Would the American Public Really Defend Taiwan?
If 2020 marked a record year in the history of Sino-American relations, the watchword of the Indo-Pacific was “Taiwan.” Tensions between China and Taiwan reached their highest point since the 1996 Crisis: China displayed the largest show of force in the Strait in 25 years, U.S. policymakers are openly rethinking “strategic ambiguity”, and cabinet-level officials for the first time in a generation have visited the island. Headlines routinely questioned if this was the year the mainland would attempt to retake Taiwan.
It is essential that the United States maintain Taiwanese independence. Taiwan represents a lynchpin of America’s Indo-Pacific security strategy, and increasingly, its overall strategy to contain China’s hegemonic ambitions. Taiwan is the “crown jewel” of the First Island Chain; its defense against mainland invasion is viewed as necessary to retarding Chinese militarization of the Indo-Pacific and preventing China from achieving its stated goal of eventual reunification. As economic decoupling continues under President-Elect Biden, Taiwan’s status as a reliable and secure destination for critical supply chains will grow as well. So, too, will the likelihood that China will increase military aggression against Taiwan, and most importantly, the probability that the American military will be expected to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf.
Any sustained military action taken to defend Taiwan will require the domestic support of the American public. The doctrine of “strategic ambiguity” and absence of a legally binding security guarantee effectively makes strong domestic support the de facto backbone upholding the credibility of America’s defense of Taiwan. This support is critical both to preventing and winning war. China knows that an attack on Japan is tantamount to an attack on the U.S. by virtue of America’s security guarantee; this formal treaty is thus a fixed and immovable pillar of our deterrent credibility. The lack of such a firm defense commitment to Taiwan conversely makes our deterrent posture more fluid than fixed, susceptible to the ebbs and flows of domestic political considerations and shifting public support. Whichever American President is misfortunate enough to govern during a Chinese invasion of Taiwan will have little formal basis upon which justify American military intervention; instead, he or she will have to rely on the public’s willingness to commit troops and expend resources over an unknown period of time.
Strengthening the public’s commitment to defending Taiwan is critical to bolstering our deterrent credibility in the Indo-Pacific against an increasingly expansive and adventuristic China. China must not think that the U.S. will to fight is anything but durable and sustained, immune to partisan fracture or the pressures of prolonged conflict. Hardening our deterrent resolve is a critical step in minimizing the risk of open conflict in the first place.
It is encouraging that the credibility of American’s Indo-Pacific deterrence posture, and in particular its willingness to defend Taiwan, is bolstered by strong existing domestic public support for upholding defense commitments. A recent survey by the Chicago Council found that 59% of Americans believed East Asian security alliances benefit either mostly the U.S. or both the U.S. and allies equally. A striking 41% of Americans expressed their support for military action to defend the Taiwan from Chinese invasion, with this number ballooning to 85% when asked about willingness to defend a U.S. ally militarily in general. These findings are mirrored by a recently published CSIS study, which indicated similarly strong support for defending Taiwan: respondents reported a mean score of approximately 6.7 on a scale of 1 to 10 when asked about their willingness to defend Taiwan from Chinese invasion.
The persistence of this sustained American appetite for “active military engagement” in faraway lands is consistent with overall findings that Americans by and large still prefer that the United States take an active role in world affairs rather than pursue a more isolationist path: the Chicago Council found that overall support for an engaged foreign policy increased nine points from 61% in 1998 to 70% in 2018. More than two-thirds of Americans expressed support for having long-term military bases in Japan and South Korea, two steadfast Indo-Pacific allies alongside Taiwan. On the whole, respondents ranked the United States as still the most influential country in the world, suggesting that Americans believe their country has the capacity to advance its interests abroad.
Increasing public awareness of the “China Challenge” and reenforcing the critical need to defend Taiwan requires actions by policymakers and thought leaders at all levels of civil society. The Biden administration must continue the reorientation of American policy towards great power competition started under President Trump and make an “all of government” approach a permanent fixture of our institutions. This will demonstrate that challenging China’s hegemonic ambitions is bipartisan in nature and not an exclusive platform of any one party. The U.S. Congress must use its oversight function to highlight China’s continued human rights abuses, unfair trade practices, and increasingly aggressive influence operations in a public forum: these issues are comparatively salient to the general public and together illustrate the importance of challenging Chinese aggression.
The recently passed Taiwan Assurance Act is a significant step towards forging closer political, military, economic, and people-to-people ties between the United States and Taiwan. But the incoming administration must continue to deepen these ties further. Just as the China threat must be framed in an accessible manner to the general public, so too must the importance of partnership with Taiwan. The position of American Institute in Taiwan Director should be upgraded to require senatorial advice and consent. Institutes of higher education should be encouraged to establish ties with Taiwanese partner institutions while reconsidering the consequences of such partnerships within China. Legislation providing for the establishment of Taiwanese education centers (“Sun Yat-sen Institutes”, perhaps), would introduce a whole generation of American students to the cultural and linguistic riches of the island.
Most importantly, Congress must pass legislation that induces the redirection of supply chains from China to Taiwan and other Indo-Pacific partners. In practice this may be accomplished by a mixture of “carrots” and “sticks” which incentivize relocation. Reducing American and allied reliance on Chinese supply chains and investing in partner economies will reduce vulnerability to Chinese economic coercion and make our deterrence posture more effective. Stronger bilateral ties will help to increase positive domestic perceptions of Taiwan and may also increase willingness to defend the country if necessary. The goal must be for Americans to view our relationship with Taiwan in terms of a “special relationship”; the United Kingdom of the Indo-Pacific.
On an operational level, the recent passage of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative represents the most comprehensive upgrade of regional deterrent capability in a generation, sending another strong signal to revisionist China. But this is not enough. A greater emphasis on increasing offensive and defensive capabilities in the information warfare battlespace is necessary to mitigate potential Chinese attempts to influence domestic public opinion and erode support for defending Taiwan. Such capabilities are also necessary to convince a domestic Chinese audience that Americans would vigorously support a military defense of Taiwan. On the home front, policymakers should consider legislation designed to limit Chinese ownership of American media and clearly identify misleading news. These measures would protect freedom of the press by keeping media free from subversive and divisive propaganda.
Taiwan’s importance to American and Chinese ambitions will only grow as the two nations draw closer in the intractable embrace of great power competition. With this, the threat of an eventual Chinese invasion of Taiwan increases, alongside the need for an unyielding American security guarantee predicated on strong support from the American public. Despite narratives that Americans are no longer interested in upholding global leadership or fulfilling commitments abroad, recent evidence suggests otherwise. To preserve peace in the Indo-Pacific and guarantee Taiwan’s continued freedom, policymakers must build on this existing support for defending Taiwan to solidify a bipartisan consensus that shows China any American military action would have the strong support of the public. Demonstrating the will to fight is as important as fighting itself: as General Douglas MacArthur one said, “it is fatal to enter a war without the will to win.”
James Loomis has conducted research with the Stimson Center’s Defense Strategy and Planning Program, where he studied China’s deployment of deterrent and coercive military force short of war. He holds Master’s degrees from the London School of Economics and Peking University.