How Will the United States Respond When China Attacks Taiwan?


Wesley Smith

October 6, 2021

8 min read

Foreign Policy



Last Monday, the Communist Chinese sent 52 military planes into Taiwan’s air defense zone, the most ever in a single day.  The intrusion came after the U.S. warned China about such flights and after three days of similar violations. In four days, China has flown 145 aggressive flights into the airspace of the island nation.  The flights started on October 1st as the Communists celebrated the takeover of mainland China 72 years before.  The flights included fighter jets and bombers.  The intrusions caused Taiwan to scramble their own jets in defense, issue radio warnings to the intruders, and activate their radar-guided defensive missile systems.  The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) planes have crossed into Taiwan’s air defense zone over 750 times this year.

Taiwan celebrates its own National Day on October 10th.  The relationship of the United States to Taiwan is complicated.  The official U.S. stance is “strategic ambiguity.” Certainly the U.S. did not support the Communist takeover of the mainland that forced the Chinese anti-Communist forces onto the island where they remain today.  On the other hand, following President Nixon’s outreach to China in the 1970s, the U.S. recognizes Beijing and the “one China policy.”  But the U.S. is also legally bound to supply Taiwan with arms to repel an attack under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.  It is important that Taiwan, and its 24 million people, remain a free and independent nation—though the U.S. is careful not to use that nomenclature.

However, Taiwan’s security is in the balance.  Not only are the Chinese sending airplanes into Taiwan’s airspace, but they have also stated they intend to reunite Taiwan with the mainland—by force if necessary.  The Chinese navy has increased patrols close to Taiwan’s coast.  China has issued dire warnings to the United States over our support of Taiwan.  Chinese officials in April warned the U.S. to stop “playing with fire” when it comes to our relationship with Taiwan.  Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian stated, “There is zero room for compromise and not an inch to give.  We urge the U.S. side to grasp the situation, earnestly abide by the one-China policy . . . [and] immediately stop official contact with Taiwan in any form.”  China describes Taiwan as “an inalienable part of China’s territory.”  For America, the policy is that China is indeed “one”—but sees Taiwan as separate.

The U.S. State Department recently issued new guidelines on strengthening our relationship with Taiwan.  To his credit, President Biden was the first U.S. President to officially invite the Taiwanese government to his inauguration.  Following years of the U.S. arming Taipei with sophisticated weaponry, the Biden Administration recently approved a new 750-million-dollar arms sale to the democratic nation.  The U.S. has also sent high-level delegations to Taiwan and pledged to give them 750,000 doses of the COVID vaccine.  Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently told Congress that a new trade agreement with Taiwan was in the works. All of this has drawn the ire of Beijing.

China boasts of American weakness.  State media outlets talk about the decline of the U.S. and warn U.S. allies that they, too, will be abandoned—referring to our chaotic exit from Afghanistan.  The Chinese Communist Party paper, Global Times, called Afghanistan an “omen” for what will happen to Taiwan, and used our exit from Vietnam as further proof.  As a response to President Biden’s inauguration in January, China staged military drills near Taiwan in an attempt to warn the Biden Administration of what was at stake in supporting Taiwan.

Taiwan is a flashpoint.  The U.S. Navy has increased its freedom-of-navigation operations around Taiwan and near the islands in the South China Sea which China has illegally claimed as part of their territory—building military installations there.  France and the United Kingdom have also increased navy patrols in the area.  Ned Price, at the U.S. State Department, said the U.S. would continue to help Taiwan maintain a robust self-defense capability.  He also warned China that its military activity near Taiwan risks miscalculation and undermines peace and regional stability.  In my opinion, the Communists are counting on a miscalculation—as it would give them the excuse they need to take over their democratic neighbors.  For China, peace and stability means they force Taiwan into the Communist fold.  It is a similar strategy they are using in Hong Kong.

While senior officials in the Biden Administration say they do not expect an imminent invasion of Taiwan—they also stated there was no way the Afghanistan government would fall in a matter of weeks.  The new U.S. commander of the Indo-Pacific Region stated in his Senate confirmation hearings that war would come to Taiwan sooner than most people think.  Admiral John Aquilino said annexing Taiwan is a “number one priority” for China.  Chinese President Xi recently promised the complete “reunification” of Taiwan and China.

A war over Taiwan could occur by Communist design or by accident, a miscalculation.  But once this conflict starts, the Biden Administration will have to make some of the most difficult and consequential decisions of the Biden presidency.  China’s distinct advantage of being in the region with the world’s largest military is a given.  Its mutual defense treaty with North Korea is also a factor, as is its bonds with Russia.  Do not look to the United Nations Security Council to help with an enforceable resolution that protects Taiwan.  Consensus by the U.S. and its allies will be in doubt as to what concrete actions to take short of an all-out war.  The U.S. will look to South Korea and Japan (the more hawkish of those two countries); however, a war in the region would be costly and bloody.

Taiwan is capable of making an attack by China difficult and costly.  Its weapons and defenses are impressive—as is its commitment to remaining free and independent. But in the end—without outside intervention—China’s military would eventually overwhelm Taiwan by its sheer strength and numbers.  A conflict involving nuclear weapons by the U.S. and China is highly unlikely—and unadvisable.  China knows this and will calculate that a protracted air and ground war will be avoided by the U.S. and our partners in Europe and Asia, too.

Sanctioning and isolating China from the rest of the world could happen.  However, the West is heavily in debt to China and dependent on China.  China thus far has escaped any real consequences for its human rights abuses, currency and financial misdeeds, theft of intellectual property, and internet crimes.  India claims that China still occupies almost 17,000 square miles of its sovereign territory. Sanctions, warnings, and diplomacy will have no effect on China’s desire to take Taiwan by force, if that is what is required.

China’s calculus that the U.S. is politically divided and the Biden Administration at times hesitant and vacillating is, unfortunately, accurate.  Any aggression by China will take this into account.  The U.S. is struggling to police its own border and is still smarting from its chaotic and disgraceful withdrawal from Afghanistan.  The Biden Administration seems intent on reentering the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) even though Iran remains a malevolent actor in the world and intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. Congress is divided on two spending bills that would increase our debt to historic amounts—an amount larger than the entire federal budget a few years ago.

China’s idea of defeating the United States does not involve fighting World War III.  Rather, it is counting on the U.S. imploding on itself politically and financially.  They believe that the U.S., much like the former Soviet Union, will eventually be unable to afford to be the world’s only superpower.

The only nation that can prove the Chinese are wrong is the United States itself.  We must stand together and embrace a proper “America First” policy—even as we expect other nations to seek their own interests as a first priority, too.  We must counter leftists in our own country whose knee-jerk reaction is to blame America first.  As a people, we must take a stand against the ugliness of partisan politics in America, all while holding our elected officials accountable.  Are we perfect as a nation?  No.  But there is a reason that millions of people around the world would pay almost any price to be in the United States and to participate in this noble experiment called America.

Additionally, our leaders must anticipate China’s attempt to invade and occupy Taiwan.  How will the United States respond when China attacks Taiwan?  It is likely not a question of “if” but rather “when.”

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