Some alarming trends are developing in East Asia that could lead to a military collision between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taiwan is the principal flashpoint, and Washington may find itself virtually alone in waging a war to defend the island.
Beijing’s military pressure on Taiwan is mounting steadily, as Xi Jinping’s regime now seems to recognize that its chances of inducing the Taiwanese to accept political unification with the PRC peacefully have receded to the vanishing point. At the same time, Washington’s implicit commitment to protect Taiwan’s de facto independence has strengthened in multiple ways, reflecting strong bipartisan sentiment. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress adopted when Jimmy Carter transferred official diplomatic relations from Taipei to Beijing, the United States terminated its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan but pledged to continue selling the island "defensive" weapons and to regard any coercion by mainland China as a "grave breach" of East Asia’s peace. By the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, however, that limited commitment had morphed into something resembling a restored (albeit informal) military alliance.
Contrary to the expectations of many experts that Joe Biden would pursue a far more conciliatory policy than his predecessor did toward Beijing, he has adopted a surprisingly hardline approach, especially with respect to Taiwan. The Biden foreign policy team also has continued the Trump administration’s efforts to enlist other nations – in East Asia and elsewhere – in a common front to contain the PRC’s power. One component of that containment strategy is to transform the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) linking the United States, India, Australia, and Japan, which has existed since 2007, into the core of a full-fledged "NATO-like" security alliance. Another component is to induce Japan to adopt a much more robust regional security role, rather than one focused just on homeland defense. Increasingly apparent in such efforts is Washington’s desire to gain greater backing for U.S. efforts to defend Taiwan if a showdown with the PRC over that issue ensues.
US leaders are encountering disappointment on both fronts. Not only has India firmly resisted turning the Quad into a U.S.-led regional military alliance, Japan and Australia don’t seem enthusiastic about that prospect either. And South Korea, which would be an important (if not essential) addition to the Quad’s ranks, has firmly rebuffed Washington’s overtures.
Japan is the lynchpin with respect to US efforts to create a multilateral bloc to defend Taiwan, but Tokyo’s response has been ambivalent, at best. True, there are some indications that Japan is increasing its support for Washington’s stance regarding Taiwan. In a joint statement following their April 17 summit meeting in Washington, Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stated: “We emphasize the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues.” It was the first time in 52 years that a summit communiqué explicitly mentioned the Taiwan issue. Moreover, after the meeting Suga told reporters that the two leaders agreed "to oppose any attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas."
But as RealityChek blogger Alan Tonelson pointed out, "‘oppose’ could mean all sorts of things – a stern diplomatic note, a few sanctions. Maybe a very stern note. Or lots of sanctions." He noted that "Neither Suga nor any other Japanese leader has said ‘If China attacks Taiwan, we’re sending in our troops, too.’" Indeed, the glowing media reviews of the summit had barely faded when Suga said the opposite. He emphasized that, despite the reference to Taiwan in the joint statement with Biden, there was no possibility of Japanese forces being committed to any military contingency involving Taiwan. In response to a question from an opposition member in the Diet on April 20 about the details of Japan’s commitment to Taiwan, Suga replied that the statement "does not presuppose military involvement at all."
Suga’s hasty retreat increases the probability that if war broke out in the Taiwan Strait, US and Taiwanese forces would be waging the struggle alone against the PRC. That is a daunting prospect, since multiple simulations run by both the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation, indicate that the United States would lose. Uncle Sam’s situation regarding a military defense of Taiwan resembles the plight in which the Alamo’s defenders found themselves in 1836. Their expectation that reinforcements were on their way to break the Mexican army’s siege proved unfounded, and they suffered an extremely unpleasant fate.
The prospect of seeing vibrant, democratic Taiwan absorbed into the increasingly Orwellian PRC is not a pleasant one. But preventing such an outcome is not worth the United States’ waging a war that would pose enormous dangers to the American people. That point would be true even if Washington could count on strong military backing from Japan and other East Asian allies. Without such support, a solo US intervention could well be a suicide mission.
Creating greater clarity about the situation has become imperative. The Biden administration ought to send a blunt message to China’s neighbors. If they believe that a PRC conquest of Taiwan would pose an unacceptable threat to their own security, they need to make it clear to Beijing that they are prepared to use force to help defend the island. If they’re unwilling to mount such a defense, those East Asian governments need to make their abdication clear to both Taipei and Washington. In any case, the United States must transfer responsibility for dealing with this thorny issue to Japan, South Korea, and the other regional powers that have the most at stake. US leaders have a moral obligation to the American people to remove their own country from the front lines of a burgeoning crisis.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles.