CHINA WATCHA Balancing Act: What to Do About Taiwan

Published 30 March 2023

If one of the world’s liberal democracies were to be taken over by a neo-totalitarian superpower, what would this imply for the future of freedom in Asia? What should we make of China’s claims about Taiwan? Should the U.S. replace its current policy of “strategic ambiguity” with a more explicit commitment to Taiwan’s defense?

If one of the most liberal and vibrant democracies in the world could simply be wiped off the face of the map by a neo-totalitarian superpower aggressor, what would this imply for the future of freedom in Asia? two leading analysts ask.

For many years to come, the most critical strategic priority for the United States in the Indo-Pacific will be preventing China from swallowing a democratic and technologically advanced Taiwan, the Hoover Institution’s Larry Diamond and James O. Ellis, Jr. observe:

Taiwan is a very successful “third wave” democracy; indeed, it is one of the most liberal, “high-quality” democracies in Asia and by some international assessments, rates as more democratic than the United States…..Today’s China is a neo-totalitarian regime that represents a growing risk to peace. Over the next decade, a Chinese attack on Taiwan cannot be avoided—unless the Chinese leadership is forced to accept that the costs of a military invasion would be too great to bear. Hence the need for a “porcupine strategy” in which Taiwan fields large quantities of small, mobile, affordable, and resilient anti-air and anti-ship systems to resist airborne or amphibious invasion.

The U.S. approach to deterrence differs from its Chinese counterpart in ways that lend Washington several advantages, analyst Joel Wuthnow writes for Foreign Affairs:

·  First, the U.S. deterrence strategy emphasizes coordinating with allies. Whereas China lacks allies, the United States works closely with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and others in the Indo-Pacific on a range of security issues. Some of these countries could even become directly involved in a Taiwan conflict, creating additional military risks for Beijing. And with China’s nuclear upgrades casting a pall over the region, the United States may double down on extended deterrence—the idea that any nuclear strike on an ally would be treated the same as one on the U.S. homeland.

·  Second, the U.S. deterrence strategy aims to bring all the tools of national power together in a coordinated way. China’s policy of strategic deterrence revolves around the military, but the U.S. approach involves the participation of agencies such as the State Department and the Treasury Department. Sanctions against Russia have suggested to Beijing that aggression against Taiwan would invite not

only military risk but also U.S.-led sanctions, supported by European and Asian industrial democracies. China could find it difficult to inoculate itself against such pressure because of its integration in the global financial and trading systems.