by Aris Roussinos
Friday, 12
August 2022
Seen Elsewhere
13:00

Does the U.S. actually want to defend Taiwan?

War has gone from a remote scenario to a fearfully plausible one
by Aris Roussinos
Credit: Getty

Does the United States actually want to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion? As speculative questions go, this one’s looking a lot less speculative after Nancy Pelosi’s trip to the island state. As the eminent American strategist Elbridge Colby (whose book on the necessity of defending Taiwan to preserve American imperial hegemony was recently reviewed in UnHerd) observes, “A war with China over Taiwan has gone from what many regarded as a remote scenario to a fearfully plausible one.”

In his latest essay for Foreign Affairs, Colby observes that America’s strong rhetoric on defending Taiwan has so far not been matched by any meaningful action. After all:

“Given its public statements and strategies, it would make sense for Washington to be behaving as though the United States might well be on the verge of major war with a nuclear-armed superpower rival”, but such activity is notable by its absence.

The scale of the challenge is clear. China is, without doubt, the most powerful adversary America has ever faced, dwarfing the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in industrial capacity, resources, manpower and military might. As Colby notes:

The People’s Republic is in the midst of a historic military buildup, one that includes the dramatic expansion of its nuclear forces, rapid advances in critical military technologies that in key respects outpace U.S. innovation, and the construction of the world’s largest navy.
- Elbridge Colby, Foreign Affairs

As he observes, “the U.S. military advantage vis-a-vis China has eroded significantly”, as “Beijing’s defense outlays are now at least a third of the U.S. defense budget, with some respected analysts arguing that the real figure is much closer to parity. Moreover, China has the advantages of proximity, technological catchup, lower personnel costs, and focused attention on Taiwan and the Western Pacific, reducing the United States’ advantage of at least nominally higher defense spending.” 

Yet while China amasses its arsenal at a breakneck rate (it’s worth reading this new RAND corporation report on the likely contours of a great power conflict between the two superpowers), the US has chosen not to increase its production of the specialised munitions necessary for high-intensity warfare, nor its construction of new warships to match China’s buildup, nor to winnow down its draining and largely wasteful commitments in Europe and the Middle East. As Colby points out:

The department continues to procure key munitions at insufficient levels for a conflict over Taiwan, even as the war in Ukraine has made clear that deep inventories of vital munitions are essential”, while “even the most optimistic option in the navy’s latest shipbuilding plan would be unable to meet the operational requirements for defeating a Chinese attack against Taiwan before the 2040s”— long after the war will likely be fought and its outcome decided.
- Elbridge Colby, Foreign Affairs

So what’s going on? It is of course eminently possible that America’s political and defence leadership is completely inept, and has rhetorically committed itself to fighting a colossal war its policy choices have almost predetermined it will lose. But another interpretation is surely possible: perhaps America’s revealed preferences show that, when it comes down to it, the US simply will not bear the risk of fighting the greatest war it will have ever faced for the sake of hegemony in the Western Pacific, especially when its own internal politics are so turbulent. 

If we look at these revealed preferences — the reinforcement of Europe and the Middle East, and the neglect of the Pacific theatre — a suggestive alternative interpretation reveals itself. Perhaps the Biden administration, for all its rhetoric about defending Taiwan and facing down China, has quietly chosen the path of consolidating its core imperial possessions in Europe and the Middle East, more easily defended against weaker rivals, and ceding its decades-long role of global hegemon. Unless the US suddenly begins a total, wartime-level programme of rearmament, it appears the multipolar age has already quietly dawned.

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Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 month ago

I tend to favour Peter Zeihan‘s interpretation of the situation in the East China Sea. That China couldn’t pull off an amphibious invasion but it could attempt an air and sea containment of the island to effectively bring Taiwan under its control, however, if the United States wants to, and is willing to bear the economic costs, it could easily cut China’s oil supply at the choke points in the Andaman Sea. The US has this capacity to do this and China doesn’t have the naval assets to oppose it. The question is not. Does the US have the military power to oppose China? It’s, does it have the political will to do so?

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 month ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Isn’t that what we did with Japan circa 1940? Starve their oil supply so they felt forced to go out and take it by taking other countries? I realize this is simplistic history (to say the least).

Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago

The old ‘masculine’ approaches to international conflict are so outdated. Military capabilities are just for show. Tactical analysis is irrelevant. In our new era of progressive thought, victory will be achieved through narrative building and righteous condemnation – run around the school yard saying mean things so everyone will hate your adversary and they run home crying. Toxic masculinity, meet your match: toxic femininity. Can’t imagine how this could possibly go wrong.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 month ago

As WW2 showed though, the US will be drawn into the pacific eventually, it is just a matter of sooner or later.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 month ago

Xi Jinping has many things wrong with him, but he has the advantage over Nancy Pelosi that he is sober, and he has the advantage over Joe Biden that he is not in an advanced state of cognitive collapse. If China had wanted to conquer Taiwan by force, then it would have done so without difficulty in 1949. It wants a peaceful solution, and it is prepared to wait for one. Just so long as no one waded in from outside. And in any practical way, who would?

Everyone has a One China Policy. It is a question only of which China. The position of Xi that Taiwan “must and will” be reintegrated into China is precisely that of the other side. That does not style itself “Taiwan”, which is merely the name of the island on which it is located, as if the losing side in a British Civil War had been holed up on the Isle of Wight for the last 70 years. Rather, its official name for itself remains “the Republic of China”.

After all, 70 years in the history of China is scarcely the blink of an eye. But however strong its legal or moral case may once have been, in practical terms it now gives those who continue to advance it a reasonable claim to be the biggest fantasists on the face of the Earth. And as of 2020, on the face of the Moon as well. Nor does that fantasy extend merely to China as it now exists. Rejecting the authority of the present Chinese Government to resolve territorial disputes, Taiwan lays claim to most of Mongolia, as well as to parts of Russia, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bhutan and Myanmar.

Although he himself does not press the claim, there are still those who maintain that the Duke of Bavaria is the rightful King of England, Scotland, Ireland and France. They have been saying that about a series of often quite colourful characters ever since the eighteenth century. In my time on Telegraph Blogs, one of my colleagues was an absolutely serious Jacobite who used that platform to express that view. Several more will have been partisans of the Kuomintang via the Washington “Blue Team”, which is itself a key aspect of neoconservatism. They were exactly as realistic as he was.

In their time, not unlike the considerable achievements of Taiwan since the early 1960s, when by the way it was most certainly not a democracy, the Jacobites have controlled much of French and Spanish banking, they have maintained a network of merchants in every port circling Europe, they have founded the Russian Navy of Peter the Great, they have dominated the Swedish East India and Madagascar Companies, and they have done a very great deal more besides, including in North America and the West Indies, which were the New World of their day just as space exploration is opening up New Worlds to us in our own time. But they have never succeeded in putting any of their claimants on the Throne of England, Scotland, Ireland or France. Nor have they ever landed a craft on the far side of the Moon.

Dave Weeden
Dave Weeden
1 month ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

“If China had wanted to conquer Taiwan by force, then it would have done so without difficulty in 1949.” But this assumes that China now is the same China as of the 1940s. The personnel at the top are different; the system of government is different, and, of course, people change their minds.
To adapt a saying that appeared in Paul Kingsnorth’s essay on Wednesday, “The best time to conquer Taiwan was 73 years ago, the second best time is today.”

M. M.
M. M.
1 month ago

Aris Roussinos wrote, “Does the United States actually want to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion?”

Whether a nation conducts a war depends entirely on the residents of that nation, not a couple of politicians in the government. Roussinos and most Chinese on Taiwan have an authoritarian view of society: specifically, the government orders citizens to participate in a war. So, Roussinos and most Taiwanese think that Washington determines whether American lives will be sacrificed for the Taiwanese, and the Taiwanese cultivate ties with American politicians, ignoring the general public.

In the run-up to any war, the media will publicize startling facts about the Taiwanese relationship with China, and the general public will conclude that the Taiwanese have been playing the Americans for fools. The Taiwanese voluntarily made their nation economically dependent on China. Though they have the option of putting their money and technology into Southeast Asia, they overwhelmingly choose to invest their capital in China. Moreover, Beijing gives preferential treatment to Taiwanese businesses. It includes reduced taxes and accelerated approval for business projects. The Taiwanese enjoy this preferential treatment, which is denied to American businesses.

The American public will conclude that neither American treasure nor American lives should be sacrificed for the Taiwanese.

Washington and Tokyo should use Taiwan as a bargaining chip. Specifically, if Beijing agrees to relinquish its claim to the Senkaku Islands, then Western governments shall sever all ties to Taiwan. Beijing can then do whatever it wants to do to the Taiwanese.

Get more info about this issue.

Last edited 1 month ago by Matthew M.