Deteriorating relations between the United States and China have made Taiwan the most dangerous flashpoint in the world. The Chinese Communist Party maintains that Taiwan is a renegade province and its reunification with the mainland is only a matter of time. Beijing has made clear that it is willing to use force in order to do so. For its part, the United States seems determined to
prevent that outcome, with U.S. president Joe Biden declaring on three separate occasions that the United States has a commitment to defend Taiwan. The White House quickly walked back each of the president’s statements, but the question remains: if a Chinese attack on Taiwan materializes, how should the United States respond?
While current U.S. policy should prioritize diplomacy with Beijing and arm Taipei to deter aggression, it is vital to plan for such a contingency in order to respond wisely rather than allow emotion to guide policy. The U.S. response to the ongoing war in Ukraine provides insight into the prudence and folly of certain reactions.
Military restraint is the most critical lesson of the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine, and U.S. leaders would be wise to allow the same logic to guide a response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. The Biden administration, and European allies located much closer to Ukraine, rightfully concluded that direct military conflict with Russia is not in the cards. While the United States is
sympathetic to the unfortunate circumstances Ukrainians find themselves in, the war is not America’s to fight. Ukraine does not ultimately warrant sacrificing American lives in a conventional conflict with Russia, nor is it worth risking nuclear escalation.
Likewise, Americans may be sympathetic to the very real threat Taiwan faces from a much larger neighboring power. However, a U.S.-China war would bring about the same unacceptable risks of high casualties and an acute threat of nuclear exchange. Therefore, as the United States has avoided direct military conflict with Russia on behalf of Ukraine, it must also avoid direct military conflict with China on behalf of Taiwan.
Rather than intervening militarily, the United States and Europe are supporting Ukraine by supplying massive amounts of humanitarian and lethal aid. Given Ukraine’s western border with friendly states, providing aid has proven to be relatively easy. Globally, an estimated $82 billion has been committed to Ukraine, with the United States providing upwards of $24 billion in military aid alone. While massive aid packages may provide Ukraine with the means to put up a stalwart resistance, it remains unlikely that it will ultimately tip the balance in its favor.
In the case of Taiwan, there are several factors that will likely preclude any similar effort for the United States and its allies to supply aid. China has surely concluded that to avoid the pitfalls of a protracted conflict, any move against Taiwan must be conducted as quickly as possible. Taiwan, an island slightly larger than Maryland, lacks the strategic depth Ukraine enjoys. And while major fighting would be brutal, it will likely be swift, thus preventing U.S. or global aid from being delivered in time to be employed. Moreover, attempting to aid Taiwan also risks getting dragged inadvertently into hostilities, as China may try to intercept ships and planes attempting to deliver aid.
Economic and diplomatic retaliation against Russia may vindicate a desire to punish Moscow, but it failed to change Russian behavior and contributed to secondary consequences across the globe, including food insecurity, high gas prices, and record inflation. Moreover, it has proven difficult for the United States to convince other countries, including those in the global south, Asia, and the Western hemisphere, to go along with economic sanctions against Russia. As European countries reduce Russian gas and oil imports, countries like India and China, are picking up the slack, importing record amounts at a significant discount, thus limiting the effect of Western sanctions.
The economic fallout of a similar response to a China-Taiwan conflict would result in far greater worldwide consequences given China’s interdependence within the global economy. Convincing other countries to impose severe harm on their domestic economies on behalf of Taiwan will likely be impossible, as China is the top trading partner of over 130 countries, including the United
States. The global supply chain disruption from engaging in comprehensive economic sanctions would result in shortages, price increases, and the loss of the world’s largest market for domestic companies. China would also certainly respond with economic retaliation of its own, further exacerbating a global economic crisis.
If China attacks Taiwan, there is little the United States could do to reverse its fortunes short of fighting an unreasonably costly and risky war on its behalf. Instead, a prudent and politically feasible strategy is to pursue regional deterrence and economic diversification. The United States can deter the possibility of further Chinese aggression by temporarily surging U.S. forces to
the region while prompting Asian allies, such as Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, to invest in their own defense capabilities—particularly anti-access, area-denial weaponry. Economically, rather than imposing self-defeating sanctions and unrealistically attempting to isolate China, the United States could leverage its vast network of allies to lead an effort to diversify global supply chains and decouple key critical industries, such as semiconductors, 5G telecommunication equipment, artificial intelligence, and other emerging digital technologies.
As the global balance of power shifts, the United States and China will need to learn to live with one another. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union committed armed aggression against third-party states at the protest of the other power. Yet those instances did not permanently undermine diplomatic relations. Forceful reintegration of Taiwan into mainland China would be a disaster for Taiwan—and perhaps China—but it does not need to be a disaster for the United States. Wise statecraft and clear-eyed realism must be employed to ensure U.S. security and prosperity, regardless of Taiwan’s official political status.
Sascha Glaeser is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities. He focuses on U.S. grand strategy, international security, and transatlantic relations. He holds a Master of International Public Affairs and a Bachelor’s in International Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.