Faced with the possibility of another Taiwan Strait crisis, more and more observers in Washington and elsewhere are making the case for an unambiguous US commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. This essay contends that the United States has options between total commitment and abandonment. There is a prudent middle way in which the United States, while reserving the right to intervene if it so chooses, focuses on helping Taiwan to defend itself while building a menu of options for deterring and punishing Beijing’s aggression without fighting.
This essay first argues that the case for Taiwan’s strategic significance is often overdrawn. Any Chinese attack would be a tragedy and a crime, and the United States should make clear that such a step is unacceptable and would destroy the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitious development plans. But it need not destroy the US position in Asia or produce a wave of successful Chinese adventurism. The essay then points to the intense dangers of a war for the United States, including outright loss, a crippled military, large-scale attacks on the homeland, and nuclear escalation. We make the case for an alternative to the binary choice of all-out war or desertion: Taking some additional risk to help Taiwan prepare for its own defence, combined with the development of multiple options short of outright war for punishing China in the event of an attack.
Published in The Lowy Institute.