Relations among the United States, Taiwan, and China have often been described as a triangle. It is difficult to discuss any particular dyad—US-Taiwan, US-China, or Taiwan-China—without at least recognizing the presence of a third side. This framing has always been an oversimplification, but it is a useful one, perhaps no more so than when considering the security domain. US-Taiwan security ties exist largely due to China’s threat to Taiwan. American policies significantly shape cross-Strait security dynamics. American and Chinese mutual threat assessments are driven in large part by each country’s posture vis-à-vis Taiwan. A time may finally be coming, however, when it will be appropriate to retire the triangle metaphor.
What Has Changed?
The United States has never been the only country beyond the Taiwan Strait with an interest in maintaining stability there. But for at least the last four decades, the rest of the world was more than happy to let Washington take responsibility for keeping the peace. This was reasonable. Until fairly recently, the cross-Strait military balance favored Taiwan and there was arguably no Sino-American military balance worth speaking of, with American military capabilities vastly superior to those of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). War was thus unlikely.
That favorable distribution of military power no longer holds. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND, 中華民國國防部) assesses that the PLA can already seize offshore islands, achieve air superiority within the first island chain (a string of island nations enclosing the East and South China Seas), carry out air and maritime blockades of Taiwan, target Taiwan with increasingly lethal and accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, and significantly complicate foreign intervention in the event of a cross-Strait conflict. US Department of Defense and Defense Intelligence Agency assessments likewise paint a picture of an increasingly capable PLA. Describing US war games about the Taiwan Strait, RAND’s David A. Ochmanek told Real Clear Investigations that the United States (Blue Team) has “had its ass handed to it for years […] For years, the Blue Team has been in shock because they didn’t realize how badly off they were in a confrontation with China.”
Over the past five years, Beijing has launched an unrelenting pressure campaign against Taipei. China has poached diplomatic allies, employed economic leverage, isolated Taipei on the global stage, interfered in Taiwan’s democratic processes, and resorted to frequent military intimidation. During the last 15 months, however, Taiwan’s ongoing exclusion from the World Health Organization may have led countries around the world to conclude that their own national security interests are harmed by Beijing’s cross-Strait policies (see, for example, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China’s #LetTaiwanHelp campaign). Meanwhile, near-daily PLA flights into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), occasional crossings of the median line, and other military exercises designed to menace Taiwan have raised concerns around the world about stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Those concerns have arisen at a moment when numerous foreign multinational corporations—auto manufacturers in particular—have become acutely aware of their reliance on Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing sector. Although Taiwan’s economy has been an important player in global trade networks for several decades, it has now become a central node in the global economy, especially due to its dominance of the semiconductor manufacturing industry. 92 percent of the world’s most advanced chip manufacturing capacity is in Taiwan. In 2020, Taiwan accounted for 63 percent of global foundry revenue, with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC, 台灣積體電路製造股份有限公司) alone responsible for 54 percent. TSMC manufactures approximately 50 percent of all semiconductors worldwide. In recent months, however, a demand surge combined with supply disruptions (in Taiwan and elsewhere) has led to a critical chip shortage. In April, the New York Times reported that “the chip shortage and other supply chain snarls curtailed production by 1.3 million vehicles in the first three months of the year, according to IHS Market.”
Automakers, however, are relatively minor customers for chipmakers. Taiwan’s chips power consumer electronics of all kinds, from smartphones to TVs, and from laptops to Internet of things (IoT)-connected devices. If invading extraterrestrials wanted to hobble the global economy, wiping out Taiwan’s foundries would be a good place to start. Increased appreciation for Taiwan’s centrality in global supply chains is driving greater foreign interest in Taiwan Strait stability.
Japan Steps Up
Last month, President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga became the first American and Japanese leaders since 1969 to publicly and jointly raise concerns about security in the Taiwan Strait. That followed a similar 2+2 statement following the visit to Tokyo of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. During that same visit, Austin and his Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, agreed “to closely cooperate in the event of a military clash between China and Taiwan,” according to Kyodo News.
Although some analysts have suggested that Tokyo is merely reacting to American pressure, there have been internal demand signals in Japan as well. Last December, as the Biden team was gearing up to take office, Japanese Deputy Defense Minister Yasuhide Nakayama raised concerns about Chinese aggression toward Taiwan. “So far, I haven’t yet seen a clear policy or an announcement on Taiwan from Joe Biden,” Nakayama told Reuters, further stating that “I would like to hear it quickly, then we can also prepare our response on Taiwan in accordance.” Nakayama described “China and Taiwan” as a “red line in Asia” and asked, “How will Joe Biden in the White House react in any case if China crosses this red line?”
In February, Masahisa Sato, who leads the Liberal Democratic Party’s Foreign Affairs Division, announced a new “Taiwan project team.” According to Nikkei Asia, the team will “discuss policies related to the island and how Japan can coordinate with the US in the security field.” Ideas raised in advance of the Taiwan project team’s first meeting include a Japanese version of America’s Taiwan Relations Act and a Japan-Taiwan 2+2 dialogue.
It is difficult to predict where this will all lead. While Japan’s business community must be concerned about threats to the semiconductor supply, it is not eager to rock the boat with China; instead, it acts as a counterbalance to Japan’s security hawks. Even so, with the United States looking for its allies to contribute more to collective security—and with elements of the Japanese security apparatus eager to do so—it seems likely that Japan will embrace a more robust role in maintaining cross-Strait peace, even if the contours of that role have yet to be clearly defined.
Mateship and the Taiwan Question
In a podcast recorded in March, the US chargé d’affaires in Australia, Michael Goldman, made a somewhat surprising admission. “And when you look at [allied] strategic planning,” he told Australian National University’s Rory Medcalf, “it covers the range of contingencies that you’ve mentioned, of which Taiwan is obviously an important component.” Although it is probably safe to assume that such consultations are not new, it is unusual for an American diplomat to discuss them publicly, suggesting either that Canberra is growing comfortable with publicizing its role in the Taiwan Strait or that consultations on Taiwan contingencies have risen closer to the top of the bilateral agenda—or both.
One should be careful not to assign too much importance to a podcast recording by a career Foreign Service Officer (who is not a political appointee). More recent reporting, however, suggests Canberra is indeed watching developments in the Taiwan Strait quite closely. According to the Australian Financial Review, “the Australian government has sharply escalated its internal preparations for potential military action in the Taiwan Strait.” Serious defense planning is apparently underway:
Sources have told AFR Weekend that the Australian Defense Force was planning for a potential worst-case scenario if the United States and China clashed over Taiwan, prompting debate over the scope and scale of Canberra’s contribution to what would be an unprecedented conflict in the region.
Options include contributing to an allied effort with submarines, as well as maritime surveillance aircraft, air-to-air refuellers and potentially Super Hornet fighters operating from US bases in Guam or the Philippines, and even Japan.
As in Japan, Australia’s business community traditionally acts as an offset to security hawks, though it has been largely unsuccessful in constraining the Morrison government’s approach to China over the last year. Also as in Japan, Australia is responding both to external (i.e., American) and internal demand signals. In the case of both allies, it is true that the United States is seeking more direct cooperation regarding the Taiwan Strait—but it is also true that the United States is knocking on an open door.
Beyond the Pacific Allies
Japan and Australia may be the most forward-leaning of American partners on the security front, but there is also reason to think that their evolving approaches to the Taiwan Strait are leading indicators of where others may head. As Sino-Indian relations have cratered over the last year, India’s ties with Taiwan flourished. India may have even donated COVID-19 vaccines to Paraguay to keep that country from abandoning its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in pursuit of Chinese vaccines.
Meanwhile in Europe, the European Union has released its “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.” The document promises that “the EU will further develop partnerships and strengthen synergies with likeminded partners and relevant organizations in security and defense.” The strategy places a particular emphasis on maritime security and indicates that the EU will “assess the opportunity to establish Maritime Areas of interest in the Indo-Pacific.” Across the English Channel, the British government has also released a new strategy document titled Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. The document includes a section on the United Kingdom’s “Indo-Pacific tilt,” which describes the region as “critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies.” The strategy commits the UK to adopt a more active security role in the Indo-Pacific, including by “strengthening defense and security cooperation” and by enhancing its military presence there.
In both cases, Taiwan goes unmentioned, but it may just be a matter of time until the UK and the EU begin more actively considering whether and how they can contribute to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Given that it is arguably the hottest flashpoint in Asia, continuing to leave that question entirely to others would be a mistake.
The Internationalization of Security in the Taiwan Strait
China, Taiwan, and the United States will undoubtedly remain the dominant players in the Taiwan Strait in the coming months and years. They will not, however, be the only relevant players. This has always been true to an extent—Japan and the United States, for example, included an oblique reference to Taiwan in their 1997 defense cooperation guidelines—but other parties may begin to take on a more prominent role in contributing to cross-Strait stability.
Over the long-term, this internationalization of security in the Taiwan Strait is likely to be a stabilizing factor in the region. China will find it more politically difficult to take action against Taiwan, and there may be more opportunities to redress the cross-Strait military balance—that is, to achieve a more favorable distribution of military power between China on the one hand and the United States and its allies on the other. It might also create more opportunities for Taiwan to diversify its economic partners, thus weakening one aspect of China’s leverage vis-à-vis Taiwan. In the meantime, the United States should continue raising Taiwan in bilateral settings with partners and allies and, where feasible, facilitate Taiwan’s deeper engagement with a wide variety of partners around the world.
The main point: China, Taiwan, and the United States will remain the dominant players in the Taiwan Strait, but going forward, they will not be the only relevant players. Over the long-term, this internationalization of security in the Taiwan Strait is likely to be a stabilizing factor in the region.