January 2, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

The United States might be a democracy in form, but most policies are developed without even a semblance of public participation. For instance, policymakers overwhelmingly believe that the US should go to war with the People’s Republic of China if it attacks Taiwan. President Biden has five times declared that he would back Taiwan militarily. Yet Congress has not voted.

Those predicting conflict believe the hour is late, but some imagine that a tough stance would preclude war. America’s president merely needs to wave his pinky finger, or state his demands, and Chinese Communist Party officials would run screaming back to the leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, never to be heard from again. General Secretary Xi Jinping is, however, made of sterner stuff, buttressed by the People’s Liberation Army, which is rapidly expanding to prevent Washington from treating the Asia-Pacific as coastal American waters.

Even so, many Blob members assume that if Beijing were foolish enough to fight, it would (of course) be defeated. Not so. Any war over Taiwan would be won on the seas, and the PRC is much closer and can more easily reinforce its forces. Breaking a naval blockade would be difficult and would invite full-scale conflict. Beijing now possesses a larger (based on numbers, not tonnage) navy than America. And China is able to concentrate its forces in the Asia-Pacific. Reported the Congressional Research Service: “China’s navy is a formidable military force within China’s near-seas region, and it is conducting a growing number of operations in the broader waters of the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and waters around Europe.”

Geography is a major problem: Taiwan is barely 100 miles off China’s shore, roughly the same distance as Cuba from America. The PRC could rely on two score mainland military bases and enjoy air superiority over the island. Beijing’s strategy would be anti-access/area denial, using submarines and missiles, especially, to keep the US Navy afar.

Washington would have to rely on allied bases, most notably Japan (Okinawa), the Philippines, and South Korea. However, none of America’s friends want to end up as targets of Chinese missiles. The Republic of Korea, confronting a dangerous North Korea, is least-likely to back the US in a war against the PRC. The Philippines is a semi-failed state; a former defense secretary once opined that his nation had “a navy that can’t go out to sea and an air force that cannot fly.”

Which leaves Japan. North Korea’s nuclear turn and China’s rise have caused Tokyo to plan a major increase in defense outlays. That government now notes its strategic interest in Taiwan, but has insisted that nothing said so far commits Japan to go to war with China over the issue. Entry into any war would turn the entire country into a potential target, and reaffirm Tokyo’s status as an enemy of the PRC.

Alas, the US usually loses wargames involving a Taiwan conflict. Even when America prevails in such contests, the price is quite high. A highly-publicized August wargame gave the trophy to Washington, but only at very substantial cost, including the loss of half the US aircraft involved. The sinking of one aircraft carrier could result in several thousand deaths. The conflict would be nothing like battling unwilling Iraqi soldiers or ill-armed Afghan insurgents.

Equally important, China cares much more about Taiwan than does the US. For the Chinese, the issue is nationalism at its most raw: the island was seized by Japan as war booty more than a century ago. Regaining Taiwan would complete recovery from the so-called “century of humiliation,” during which outside imperialistic powers, including America, effectively humbled and dismantled the moribund Chinese empire.

Taiwan also has obvious military significance. No great power would accept an enemy base so close to its territory. In the event of defeat, China could expect the island to fill with US bases and forces. Washington faced such a possibility with Cuba in 1962 and almost fought a nuclear war with the Soviet Union over the issue.

No surprise, then, that the PRC is serious about forcing reunification. In his talk at the twentieth Chinese Communist Party congress in October, Xi Jinping insisted that “The complete unification of the motherland must be realized, and it will be realized.” Several Chinese diplomats strongly expressed similar views to me after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ill-considered August visit to Taiwan.

In contrast, in terms of security, Taiwan doesn’t matter one whit to the US. At most, Washington would gain by denying Taiwan to China, inhibiting the latter’s naval activities in the region. But that is no justification for war. Beijing will always be willing to spend and risk more in any fight over the island.

Moreover, a conflict between the US and China might not remain conventional. Never before have two nuclear-armed powers fought a major conventional war. Escalation would be a constant danger. The US could not easily ignore military targets on the Chinese mainland. Attacking China proper, however, would force Beijing to respond by, for instance, hitting American possessions like Guam, at least. The PRC would face even-greater pressure to escalate if it was losing, since Taiwan is an existential interest.

Indeed, Beijing is currently engaged in a major nuclear buildup and evidently believes that possession of more nukes would be particularly useful in another Taiwan crisis. Years ago a Chinese general declared that the US would not trade Los Angeles for Taipei. Now, reported the Wall Street Journal: “Chinese leaders see a stronger nuclear arsenal as a way to deter the US from getting directly involved in a potential conflict over Taiwan.”

A conflict would have enormous economic impact. War could knock five percent off the US economy, a roughly $1.2 trillion loss. And that would hit a government facing increasing fiscal travails. Global, not just Asian, commerce would be disrupted. If the conflict went nuclear, the result likely would be panic and chaos throughout the region, at least, and probably far beyond.

Finally, any US win likely would be only temporary. Xi Jinping might not survive as China’s leader after a defeat, but he would not likely be followed by Western-leaning peacemakers. Rather, expect even-tougher nationalists to come to power, followed by rearmament and another round, rather like Germany after its defeat in World War I. Victory would not allow America to go home. To the contrary, victory would require the US to stay, essentially forever, to protect its triumph. Americans would have to spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars a year in order to project military power, thousands of miles from home, to protect a land not vital for their own defense.

The US needs to have a serious debate over Taiwan. Now.

Without question, Taipei is an attractive friend. The island’s 24 million people have created a rambunctious and prosperous democracy.

Alas, they live in a bad neighborhood, but theirs is not a cause for which Americans should die, let alone risk America itself. Washington should not initiate war, especially one which could go nuclear, for anything but the most vital interests. Taipei is not one.

The better strategy would be aid short of war. Today the US and democratic states should be making conflict less likely by arming Taiwan, insisting that it take its own defense seriously. Alas, Taiwan’s geographic position is much different than Ukraine’s, making direct aid difficult in wartime. That should highlight the urgency of selling Taipei arms today.

Washington also should organize allies and friends in Asia and Europe to prepare a set of economic sanctions to impose on China if the latter attacks the island, and to communicate that intention to the PRC now. Finally, the US should seek tripartite negotiations to find a modus vivendi to keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait. We might begin with Taiwan downplaying its efforts to assert a separate international identity, the US pledging to forgo a military relationship with Taipei and minimizing efforts to highlight ties with Taiwan, and Beijing reducing military forces targeting the island and agreeing to eschew military action as long as the other parties keep their promises.

Most members of the Washington foreign policy elite have never met a war they didn’t want other Americans to fight. Policymakers managed to blunder through Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya without wrecking the US. A war against China over Taiwan could have far more destructive consequences. It is vital for the American people to participate in the decision-making process over policy toward Taiwan. For their future, and that of their kids and grandkids, the right answer is no to war.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.

He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry.

He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

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