Defending Taiwan and Deterring China

- REAL CLEAR DEFENSE - Sep 15, 2020 -

By Alan W. Dowd

Ministry of National Defense via AP

“I believe the United States will fight to defend Taiwan if China invades Taiwan. In my opinion, it’s unthinkable that the United States would stand by and allow China to conquer Taiwan.” These are not the words of a wide-eyed Wilsonian or a neocon hawk. Rather, they come courtesy of John Mearsheimer, perhaps America's foremost realist foreign-policy scholar. If we accept Mearsheimer's assessment as a given—and there's no reason not to—the next step of the given would be trying to fend off such an attack or, even worse, trying to liberate a conquered Taiwan, which raises a crucial question: If it's unthinkable that America would allow the PRC to conquer Taiwan, wouldn't it be less costly and more prudent to do all we can now to deter Beijing from taking that step?


This is not a theoretical question. Beijing’s words and actions suggest it is ready to move against Taiwan.

In 2015, Beijing released a military strategy describing “the Taiwan issue” as key to “China’s reunification and long-term development” and declaring “reunification…an inevitable trend in the course of national rejuvenation.”

In 2019, PRC strongman Xi Jinping proposed (more accurately, demanded) that Taiwan unify with the Mainland under a “one country, two systems” approach. Xi has made clear that one way or another, democratic Taiwan “must and will be” absorbed by the communist Mainland. "We make no promise to abandon the use of force and retain the option of taking all necessary measures."

These are troubling and problematic words. The PRC has never ruled Taiwan, so "reunification" is inaccurate. In a very real sense, a Taiwanese nation—culturally, politically, economically distinct from the PRC—has been built over the past 70 years. That explains why 67 percent of Taiwan’s population identifies as “Taiwanese” (up from 17 percent in 1992), only 2.4 percent of the population identifies as “Chinese” (down from 22.5 percent in 1992), and more than eight in 10 Taiwanese oppose Beijing’s idea of unification.

Indeed, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen calls Taiwan’s island democracy “a sovereign independent country.” Yet Xi considers Taiwan the PRC’s 34th province.


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