Understanding why Taiwan is a key U.S. ally
China may be on the verge of invading Taiwan.
There is considerable evidence that Beijing is moving toward an attack. First, we have noted how the threat to Taiwan is growing, as evinced by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s military exercises around Taiwan.
We saw the first (Joint Fire Strike) in August 2022 and the second (Joint Anti-Air Raid) in April, and we anticipate a third (Joint Island Landing) this fall, all of which are designed to prepare for the invasion of Taiwan.
Second, senior U.S. military officers have warned of an invasion in the near term. The leaked memorandum in January from Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of the Air Mobility Command, to his command was vitally important. Gen. Minihan stated that while he hoped he was wrong, he believes the U.S. will be at war with China by 2025.
This is because Mr. Xi achieved his third term at the 20th Party Congress in October and created his war council in 2022, while Taiwan’s presidential election in 2024 will provide the immediate reason while the U.S. is distracted in its own presidential campaign season. For Gen. Minihan, Mr. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are aligned for conflict in 2025. This memorandum is important because, first, it echoes what other senior officers have said.
In March 2021, Adm. Philip Davidson, then commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said that China would attack Taiwan before 2027. In October 2022, the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael Gilday, warned that rather than a 2027 window for Chinese aggression, it may come in a 2023 window. The former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, has warned many times against the impending threat from China.
Thus, Gen. Minihan’s opinion dovetails with some of the senior military leaders who have publicly expressed their opinion that aggression might come in the near term, which is eminently reasonable given Mr. Xi’s ambitions.
Second, Gen. Minihan’s remarks suggest the U.S. will fight to defeat Chinese aggression against Taiwan were it to occur. That is a positive development for deterrence of Chinese aggression. The stronger U.S. deterrent capabilities are, the more likely China is deterred from an attack against a partner such as Taiwan or an ally like Japan.
Third, the memorandum offers realism regarding the rapidity with which the United States may be at war with China. That is a welcome assessment and in direct contrast to other senior military officers and Department of Defense civilian leaders who discounted the China threat year after year, and many of whom favored engagement with the Chinese military.
Given the precariousness of the situation, it is essential that Americans understand the importance of Taiwan in advancing its national security interests.
First, Taiwan has a robust and vibrant economy, including producing computer chips for the world market. The current health of the U.S. economy depends on Taiwanese chip production.
Second, it occupies critical geopolitical territory that serves to contain the Chinese navy, provide potential bases for strikes against military facilities and mine Chinese ports, should war come, and serve as an outpost for the U.S. intelligence community.
Third, Taiwan shows that China might have been a democracy if the Chinese Communist Party had not defeated the Chinese Nationalists in 1949. Taiwan is a flourishing democracy that demonstrates that China could be as well if freed from the tyranny of the CCP. Given the invasion of Taiwan could occur at any time and might come as soon as this year, drastic actions must be taken to deter the Chinese.
Fourth, Taiwan is a symbol for U.S. allies of its willingness to resist the CCP’s expansion. It was, like West Berlin, such an icon during the Cold War, and it remains so today.
Fifth, Taiwan was an important ally during the Cold War — this shared history must be remembered now to understand how valuable Taiwan was to U.S. national security.
The alliance relationship between Taipei and Washington during the Cold War was driven by shared strategic goals in the fight against the Soviet Union and Communist China. During that period, the U.S. had extended deterrence commitments to Taiwan, as it did to all its key allies — to deter communist aggression and global expansion.
Likewise, during the Cold War, Taiwan allowed the U.S. to store nuclear weapons that would be used against China in World War III to collect intelligence against the Chinese mainland, was an important logistical hub, and was an unsinkable aircraft carrier to strike targets in China. Few Americans remember that Taiwanese pilots flew overflights of China using advanced aircraft, including RB-57s and U-2s, and clashed repeatedly with Chinese aircraft and vessels.
Moreover, Taiwan contributed to the U.S. war in Vietnam and worked covertly with U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. This cooperation included the employment of transport and training units and the use of commando units against North Vietnam targets. In sum, Taiwan was a critical ally in the Cold War until the Carter administration recognized Beijing in 1979.
In the new Cold War with China, the U.S. should once again work with Taiwan to deter a Chinese attack. We recommend two major steps that the Biden administration should take now to maximize deterrence of such an attack.
It is time for the United States to recognize Taiwan as a state and extend deterrence to it as it did during most of the Cold War. This act would remove any ambiguity that Beijing may have regarding a U.S. response should China attack.
To augment deterrence, the U.S., allies such as Australia and Japan and partners like India should deploy air, sea and land forces to the island to increase Taipei’s ability to defend itself and to serve as a nuclear tripwire. As part of that force, the U.S. should once again deploy B-61 tactical nuclear weapons to the region, including Taiwan, to deter an attack or escalation to higher levels of conflict if deterrence fails.
It is imperative that the people and government of Taiwan be educated about the totality of the threat they face from China.
As such, an education campaign regarding how the CCP has committed genocide against its own citizens in Xinjiang, suffocated the people of Hong Kong, and brutally occupied Tibet is essential for the people of Taiwan to hear from the White House.
Important measures are needed now to deter Mr. Xi’s probable aggression against Taiwan. Were he to seize Taiwan, he would gravely damage the U.S. economy, free China’s access to the Pacific, and sow profound doubts about U.S. alliance commitments for NATO states, as well as Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
Mark Twain said history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. The U.S. must restore Taiwan to the position and national security role it had for most of the first Cold War. These are bold actions and compel us to remember that deterrence of an attack is far superior to war.
• James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is director of China policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the co-author with Lianchao Han of “Understanding the China Threat.”