On October 1, the People’s Republic of China sent forty warplanes over the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), an action described as the “most serious provocation in over 40 years” between the two countries. While the planes did not enter Taiwan’s sovereign airspace, this event sparked a period of heightened rhetoric and further threats that have only increased tensions in a volatile region. The Biden administration now faces a difficult balancing act; Chinese aggression warrants an American response to defend a key ally, but it must be in a way that does not risk the triggering of a military incident.
Modern tensions stem from two competing views of the sovereignty of Taiwan. On the one hand, the majority of Taiwanese citizens view their island as a sovereign nation. They elected President Tsai Ing-wen to a second term in 2020, with a “record-breaking 8.2 million votes.” Her party supports eventual official independence from China. On the other hand, China considers Taiwan “a breakaway province” ever since the island began staging democratic elections in 1996. China has not ruled out the use of force in order to bring Taiwan back under full control.
Advantages and Disadvantages
China has the sheer military power to destabilize the region through future military actions like invading Taiwan. They now possess Asia’s largest army, air force, navy, and missile force, and outnumber Taiwanese forces by at least a factor of ten. That gap continues to grow; indeed, China outspends Taiwan 25:1 in military spending.
However, Taiwan has some key defensive advantages that could delay the coming of a major armed incident. Dubbed “Fortress Taiwan,” any kind of foreign invading force must cross the Taiwan Strait, a body of water known for its typhoons and twenty-foot waves. If the force does cross, they only have twelve beaches on which they can stage an amphibious assault, due to Taiwan’s cliffs and mudflats. A limited number of landing sites means that Taiwan can really shore up their defenses in small areas.
Biden’s Balancing Act
China continues to grow stronger as it vastly outspends Taiwan and other neighbors insofar as defense. But American intelligence officers see no signs of an imminent invasion. In the same vein, Taiwanese defense minister Chiu Kho-cheng has claimed that China will have the “full ability” to invade the island by 2025, giving Taiwan—and their allies—three years or so to make further preparations.
Incentives to Defend Taiwan
With the clock possibly ticking, the U.S. must recognize that it is in its interest to defend Taiwan. Politically, an effort to defend the island could reaffirm the U.S.’ commitment to preserving other democracies, as well as restore its global reputation and influence after it diminished throughout the Trump administration. In addition, Taiwan is the U.S.’ ninth largest trading partner, with trade valued at $105.9 billion in 2020. Both countries also cooperate within numerous multilateral organizations: the World Trade Organization, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, the Asian Development Bank, and others. Taiwan is a close American ally that deserves protection.
What should the U.S. Do?
The U.S. should lend a hand in creating a stronger deterrence against the threat of a Chinese invasion. But herein lies the main problem: how can the U.S. do so without sparking a full-blown conflict? China has already showed their sensitivity towards any kind of U.S. involvement in this dispute. Just sending U.S. lawmakers to Taiwan caused Chinese defense ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei to reiterate that China would “resolutely smash any interference by external forces.”
What should the U.S. do? I argue American officials should search for impactful but nonaggressive ways to assist Taiwan, continuing to build deterrence “without sticking our finger in Beijing’s eye.” Working with Taiwan and other allies to supplement the island’s natural defenses with a network of mines, drones, and missile zones would make a successful landing almost impossible, without having to commit troops or build bases near Chinese territory. The Biden administration could also employ soft power methods to tie the U.S. and China closer together, like the three-hour virtual meeting on November 15 between President Biden and President Xi that did “establish a dialogue… allowing for a return to a more constructive, stable relationship.” Increasing communication may act as a safety valve against future tensions that may arise.
The situation between Taiwan and China continues to challenge the Biden administration. China’s sheer number of armed forces gives them the potential to spark armed conflict and destabilize one of the most important regions in the world in terms of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. does have incentives protect Taiwan, and must do so, but in a way that does not provoke further action from China. By aiding Taiwan in defensive constructions while strengthening communication channels with Beijing, Washington may be able to avert a crisis.