Friendly control of Taiwan is a core national security interest for the United States, and not just because of its economic heft. The strategic implications of the former Formosa go back over a century.
The geopolitical landscape is roiling, with epoch-making realignments and a full-on return to Great Power politics in the making. The axis of China, Russia, and Iran is kicking into gear; Russia is still engaged in an imperial invasion of Ukraine, Iran is cajoling its neighbors into rapprochement on its terms, and China has dramatically expanded its regional aggression, threatening nations like the Philippines for cooperating with American forces. Other nations are seeing the lackluster American response to these powers and are making their arrangements accordingly – just look at France, Brazil, and the Saudis for recent examples. If we fail to live up to our commitments and successfully defend our interests, American power will look far less formidable abroad. This brings us to the issue of China and Taiwan, perhaps the most salient threat to the US-led world order.
China has been massively upping the stakes on Taiwan, including in military exercises in which it encircled the island and simulated strikes. China has sought dominion over Taiwan for centuries and sees it as an indivisible part of its homeland – although the first extended outside interaction with the island formerly known as Formosa came via European traders in the 1500s. The Chinese Communist Party views taking control of Taiwan – a prosperous, liberal, democratic state made up largely of ethnic Chinese – as a paramount security interest. The CCP fears the implications of such a state so close to its borders offering a desirable alternative to its repressive governance, but it also seeks to control Taiwan for other reasons. Economically, it punches far above its weight, hosting major technology manufacturing industries, notably of semiconductors, and achieving a high standard of living for its citizens. But Taiwan’s real value is strategic – and not only for the Chinese. Taiwan is a core strategic interest for the United States as well.
There has been a trend on the political right of pushing the claim that Taiwan is not an American strategic interest, but instead has been created as an economic interest by myopic, profiteering elites. These pundits vary in their degree of isolationism, but all concur that the United States should not “send middle America to die” to protect Taiwan. They argue that this problem could have been solved long ago with an investment in domestic supply chains and a turn away from free trade to an American version of juche. Some go so far as to see nuclear war around every corner and want the United States to retrench and stay purely within our national borders. Many of these arguments are spurious and ill-informed at best, but the claim that Taiwan is merely of economic interest and thus does not deserve American defensive aid is more serious. This is a claim that, were it to be deployed as China bore down on Taipei, could upend or undermine the American response and its public support. So, let’s break it down and see just how important Taiwan is to our national interests.
The thread above gets one thing correct: Taiwan is a supremely important nation in terms of economics and supply chains, particularly in the semiconductor industry. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), founded in 1987 as a dedicated independent chip foundry, has been called “the world’s most important company” due to the critical nature of the products it manufactures. Its semiconductors are vital to electronics of all sorts, from handheld phones and automobiles to advanced computer systems and military hardware. Allowing its factories to fall under Beijing’s control would be an epic disaster for everyone but the CCP. This potential problem was not one created by Ronald Reagan and a cabal of financial elites, as suggested above (TSMC wasn’t even started until the twilight years of the Reagan administration), but by natural economic incentives and comparative advantage. TSMC became the world leader in the field because it developed novel technologies, trained a highly-skilled and specialized workforce, and offered the best value proposition to buyers. American firms specialized in developing the products that were fabricated in Taiwan, providing a synergy that promoted innovation and technological progress. Taiwanese-American economic ties go beyond just semiconductors, though. In 2020, Taiwan was our tenth-largest export market for goods, our tenth-largest supplier of goods for import, and our ninth-largest goods trading partner overall. This is no small matter; Taiwan outranks nations like Vietnam, India, France, and Italy and falls just short of Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
We have strong cultural ties with Taiwan too. The US is the primary destination for Taiwanese immigrants, who tend to be wildly successful here, out-earning every immigrant group other than Indian-Americans. Taiwanese-American friendship has a long history, going back to the founding of the modern state by Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, when his Republic of China (ROC) forces withdrew from mainland China under military assault by the armies of Mao Zedong. We supported the Republican government of China before, during, and after World War II in its civil war against the Communists, and continued that support through much of the Cold War. Even after officially recognizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) led by the Chinese Communist Party, Congress passed the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which treated Taiwan as a separate state for purposes of economic, military, and cultural affairs, allowing it to retain many of the benefits of its prior American ties. Taiwan is a dynamic, highly developed, free society that has flourished while its mainland neighbor languishes in totalitarianism and relative poverty. This socio-political dynamic links the US as directly to Taiwan as it does any of our European allies.
Speaking of Europe, another important American interest in Taiwan is in supporting the global norm that nation-states should be able to exercise their own territorial sovereignty without the interference of aggressive neighbors who seek to forcibly annex their lands. We are seeing this play out right now in Ukraine, where a concerted – if sometimes lackadaisical – effort has been made to support the Ukrainians against the imperial Russian invader. Turning back Russia and stifling its revanchist aggrandizement play is not just good for Ukraine, but lends credence to the idea that the West writ large has the resolve to defend this norm of sovereignty. That resolve is critical to deterrence of future territorial aggression from the wide variety of hostile actors on the world stage. It has been argued that territorial proximity essentially negates the promise of national sovereignty given a committed-enough invading force, but this is a recipe for constant wars. As an aggressive nation expands its borders, more territory comes into range for invasion; this would engender a never-ending cycle of chaos and carnage. Expansionist powers rarely stop without being forced to. The resolve of the US-led order was tested by Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, is on the docket again today in Ukraine, and very well may be in the cards for Taiwan soon – China has stated that its military must be ready to invade the island by 2027. Defending the sovereignty of Taiwan – and Ukraine before it – ensures the safety of myriad nations across the world and safeguards the American-led world order, the fount of our prosperity, freedom, and civilizational progress.
Perhaps these arguments would be rejected by the retrenchers and isolationists, as they are not “realist” enough or focused on hard-nosed strategy. Well, Taiwan is doubly important to American strategic security in the Pacific, one of our main theaters of operation and trade. It sits astride one of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes on the planet, the Taiwan Strait – a passage which controls access from northeast Asia to the South China Sea and through the Straits of Malacca into the Indian Ocean. The Taiwan Strait is a maritime chokepoint that, if it were entirely controlled by a regime like the CCP, could be used to stifle international trade and destroy the freedom of navigation. Over the past two centuries, the ideal of the open ocean – mare liberum – has been the international norm, enforced by British and then American naval power. This freedom of the seas allowed for the creation of a globalized economy of peaceful seaborne commerce, a development which has dramatically reduced global poverty and increased standards of living worldwide. The CCP does not share in this ideology, preferring instead to operate a closed maritime sphere where it can limit the commerce of its adversaries and promote that of its friends. This sphere would not be limited to the Chinese littoral, but would range far beyond that to impact even the Western Hemisphere. This would be a fatal strategic blow to American power and prosperity, truly heralding a more dangerous multipolar world playing under China’s rules.
But Taiwan’s strategic importance goes beyond its influence on global shipping. Taiwan is part of the first island chain, which, as I’ve written before, is the linchpin of American security in the Western Pacific (WestPac). That chain of islands, running from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south, hems in Chinese power and separates East Asia from the broad expanse of the Pacific Ocean. It acts as a tripwire for the second and third island chains, which run farther to the east and include sovereign American territory. Allowing Chinese control of Taiwan, given the CCP regime’s proclivity for closed seas versus open oceans, would directly threaten Americans in territories like Guam, Oceania, and even Hawaii. Those sovereign American islands – territory that is as American as the contiguous United States – are the logical next jump from the first island chain. The farther out the CCP can control, the more coercive power it can apply to the nations of the Pacific littoral – the United States included. This is not a mere neoconservative fever dream; Imperial Japan, the last major power to move aggressively into the Pacific, struck at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and attacked other American territories in the second and third island chains. The Chinese Communist Party is cautiously following in those footsteps, ranging far into the second island chain with military assets shortly after drilling to encircle Taiwan. Clearly, CCP control of Taiwan poses a clear and present strategic danger for the United States.
What about the argument that these strategic interests only became important to American strategists once Taiwan became an economic powerhouse? Not only is this wrong, it is incredibly wrong. Taiwan was already a critical national security interest of the United States for an entire century before TSMC was founded. It all goes back to the late 1800s and the expansionist era of American foreign affairs. Over the course of about 20 years, the United States grew from a continental empire to a truly global state. The US annexed Hawaii, gained territories like Guam and the Philippines after winning the Spanish-American War, and sought coaling stations everywhere in between. American Pacific trade was a burgeoning source of wealth for the United States, and these territorial expansions ensured that it would continue flowing unimpeded. The US got into various disputes over strategic islands across the Pacific in the years before World War I, including the famous Samoan Tangle in which American and British interests aligned against those of Imperial Germany; this action helped cement the Anglo-American special relationship, sowed further enmity between the British and the Germans, and clearly showed that the United States was indeed a powerful Pacific player.
American strategic interests in the Pacific have always included Taiwan given its extreme importance in the protection and defense of American territories in the region. The arguments made above applied even more in the pre-WWII era, as the US controlled the Philippines, the southernmost link in the first island chain. During that world-spanning conflict, the Pacific – from Hawaii to Taiwan and beyond – was a key theater of military operations for the Japanese and Americans. The battles which raged over minor atolls and isles killed tens of thousands, spilling blood in defense of key strategic interests in the Pacific. The island-hopping campaigns brought the US closer to the Japanese homeland, reversing the approach the Japanese took to push the US out of WestPac – and presaging a potential Chinese campaign in the future. After the war, the US left the Philippines to become an independent nation, but our regional presence did not wane; Guam et al. remain part of the US. The islands of WestPac – particularly Taiwan – still serve a key strategic interest for the United States in protecting our sovereign territory and in promoting a free maritime ideology.
Returning to the Twitter thread that started this all, it is worth debunking the idea that American interest in Taiwan is purely economic or technological, and that greedy, short-sighted American elites created this problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. America has myriad national interests in a free and democratic Taiwan, from economic and cultural to political and strategic. Those interests have been a longstanding part of American strategy towards the Pacific, dating back over a century – quite the opposite of the short-termism which was alleged. A CCP-controlled Taiwan would be disastrous for American interests across the board, and would herald a diminution in American power that would encourage other bad actors to engage in their own territorial revanchism counter to US interests. In the world of diplomacy and geopolitics, the slippery slope is not at all a logical fallacy, especially as it relates to deterrence. Without a strong, bold stance in favor of Taiwanese autonomy – and the resources and resolve to back that up – deterrence will be lost. And once that Pandora’s box is opened, civilization will reap the whirlwind.
We need American politicians who can explain this dilemma and our interests in WestPac to the public in clear, understandable terms. As we have seen with Ukraine, Americans generally don’t like seeing our adversaries attacking their sovereign neighbors so as to annex their lands. Defending Taiwan should be even more of a lay-up in terms of public opinion, but that ground needs to be laid now, before the situation escalates further. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with isolationist cretins making phony arguments that may end up being persuasive. Defeating those spurious claims is not only necessary for safeguarding the fate of Taiwan, but for defending the American national interest. In short, Taiwan’s sovereignty is indeed linked to American national security. We would do well to remember that.