On May 13, the USS McCampbell guided-missile destroyer sailed through the Taiwan Strait. This passage marked the sixth time a US Navy vessel transited the Strait this year in what has become a routine demonstration of the United States’ commitment to ensuring China’s relationship with Taiwan remains peaceful. The USS McCampbell’s transit comes amidst heightened tension between China and the United States and between China and Taiwan. People in Taiwan are understandably frustrated by China’s mishandling of the coronavirus, obstruction of Taiwan’s bid for World Health Assembly (WHA) observer status, and interference in Taiwan’s January 2020 presidential election. If that were not enough, last week rumors surfaced of a provocative Chinese military exercise planned for August that would simulate an amphibious assault on Taiwan. Because Beijing continues to threaten force, many Americans are eager to send a stronger signal to China’s leadership to deter a military attack on Taiwan. Others are searching for ways to impose costs on China for its early mishandling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some of these observers have begun calling for the United States to send China a message by reestablishing official relations with Taiwan and formally recognizing Taiwan as an independent country. High-profile advocates include former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and the President’s son, Donald Trump Junior. Feel-good policy sentiments have serious implications if implemented without qualifications. If done so, they could ultimately jeopardize US national interests and increase Taiwan’s risk without providing any material benefits. There are at least three essential considerations to weigh when considering the costs and benefits of extending official recognition and formally recognizing Taiwan as an independent country.
Balance of Three Considerations
First, it is essential to anticipate China’s response. Xi Jinping (習近平) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are hypersensitive to words and symbolism. They often care more about optics than they do about facts on the ground. Consider China’s meme censoring, surreal parades, and whistleblower abductions. These efforts demonstrate the lengths to which China’s leadership will go to appear successful, even when it undermines actual effectiveness and sacrifices national resources.
The same applies to Taiwan’s independence. For China’s leadership, the optics matter more than the facts on the ground. Taiwan is entirely self-governing and maintains de facto diplomatic relations with the United States and many other countries through its unofficial embassies. De facto independence is the number one issue for Taiwan and the United States, but it is a distant second for China’s government.
China’s top priority is preventing a declaration of Taiwan independence or formal diplomatic relations that differentiate between Taiwan and mainland China. Either of these actions would violate China’s “One-China” principle and officially separate a part of the territory from China. Xi has publicly vowed never to allow Taiwan’s formal independence. Beijing can live with the status quo for now, even though it never ceases to push unilaterally and pull Taiwan closer into unification. Formal independence or formal recognition would arguably be the most significant loss for the regime in China’s history under the CCP, with the party centenary occurring next year. If the United States and Taiwan cross that line, it would not just create a pretext for Xi to seize Taiwan with military force; it would almost certainly create a requirement for him to do so. Failing to act would be a political death sentence for Xi.
Second, it is important to anticipate Taiwan’s ability to survive the consequences of formal recognition. Taiwan’s military can impose painful costs on China but cannot win. They cannot prevent China’s military from occupying Taiwan. Even with the support of the US military, the tyranny of time, distance, and attrition from China’s anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities leave the serious possibility that China could quickly seize Taiwan before anyone could stop them. China would suffer tremendous human, financial, and material losses and forever damage its relationship with the United States, but it could succeed. Those costs have been sufficient to deter China’s leaders up to this point. However, if the political costs of inaction ever outweighed the political costs of war, China’s leadership could accept the costs of war. Bear in mind that the US loses some serious simulations of Taiwan scenarios.
Third, it is crucial to weigh the potential risk of instigating a Taiwan invasion against the material benefits of formal recognition for the US national interest and Taiwan’s national interest. That is easy to do because there are arguably no tangible benefits. For the United States and Taiwan, formal recognition of Taiwan is a purely symbolic act.
Yet, a Taiwan invasion would carry high costs. For Taiwan, the price is existential. An attack would spell the destruction of infrastructure, the death of civilians, and likely the end of Taiwan’s freedom. For the United States, the price of an invasion would be paid in blood and influence. The US stands ready to defend our partners in Taiwan. Still, it would cost the lives of many members of the US military and, should China succeed, it would permanently damage the credibility of the United States as a security guarantor for other allies and partners in the region.
On balance, formal recognition arguably carries all risk and no tangible reward for either the United States or Taiwan. If the United States wants to strengthen Taiwan’s independence or punish China, there are better alternatives. These options center on improving Taiwan’s defenses for denial or punishment and enhancing the scope and depth of engagement.
Better Ways to Support Taiwan
One option is to encourage Taiwan to develop asymmetric, A2/AD capabilities. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 calls on the US government to provide Taiwan with arms that include asymmetric capabilities that are integrated, mobile, survivable, and cost-effective. Policymakers should follow that guidance.
As former Trump administration DoD strategist Elbridge Colby argues, the United States should encourage different allies to focus on different roles tailored to their military environment and capacity. Front-line allies like Taiwan should focus on capabilities that blunt China’s attacks on their territory and restrict China’s ability to maneuver through nearby airspace and waterways.
For example, Taiwan could consider acquiring capabilities and employing the operational concepts described in the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s “Hard ROC 2.0” concept. Key features include “guerilla sea denial,” which emphasizes unmanned underwater vehicles, midget submarines, land-based coastal defenses, and offensive mining rather than the current emphasis on surface combatants. For surface combatants already on hand, Taiwan could invest in relatively inexpensive countermeasures, like missile decoys, to try to increase their survivability. The “Hard ROC 2.0” concept also features “guerilla air defense,” which calls for a distributed and resilient network of layered ground-based air defense systems that employ camouflage, concealment, deception, and mobility instead of the current focus on fixed-wing air-to-air warfare. The concept’s “layered ground defense” would entail counter-landing operations, followed by hybrid and urban warfare, then guerilla warfare. The layered ground defense requires landmines, mobile firepower like truck-based multiple-launch rocket systems and howitzers, and flexible ground forces capable of operating in an information-denied environment.
This option would also include discouraging Taiwan from wasting resources on small numbers of expensive yet vulnerable high-end platforms. For example, Taiwan should stop procuring amphibious landing helicopter dock ships, M1 Abrams main battle tanks, and fixed-wing fighter jets. These capabilities simply do not fit Taiwan’s security and geographic environment.
A second option is to help Taiwan supplement its deterrent by denial capabilities with “deterrence by punishment” capabilities. Instead of threatening China’s invading forces, these capabilities would seek to deter China by threatening countervalue targets with conventional weapons.
For example, the United States could help Taiwan develop or acquire inexpensive solid-fuel medium-range ballistic missiles, like India’s Agni-IIs or China’s DF-21s, but with upgraded guidance systems for greater accuracy. Once Taiwan assembled a large inventory, it could credibly threaten countervalue targets deep within China with missile salvos that could launch on short notice before a disarming strike arrives. Other countervalue weapons could include cluster-munitions or incendiary weapons. Given that a Chinese invasion is an existential threat, Taiwan could credibly threaten non-military targets that have significant political value to CCP leadership.
In addition to helping Taiwan with either defense by denial or defense by punishment, the United States should clarify its commitment to stand up to aggression. Without giving Taiwan any incentive to deliberately jab at Beijing, administration officials should remove some of the ambiguity about what they think privately; namely, that an unprovoked attack on the people of Taiwan would trigger a US military response.
A third option is to implement the recommendations from the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act and increase engagement between the US and Taiwanese officials at all levels, including cabinet-level officials and general officers. Increasing the frequency and seniority of meetings sends a message to Beijing about US commitment to Taiwan. Still, they could also allow working-level and senior policymakers to flesh out substantive issues in greater depth, including defense contingency planning, intelligence-sharing, cybersecurity, and joint messaging.
The United States could also consider increasing the number of Defense Department career civilian or non-combat military personnel who stay in Taiwan on a rotating basis to serve as trainers, advisors, and liaisons to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. Not only would a larger semi-permanent presence help enhance US-Taiwan cooperation, but it would also reinforce the US deterrent’s credibility by effectively creating a large tripwire force.
The TAIPEI Act
The United States government should also fully implement the TAIPEI Act of 2019. The act is a matter of law, and the US government has a responsibility to execute it. The TAIPEI Act calls on the President and other representatives of the United States to advocate for “Taiwan’s membership in all international organizations in which statehood is not a requirement and in which the United States is also a participant; and for Taiwan to be granted observer status in other appropriate international organizations.” This includes the World Health Assembly (WHA) that governs the World Health Organization (WHO).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan has repeatedly contributed to global health and has more than proved its worthiness of WHA observer status. Taiwan provided the WHO with the earliest warnings about the then-undisclosed COVID-19 outbreak and later the evidence of human-to-human transmission. Taiwan has donated generous amounts of high-quality medical aid to the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, and has provided the world with a remarkably effective model for managing the COVID-19 outbreak. The WHA would benefit from Taiwan’s participation as an observer, and the United States and other like-minded countries should continue to push for Taiwan’s admission.
The TAIPEI Act also calls for the US administration to advocate for Taiwan’s membership or observer status in organizations when the US negotiates “any relevant bilateral engagements between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, including leader summits and the US-China Comprehensive Economic Dialogue.” US policymakers can and should consider doing that as well.
None of these actions constitute formal recognition of Taiwan as an independent country or violate the United States’ “One-China” policy—which provides a less rigid definition of cross-Strait relations than Beijing’s preferred “One-China” principle. Further, these actions would allow Taiwan to contribute to the international system and ensure that other states are invested in Taiwan’s survival.
The United States’ complicated relationship with Taiwan and China is a product of 70 years of evolving US strategy and hard-nosed negotiation. Despite their imperfections, the three joint communiqués (1972, 1979, 1982), Six Assurances, Taiwan Relations Act, and other acts of Congress have prevented armed conflict, preserved Taiwan’s autonomy, and served the US interest.
The foreign policy framework that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger helped to create back in 1972 remains a crucial legacy from which current US policy must evolve. The nearly half-century “One-China” policy needs to be adapted, not abandoned. The US acknowledgment that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China,” was predicated on Beijing’s pledge to resolve the Taiwan question peacefully. Likewise, the US promise to gradually wind down arms support for Taiwan was premised on China’s commitment to a diminution of tension.
In recent years, China has opted for a more assertive policy in general and a more high-pressure strategy against Taiwan in particular. The United States should be doing everything short of outright diplomatic recognition to boost Taiwan’s confidence and capabilities. Accordingly, it is fitting for the United States to make corresponding adjustments to maintain an equilibrium. The US executive branch has a growing toolkit backed by legislative mandates. Mechanisms like adjusted arms sales, enhanced engagement between officials, and advocating for Taiwan’s inclusion in international meetings can deliver that balance.
Make no mistake: Americans are prepared to fight and die to protect Taiwanese from naked aggression. But we should not go so far as provoke a fight just to prove it.
The main point: As Xi Jinping ratchets pressure on Taiwan to stoke nationalist fervor as compensation for economic and political torpor, the United States needs to signal clearly its political, security, and economic support. However, it should stop short of dramatic gestures like restoring full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, as this almost surely hands Xi an ultimatum: use force or lose power.