In early December, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Taiwan is “a critical node within the first island chain (in the Western Pacific), anchoring a network of U.S. allies and partners … that is critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific.”
The United States must reject making the defense of Taiwan the centerpiece of American grand strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Centering our credibility in the region on deterring and — if necessary — repelling a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would distort the perception of our genuine security interests in East Asia and significantly restrict the freedom of action for policymakers in the event of a crisis. Armed conflict would likely occur, committing the U.S. military to “an acute operational disadvantage,” according to a recent analysis from RAND political scientists.
Far from enhancing the credibility of U.S. deterrence, a clear, unambiguous American defense commitment to Taiwan would shatter it. It is foolhardy to assume the U.S. could delude Chinese defense planners into thinking that we care more about the defense of Taiwan than they do seizing it. For Communist China, national honor is at stake in Taiwan. For the U.S., it is a matter of geopolitics — an important but ultimately unemotional question of gamesmanship. American policymakers would be forced to choose between admitting the weakness of America’s deterrence vis-à-vis Taiwan, or committing themselves to a military situation in which China possesses both the geographic and operational advantages. It is unlikely America would ultimately emerge the victor in such a contest and, even if it did, it would do so at a cost that vastly exceeds the strategic significance of Taiwan itself.
Indeed, defending the island is an important objective but it cannot become the end-all-be-all of our regional defense policy. The U.S. outspends the Chinese on defense by some $400 billion. Are our alliances and defense posture in the Indo-Pacific so weak that it cannot endure the loss of a single island only 60 miles from the Chinese mainland? Indeed, Taiwan is less intrinsically valuable in and of itself than what its defense supposedly represents: a psychological bellwether for the remainder of America’s defense posture in the region. If Taiwan falls, it is believed, so too will the remainder of our allies in the region — a long-since disproven phenomenon academics refer to as “bandwagoning,” which amounts to little more than a “domino theory” redux.
American policymakers, especially members of both houses of Congress, need to seriously consider the logical and probable implications of unambiguously committing Washington to the defense of Taiwan. They must examine, coldly, the consequences of binding American credibility to a game of deterrence where our opponent will always be willing to out-escalate us. The U.S. requires a dose of realism in its discussion surrounding Taiwan; its fall would be damaging but not fatal. To believe otherwise does nothing but a disservice to ourselves.
Sixty years ago, American policymakers were confronted with a similarly complex and confusing set of circumstances in the Indo-Pacific. American political leaders also sought to prevent an increase in Chinese political and military influence and avoid a cascading defection of allies if U.S. deterrence failed. Yet, for all the sophisticated policy papers and war games, American policymakers failed to ask the most basic questions of whether committing the U.S. to an independent and non-communist South Vietnam was an appropriate course of action. They failed to reflect on their most fundamental assumptions, which proved fatally flawed. As former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara observed in his 1995 memoir, In Retrospect:
The dilemma [U.S. Secretary of State] Dean [Rusk] and I defined was going to haunt us for years. Looking back at the record of those meetings [in early 1961], it is clear our analysis was nowhere near adequate. We failed to ask the five most basic questions: Was it true the fall of South Vietnam would trigger the fall of Southeast Asia? Would that constitute a grave threat to the West’s security? What kind of war—guerilla or conventional—might develop? Could we win it with US troops fighting alongside the South Vietnamese? Should we not know the answers to all these questions before deciding whether to commit troops?
McNamara ultimately concluded that, “We…overestimated the effect of South Vietnam’s loss on the security of the West…straying from this central truth, we built a progressively more massive effort on an inherently unstable foundation.” Indeed, U.S. policymakers cared far less about the fate of South Vietnam itself than what the tiny nation represented. As Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton described U.S. aims in South Vietnam to McNamara in a memo in 1965, 70 percent of the reason the United States remained committed to the country was simply in order to “avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor).” Only 20 percent was to keep the territory out of Chinese hands.
The U.S. risks repeating its worst errors of the Cold War by centering its future Indo-Pacific grand strategy on the credibility of the U.S. defense of Taiwan. Before doing so, Washington would be wise to heed Secretary McNamara’s advice and avoid the same grave mistakes made nearly 60 years ago. The United States, if it centers its Indo-Pacific credibility on the defense of Taiwan, risks once again building a massive effort on an inherently unstable foundation.