Losing Taiwan is not an option

One of the mementos from my former life as a naval officer is a paperweight that I display proudly on my desk marked “Naval Support Activity Republic of China” with an outline of Taiwan in the background. It’s a subtle reminder that, within my lifetime, Taiwan was once viewed as the Republic of China and that the United States had a special relationship with this bulwark of democracy in the far east.

In retrospect, the United States was extremely naïve in assuming that, if we allowed Communist China into the community of nations, we could remake that repressive regime in our own image. It is no secret that the People's Republic of China (PRC), through both economic and military power, has a strategic goal of achieving world hegemony. Yet despite this, American corporations continue to kowtow to the Chinese communists while at the same time the PRC steals our intellectual property, technology, and military secrets as we sit idly by and watch the decline of our own nation.

Unfortunately, by the stroke of a pen, the 1979 U.S.-P.R.C. Joint Communique switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. In the Joint Communique, the United States recognized the Government of the PRC as “the sole legal government of China, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” The Joint Communique also stated that the United States will maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. However, we are committed to assisting Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability.

With that in mind, deterrence of Chinese aggression against Taiwan must be a stated goal and a commitment of any responsible administration. To simply look the other way and pretend it is not happening is negligent. History has proven time and time again that any attempt to placate or appease an international bully only emboldens them. As one of my older in-laws would say “you cannot change a tiger’s stripes.” Understanding this, what can we do as a nation to defend our former ally’s sovereignty?

Admiral Philip Davidson, in his outgoing congressional testimony as head of the United States Indo-Pacific Command last spring, estimated that “China would invade Taiwan in six years.” China hands now refer to this somber prediction as the “Davidson Window” and urge us to act now before it is too late.

Image: The Taiwan Strait. Public domain.

Whatever we as a nation are going to do to deter Chinese aggression must begin now; it must be strategic; and it must be applied at a steady strain regardless of the inevitable setbacks as world events change the geopolitical landscape (e.g., what we are now witnessing in Ukraine). Chinese leaders have not attempted to forcibly occupy Taiwan up until this point simply because they are not confident that the costs that they will incur both during and after an invasion outweigh the potential gain.

Our national leadership, through continued naval presence and robust military assistance, must ensure that the PRC unmistakably reaches this same conclusion time and time again. Once the PRC senses a real or even perceived weakness or a lack of resolve on the part of the United States the game is over.

First, to accomplish this, we need leverage. The United States must initiate and lead a broad coalition of nations to credibly convince the Chinese that crossing the Taiwan Straits would be too costly for them to launch a full-scale invasion.

Second, the United States must prepare Taiwan to withstand and then prevail in a Chinese-initiated missile attack. Taiwan’s defenses must be able to withstand the damage from a first strike and be able to respond in kind. In addition, U.S. bases and facilities in the Pacific such as Guam and Hawaii must be hardened to withstand the inevitable retaliatory strike.

Third, the United States must stress to the PRC our resolve and nuclear deterrence capability so that there can be no doubt of a Chinese misunderstanding. The use of tactical nuclear weapons against U.S. forces would result in an outcome not favorable to the PRC—the risk would not be worth the potential gain.

History time and time again has shown that initiating armed conflict results in a tragic outcome. We can hope the PRC has taken that lesson aboard but it is not worth the risk.

In the end, I suspect we will look the other way and express “grave concern” while the PRC takes over Taiwan and goes on to dominate the Pacific rim and eventually surpass the United States. Meanwhile, our myopic national leadership will remain focused on domestic issues “threatening our democracy.”

No matter how you slice it, the defense of Taiwan is the ultimate Hobson’s Choice – damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But in the end, he who hesitates is lost.

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