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Taiwan as the central front: Deterring China with help from key allies and India

Asia will be the cockpit of great-power politics in the 21st century. Most of the world’s highly skilled population lives there and most of its economic might, too. In this region, China, India, Japan, the Koreas, Russia and the United States interact in a multipolar and complex balance of power. 

Among Asian states, the crucible is China and India because of their power. India just topped China in population size, and its economy is smaller than China’s but is growing faster.  Fortunately for the U.S., its relations with India are positive and likely to remain so as long China’s ambitions and military might could potentially threaten India and the U.S.

As Chinese belligerence increases, the U.S. must respond to deter its aggression. If Washington does not, Beijing’s aggression is a certainty. The U.S. response must be immediate — and bold — to deter aggression. This falls into two broad categories. 

First, the U.S. must increase its own capabilities to deter China’s aggression, or to wage war against China out of necessity if deterrence fails. The U.S. does not yet have the air, ground-based and naval capabilities present in the region. Nor does it have adequate integrated defenses for key bases such as Guam, or stores of armaments to ensure that its forces and its allies could be supplied in high-intensity warfare.  

No matter the monetary cost of the Ukraine war, every weapon sent to Ukraine has a high opportunity cost — it might have been sent to Taiwan to deter China’s aggression. This would matter less if the U.S. defense industry were mobilized to meet present, and likely future, needs, but it is not. Moreover, the U.S. does not possess the right combination of tactical and theater nuclear weapons systems to deter China’s decision to employ nuclear weapons. Neither does the U.S. have the right nuclear mix to deter China from escalating from tactical nuclear weapons use to theater use, or from theater use to a strategic nuclear exchange.

Second, the U.S. must depend more on its allies and partners to assist with the deterrence mission, and to fight a war, should deterrence fail. U.S. capabilities are increasing only modestly.  There is far more enthusiasm in the Biden administration for helping Ukraine to fight its war against Russian troops than for deterring Chinese aggression — particularly against Taiwan — and China’s further expansion of bases in the South China Sea.

To a large degree, the Biden administration has outsourced deterrence of China’s aggression against Taiwan to the U.S. House of Representatives. Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, but Tsai did not meet with any Biden administration officials. 

Taiwan is an essential component for the defense of U.S. interests, for five reasons. The first is economic. Taiwan has a vibrant, wealthy economy — and is a superpower in computer chip production. Any damage to its factories, including their destruction or conquest by China, will reverberate for many years throughout the U.S. and global economies. There may come a day when the United States no longer depends upon Taiwan for chips, but that day is not today — and will not be for many years. 

Second, Taiwan occupies key geopolitical real estate, as Beijing and Washington recognize. For China, it is a cork in the bottle of the first island chain and so prevents the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) from easily accessing the Pacific, defending China’s ports from mining, and sustaining the Sea Line of Communication from the East and South China Seas. The four U.S.-Filipino bases announced on April 3 — two in Cagayan and one each in Isabela and Palawan — are important but aren’t intended to be an alternative to Taiwan, although they may help its defense.  

For the U.S. and its allies, Taiwan is valuable for intelligence collection against China and for military bases. Taiwan has stated there are increasing numbers of U.S. troops on the island, from scores to hundreds. But there should be orders of magnitude more U.S. and allied forces, including Australian, Filipino and Japanese forces and from NATO allies such as Czechia, France, Finland, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Poland, as well as from partners such as India, to provide a strong conventional deterrent to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. China’s potential aggression against Taiwan weakens if an attack on the island means war with Taiwan, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, India, NATO and the U.S. — just as China’s aggression against India on their disputed border would be augmented with Australian, Japanese, NATO, Taiwanese and U.S. soldiers. 

Third, in the realm of political warfare, Taiwan is a strong democracy. It demonstrates what China might have been had the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not come to power. Taiwan’s existence is a daily reminder of this; it’s why the CCP is illegitimate. Taiwan has tremendous value to the U.S. in the cold war with China. A robust U.S. military presence on Taiwan protects U.S. interests and helps to keep that war “cold.”

Fourth, Taiwan is a symbol of U.S. credibility to resist Chinese aggression and to sustain stability. Standing with Taiwan, as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did in August 2022 and McCarthy did this month, provides a tangible indication that the U.S. will resist China’s expansion and will do so with substantial forces on the ground.

Fifth, Taiwan is the new central front — the locus of where the formidable threat is met by indomitable political willpower to respond, coupled with robust conventional and nuclear military capabilities to deter attack. NATO deterred a Warsaw Pact on its central front on the inter-German and West Germany-Czechoslovakia border with a “layer cake” defense that included NATO forces from Belgium, Great Britain, the Netherlands, West Germany and the United States. So, too, should the U.S. call upon NATO, Japan and India to deploy forces to Taiwan to provide similar strength.

A major strategic concern is that the U.S. is gambling that China will be deterred by past U.S. willpower and capabilities, not the present ones. The U.S. no longer can depend upon the capital it created during the Cold War. It must take bold action now to deter Chinese aggression.

Bradley A. Thayer is director of China policy at the Center for Security Policy and the co-author with Lianchao Han of “Understanding the China Threat.” 

Tags China aggression China-Taiwan tensions Indo-Pacific Taiwan independence Tsai Ing-Wen

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