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Should the U.S. deploy troops to defend Taiwan if China launches an invasion? Why or why not?
The U.S. and Taiwan are deeply connected in the conflict between China, with the U.S. backing Taiwan in policy for decades. However, generations of tension between China and Taiwan have escalated recently, leaving Americans wondering how to respond if China launches an invasion.
Read on to learn about the U.S. and Taiwan relations and the pros and cons of defending against a Chinese invasion.
Should the U.S. Defend Taiwan?
To have an informed opinion about U.S. and Taiwan relations, including whether or not the U.S. should go to war over Taiwan, we need to understand the island’s relationship with China. This relationship is complicated due to Taiwan’s ambiguous history: Taiwan was a part of China from the late 17th century until 1895, during the Qing dynasty. Japan controlled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, then ceded it back to China following their defeat in World War II. At that time, China was in the midst of a civil war. In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party overthrew the existing Republic of China (ROC) and established the new People’s Republic of China (PRC). The communists forced the ROC to retreat to Taiwan, and it still governs the island to this day.
Thus, the People’s Republic of China that exists today never controlled modern Taiwan, which is an independent country with its own constitution and democratic government. However, Taiwan has belonged to other iterations of “China” for much of its history. Because of this, Taiwan considers itself an autonomous nation, while the PRC believes that it still owns Taiwan. The Chinese government has in recent years renewed its focus on the ultimate goal of “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—and the conquest of Taiwan (or “reunification,” as China sees it) would be a major symbol of progress toward that goal.
Why There’s Support for Defending Taiwan
Some argue that there is a moral obligation to deploy troops in a full military campaign to defend Taiwan. The 24 million inhabitants of Taiwan currently live in a flourishing progressive democratic nation: They have one of the world’s most successful universal health care systems, they were the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage, and they’ve committed to achieving zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Additionally, the average individual’s income in Taiwan is more than triple that of China (judged by purchasing power), signaling a significantly higher standard of living.
A Chinese takeover would threaten all of this progress. As evidence, we can look to the current state of Hong Kong, which the United Kingdom ceded to China in 1997. Although Hong Kong was never a full democracy like Taiwan, its citizens are traditionally allowed to vote for members of its lawmaking “Legislative Council.” However, since taking ownership, China has tightened restrictions on this electoral system, reducing the number of seats up for direct election and only allowing sufficiently “patriotic,” pro-PRC candidates to run—essentially hijacking their autonomous government. In 2020, China instituted a “national security law” that they’ve used to arrest and imprison thousands of dissenting politicians, journalists, activists, and protesters, stifling any progress toward democracy. A similar fate could befall Taiwan if China were to launch a military invasion.
The U.S. Has Self-Interest in Defending Taiwan
Additionally, due to U.S. and Taiwan economic relations, many make the case that preserving Taiwan’s independence would be in America’s self-interest. Taiwan controls a huge portion of the world’s semiconductors—one count reports that Taiwan supplies over 90% of the global market. A vast amount of modern technology relies on these Taiwanese microchips—for example, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company supplies Apple with 100% of the silicon processors they use in iPhones and Mac computers. If China were to conquer Taiwan, they would have total control over the semiconductor industry, massively increasing their global economic influence and making it more likely for them to achieve technological superiority over the rest of the world.
Capturing Taiwan would increase China’s foreign influence in other ways, too. Moving military operations onto the island of Taiwan would allow China to monitor and more easily threaten military action against Japan, the Philippines, and U.S. bases in the Pacific. Furthermore, some experts make the case that if the U.S. refuses to defend Taiwan, it would destroy the country’s influence and credibility with other Pacific nations—Australia and Japan in particular—who may decide that they can’t rely on America for security, instead bolstering their own military and/or making further concessions to China. In the end, the U.S. would lose global influence and China would gain more, further down the road to becoming a global authoritarian superpower.
Why Some Oppose Defending Taiwan
On the other hand, those who oppose U.S. intervention in Taiwan point out that it would be a difficult war to win. Whereas Taiwan is only 100 miles off of mainland China, the island is 6,000 miles from the United States, making it more costly and logistically difficult for America to deploy military forces and supply munitions—and limiting its ability to react quickly to changing battlefield conditions.
Additionally, engaging in direct conflict with China runs the risk of escalation to a very bloody war. Once a conflict begins, China won’t readily back down. Losing a war would be a major symbolic humiliation for the CCP, losing them credibility with the public, so they would likely fight until the bitter end. Additionally, Taiwan is at the core of the Chinese national identity—the Chinese government and people care far more about the island than America does. This greater commitment makes it more likely that China would outlast the U.S. in prolonged conflict, and if China holds out long enough for America to give up, the U.S. may suffer heavy casualties and then lose Taiwan anyway.
Finally, those who oppose defending Taiwan argue that the island isn’t worth the risk of nuclear war. Even one nuclear strike from China would be a disaster on a historical scale. Giving Taiwan munitions and training is a relatively low-risk means of support, but some experts assert that taking direct military action to defend Taiwan carries a far greater risk of triggering a nuclear reaction from China.
Non-Action Has Upsides
Those against a U.S. defense of Taiwan argue that if America avoids direct military intervention, the fallout will be more manageable than the aftermath of a world war. First, they claim that China would be unlikely to advance their conquest beyond Taiwan. As we’ve established, Taiwan and China have a unique history—the CCP has declared its intent to take back Taiwan ever since it was founded. A military invasion would be far from a definitive sign that China intends to go on a conquering warpath—nothing like if China were to attempt to conquer a country, like the Philippines, with which it has no shared history. U.S. allies are aware of Taiwan’s unique situation, and they would likely understand if America chose not to get directly involved.
Second, if China took Taiwan, the newly “unified” nation might end up weaker, rather than stronger. It would take considerable resources for China to conquer and maintain order in Taiwan. China is currently in a potentially disastrous economic position, and occupying Taiwan would strain the nation even further.
Finally, if China annexed Taiwan, it would encourage the surrounding nations to bolster their defenses and form strong alliances with one another to prepare for future aggression from China. Some experts argue that this would act as a more effective deterrent of future conflict than the current norm, where Pacific nations rely heavily on the U.S. for their national security.
A Different Perspective: The U.S. Should Prevent War Entirely
Finally, some experts argue that this “intervention versus non-intervention” dichotomy is the wrong way to approach the situation. A better approach would be for the U.S. to further strengthen Taiwan’s military and supply it with more adequate arms to defend itself, a move that might dissuade China from invading at all.
If Taiwan gains the ability to prolong a potential military conflict, an invasion would be far less attractive to the CCP. The Chinese government would lose standing with foreign partners as the war continued, and the more casualties Taiwan could inflict, the more quickly domestic support in China for the war (and for the government) would wane.
Proponents of this approach note that merely announcing an intention to defend Taiwan may not be enough of a deterrent: The CCP has long been spreading a narrative of U.S. decline and weakness, recently citing the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan as an “omen” of what would happen in Taiwan. If this narrative leads the PRC to assume that during a war, it could easily muscle the U.S. into withdrawing from Taiwan, it might decide to strike.
Furthermore, these experts argue that local deterrence is the only long-term solution. Even if the U.S. were to successfully intervene and temporarily fend off China, it would likely try to invade again as soon as possible. However, if Taiwan were empowered to effectively defend itself in perpetuity, it could potentially deter China long enough for its political culture to change completely. China’s future is volatile—its one-child policy, in place from 1980 to 2015, has caused its young, productive workforce to dramatically shrink as its retirement-age population has skyrocketed. Although the exact outcome of this development is impossible to predict, fewer people of fighting age likely means a smaller military, and China’s weary, aging population could steer its government toward peace.
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