine kicked into action almost instantaneously in August, accusing the United States of abandoning an ally and questioning whether the same would happen to Taiwan. China’s hawkish Global Times on August 16 quoted pro-Beijing social media: “Yesterday’s Saigon, today’s Afghanistan, and tomorrow’s Taiwan?” 

Western analysts dismissed the comparison, as did the White House. The U.S. State Department under President Joe Biden described the U.S. commitment to Taiwan as “rock solid.” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen’s response to the matter was more nuanced. While her administration echoed Washington’s dismissal of the Afghanistan-Taiwan comparison, she has called for Taiwan to be stronger and more united in protecting itself, saying it needed to rely less on outside protection.

Indeed, with Beijing increasing its rhetoric on eventual reunification with its “errant province,” more questions are being asked about Taiwan’s ability to defend itself and the role of the U.S. in any cross-strait conflict. Some in Washington, D.C. have even called for the U.S. to abandon its security commitments to Taiwan. This debate is not new but it has intensified recently, also focusing on the broader commitment of U.S. partners to become embroiled in a conflagration centered on Taiwan. Would American allies in the Indo-Pacific like Japan and Australia join the fray?

Fragile status quo

Until recently, the island of Taiwan seemed an indomitable redoubt. A full-fledged amphibious assault by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) across the 150-kilometer Taiwan Strait was a distant, if not impossible, proposition. Today, the PLA appears tantalizingly close to being able to carry out such a mission. In June 2021, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told Congress that China’s goal was to invade and hold Taiwan by 2027.

Taiwan has reaped the benefits of the cross-strait status quo.

In 1979, after the U.S. formally recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which offered enhanced security for Taiwan. Although it is not a security guarantee, the legislation allows the U.S. government to offer Taiwan enough arms to defend itself against a PLA attack. The TRA also contains strongly worded language on U.S. opposition to coercive behaviors that would upset the status quo. In April 2021, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken reiterated the U.S. commitment to the TRA, warning that it would be a serious mistake for anyone to upset the status quo. However, he would not be drawn on the question of military intervention if China were to attack the island.

Over time, Taiwan has reaped the benefits of the cross-strait status quo and enjoyed rapid economic success. U.S. weapons that significantly outclassed those of the PLA underpinned its defense, while more than a million Taiwanese were able to do vast amounts of business on the Chinese mainland. Taiwan abandoned its dictatorship and held its first direct elections in 1996, giving rise to the hyper-democracy it has today.

The island’s politics became a comfortable medium to temper its population from leaning either toward unification with the mainland or declaring formal independence. For both Beijing and Taipei, the issue of reunification was nudged over the horizon. In Taiwan, U.S. defense sales became a political football. The “prickly porcupine” approach to deterrence atrophied as successive governments devoted declining budgets toward defense.

Maintaining the status quo became an increasingly delicate art. The first victory for Taiwan’s independence-oriented Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2000 coincided with the launch of a dramatic PLA modernization program fueled by the fruit of China’s meteoric economic rise. China’s leaders had been struck by the lightning-fast capabilities of U.S. “shock and awe” tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan and demanded that the PLA embark on “leapfrog” defense technology programs and the ability to fight a short, high-intensity war under “informationized” conditions. The election of independence-minded Chen Shui-bian in 2004 alarmed Beijing to such an extent that it enacted an anti-secession law early the following year authorizing the use of force against Taiwan if it were to declare independence.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s embrace of “cooperative competition” with Beijing included the fragile task of offering sufficiently lethal weapons to Taiwan to deter the PLA while not enabling Taiwan to develop its own offensive capabilities. Washington became so nervous about the DPP’s inclinations toward Taiwanese independence that on one occasion during Tsai Ing-wen’s first election campaign, the State Department warned her of the consequences of upsetting the status quo. As president, Ms. Tsai has increased the defense budget and procured more weapons from the U.S., but most experts believe the PLA now has the military edge over Taiwan’s forces, at least in terms of equipment.

The current cross-strait status quo is precarious. All three players – the U.S., China and Taiwan – are positioning themselves for a turbulent period. Even third-party states like Japan and Australia are considering what their role might be in a conflict over the island. The Biden administration has continued the intensification of engagement with Taiwan that President Donald Trump initiated. Recently, former Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris has called for the U.S. to review its policy of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan’s defense, implying a more explicit position might help deter Beijing.

Intense pressure

Deeply suspicious of Ms. Tsai, and in light of the Taiwanese electorate’s drift away from support for eventual reunification with the mainland, Beijing has ratcheted up its pressure on Taiwan. Its first move was to shut down the formal links for cross-strait dialogue with Taipei. Then, it renewed its drive to reduce the number of remaining countries that officially recognize Taiwan, complicating the island’s international affairs. Meanwhile, China has launched a political influence and interference offensive, courting the opposition to the ruling DPP. 

All this presents a danger of a new cross-strait crisis, driven by intensified nationalism in mainland China, as well as a new groundswell of opinion among younger Taiwanese activists and voters in favor of independence.

China could also choose the ‘lawfare’ option, which it used in Hong Kong.

Coercive options for President Xi Jinping include a surprise “blue sky” invasion of Taiwan and a counter-intervention campaign aimed at U.S. forces. Another option could be to take and hold one of Taiwan’s outlying islands in the Taiwan Strait such as Pratas Atoll or Kinmen or Matsu islands off the coast of Fujian province. A rarely considered scenario could be the forceful occupation of Taiwanese-administered Taiping Island in the heart of the South China Sea. China’s militarization of several nearby reclaimed atolls in the Spratly Islands could offer platforms from which to invade and hold that island. A final and softer option could be for President Xi to launch a repeat of what former President Jiang Zemin attempted in 1996 – a blockade of the island using ballistic missiles and perhaps a significant cyberattack.

Short of embarking on a bloody war of occupation followed by a drawn-out insurgency on the island, China could attempt to demonstrate its capability to do so. It could also choose the “lawfare” option – using legislation to exert control – which it recently used to great success in Hong Kong with the National Security Law it imposed there.

China’s new capabilities

A recent Taiwanese annual report to its parliament on China’s military capabilities has painted a grimmer picture than previous years. The document alleges that while the PLA still may not have the ability to invade and hold Taiwan, it has developed a capability to cripple the island’s defenses using electronic attacks. It also concludes that China has developed tactics to disrupt command and control capabilities along the length of the First Island Chain, the archipelago encompassing Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. The assessment also warns that China’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, facilitated by the space-based Beidou positioning system, offer sharper precision strike focus on Taiwanese targets for the PLA. 

The PLA also appears to have developed tools to prevent the U.S. and its allies from intervening in a conflict over Taiwan. The Pentagon highlighted this threat to Congress a decade ago, describing anti-access area-denial (A2AD) weapons systems under development by the PLA. A2AD is the ability to prevent an adversary from gaining access to, and operating within, a theater of operations.

A crucial component of this strategy is China’s growing arsenal of increasingly sophisticated ballistic missiles, many of which have been paraded through Tiananmen Square in recent years. The DF-21 and its variants have been described as “aircraft carrier killer” missiles that can carry multiple independently guided warheads to mount precision strikes on U.S. aircraft carriers and their escorts while on the move.

Flash point Taiwan?

In May this year, The Economist splashed a controversial headline across its cover describing Taiwan as “the most dangerous place on earth.” The concern is well-founded. The PLA has mounted increasingly aggressive air and naval patrols and exercises on Taiwan’s periphery in recent months, prompting speculation of renewed appetite in Beijing to unify with Taiwan sooner rather than later. The Tsai administration has increased defense spending, and in early August the Biden administration approved a $750 million arms deal with potentially more in the pipeline, attracting angry responses from Beijing. 

President Xi may believe the return of the island is within reach during his lifetime.

In July, a Japanese defense white paper mentioned the Taiwan Strait in the context of Japan’s national security for the first time. Japanese leaders have also made public statements along the same lines, enraging Beijing. Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso courted ire from China by stating that Japan and the U.S. would have to defend Taiwan in any outbreak of hostilities. The U.S. may welcome this, but these statements unsettled a large proportion of Japan’s society. A similar debate is underway in Australia but appears nonexistent in Europe despite the EU’s decision to significantly upgrade its engagement with Taiwan.

One element of Beijing’s agitation propaganda is the narrative that the DPP is leading Taiwan inexorably toward a devastating and futile war, questioning the will of its people to sacrifice their lives to defend their island against an assault by their mainland foe. Polls on the subject would indicate otherwise. In a 2020 Taiwan Foundation for Democracy survey, nearly 80 percent of respondents stated that they would fight for Taiwan if China initiates a war of unification – an increase of more than 10 percentage points over the previous year. Taiwanese government polls suggest that the same share of Taiwan’s population outright rejects unifying with China.



President Xi has stuck to a narrative of peaceful unification. However, his more nationalistic and assertive language, coupled with saber-rattling around Taiwan, has prompted some experts to speculate that he believes the island’s return to the motherland may be within reach during his lifetime. In a speech this July marking the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he underlined the determination to realize China’s complete reunification. But seeking to accomplish that goal through force could jeopardize his vision for China’s national rejuvenation to become a strong and prosperous country by 2049.

In November, the CCP will hold a plenary session of the Central Committee. The meeting will serve as a bellwether for the momentous 20th Party Congress next year, where many believe Xi Jinping may break the 10-year leadership cycle and further strengthen his grip on power. China watchers will be on the lookout for President Xi to set a timeline for unification with Taiwan. However, the preferable outcome by far would be adherence to the status quo on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

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