The US-China Rivalry: A Survival Guide for Taiwan

Written by Yuan-kang Wang.

The most important geostrategic event of this century is the rivalry between the United States and China. International competition between these two countries is heating up. As the African proverb goes, “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” How should Taiwan avoid being trampled?

Broadly speaking, there are four guidelines to follow.

First, Taiwan needs to recognize the supremacy of national interests in international politics. Although the US has a security commitment in the Taiwan Relations Act, this commitment is guided first and foremost by US national interests (instead of those of Taiwan). In a system without overarching authority to adjudicate disputes, states make decisions based on their national interest, not on moral principles. The United States is no exception. For example, the US supported autocratic regimes that abused human rights during the Cold War because it was in its national interest to do so. Similarly, in the midst of the North Korea nuclear crisis in 2003, US President George W. Bush publicly chided Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian for holding a referendum that might upset the status quo (“as we define it”). When Washington has bigger fish to fry, Taiwan’s democratic aspirations can be sacrificed. This is no doubt dispiriting, but it is how international politics works.

Second, Taiwan should synchronize its security interests with those of the United States. The US-China security competition presents an opportunity for Taiwan to strengthen mutual defense cooperation with the US. As China rises in power, there is growing fear in the United States about being overtaken. An emerging realization in Washington is that the policy of engagement has not delivered the results as advertised. Hopes of a Chinese democracy remain as distant as ever and China has not behaved—in the eyes of the US—as a “responsible stakeholder.” Instead, China is expanding in the South China Sea; establishing footholds in Africa, Latin America, and across the world; building alternative institutions to US-preferred ones; and becoming increasingly assertive in protecting its interests. Rising powers tend to expand, and China is just following this historical pattern. These actions, however, have awoken the United States. President Obama’s Asia rebalancing strategy and President Trump’s “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy are both efforts to shore up America’s declining power position in the face of a rising China. In the context of this changing international structure, Taiwan is a strategic asset Washington cannot ignore.

Third, because international politics is a self-help world, Taiwan should not become complacent on US security assistance. Instead of wishfully counting on US support, Taiwan must boost its own self-defense. Surveys show that the Taiwan public has a strong belief that the US would come to its rescue. In the 2019 Taiwan National Security Survey, when asked if Taiwan maintains the status quo and does not declare independence, 61.5 percent of the respondents professed a belief that the US would send troops to defend Taiwan if China attacks the island. The percentage drops to 48.5 if the cause of war is a declaration of independence by Taiwan, which is still higher than those who believe the US would not defend Taiwan in this situation (45.3 percent). Nevertheless, in a self-help world, free riding on an uncertain US security commitment is too great a risk to take. The military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has consistently shifted in China’s favor over the past decade; there may come a day when the PLA could overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses. Yet despite years of declaratory statements, Taiwan’s military expenditures as a percentage of GDP have yet to meet the 3 percent target. The minimum defense requirement for Taiwan is to be able to withstand the first wave of a PRC attack before US assistance arrives on the scene. Taiwan’s defense planners need to ask hard questions and realistically evaluate whether the island has sufficient self-defense capabilities.

Last, but not least, Taiwan needs to build a domestic consensus on how to deal with China. Since the current administration does not accept the “1992 Consensus,” it must find an acceptable workaround. If an identity as the “Republic of China” is the greatest common denominator across the political spectrum, then leaders should build a consensus around it. Without this consensus, Taiwan will not be able to meet the China challenge and will risk being swallowed up in the long run. This is probably the most difficult challenge for Taiwan, but to survive it must try and try very hard. The China factor dominates, and divides, Taiwan’s domestic politics and elections. Internal divisions cause gridlock in Taiwan’s political system, which Beijing can exploit to its advantage. Without the necessary economic and political reforms, the result is a stagnant economy and political paralysis. Yet another problem is the mass media’s tendency to report on sensational and trivial events, which has the unfortunate effect of desensitizing the public to changes around the world. To deal with the China challenge, Taiwan’s leaders must have a sober understanding of the international reality and the dire straits the island is in. Continued political infighting is debilitating to the country and will only increase the island’s jeopardy.

As the US-China rivalry intensifies, Taiwan needs to walk a fine line. It should strengthen Taiwan-US relations while avoiding unnecessarily antagonizing China. To survive, Taiwan needs to understand the imperatives of national interests in great power politics, continue defense cooperation with the United States, strengthen its self-defense capabilities, and come up with a consensus on China. This is no easy task. If Taiwan does not help itself, nobody will.

Yuan-kang Wang is Professor of Political Science at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics. Image credit: CC by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)

One comment

  1. Indeed, the choices Taiwan faces are stark. No doubt, “the dire straits the island is in” are severe. And, using another African proverb, ‘burying one’s head in the sand’, as Taiwanese people are doing mostly, won’t help.

    However, will it suffice “to understand the imperatives of national interests in great power politics, continue defense cooperation with the United States, strengthen its self-defense capabilities, and come up with a consensus on China” for Taiwan to survive and avoid getting trampled?

    It is true, the most consequential geostrategic process “of this century is the rivalry between the United States and China”. And Taiwan is poised to become a hot focal point of this rivalry. How to escape?

    Let’s probe into the four guidelines suggested.

    1. It is true, there is a “supremacy of national interests in international politics”. Taiwan may be just a token for the United States in its pursuit of national interest. No doubt, in the United States dealings with China, the “bigger fish to fry”, “Taiwan’s democratic aspirations can be sacrificed”. More pointedly, Taiwan will be sacrificed unless it proves itself a valuable asset to the United States in stemming the rise of China for the long term.

    2. What would it be like for Taiwan to “synchronize its security interests with those of the United States”? What are the security interests of the United States in the region? Just look at the map. If China takes over Taiwan, it can place military bases there which makes it easier for the PLA to project its force into the Pacific and cut off the United States’ bases in Japan, Korea and the Philippines from their supply lines and such deprive them of the ability to blockade China’s ports. Obviously, it is the United States’ strategic interest to keep China out of Taiwan.

    But are Taiwan’s interests best served by “synchroniz[ing] its security interests with those of the United States” and such “to strengthen mutual defense cooperation with the US”? There is one specific security interest which is shared between Taiwan and the US: deny China sovereignty over Taiwan. For this specific interest no synchronization is required because it is naturally shared. However, what advantage would Taiwan gain if it synchronized with the many other security interests of the US? It could be drawn into skirmishes between China and the US navy in the South China Sea. It could be required to defend the US’ military bases in case they were attacked by China. Doesn’t mutual defense cooperation apply to each partners’ needs?

    It’s not hard to see that “to synchronize [Taiwan’s] security interests with those of the United States” and “to strengthen mutual defense cooperation with the US” is a sure way to make the territory of Taiwan the prime battleground as soon as China and the US go to war which they will do eventually as happened in the past with nearly all rising powers hampered by hegemonial powers.

    3. No doubt, “international politics is a self-help world”. Therefore, it is foolish of Taiwan to rely overly “on US security assistance”. However, would it be sufficient for Taiwan to “boost its own self-defense” by increasing “military expenditures as a percentage of GDP” only? Would it be helpful for Taiwan “to be able to withstand the first wave of a PRC attack before US assistance arrives on the scene” if that assistance were forwarded hesitantly or half-heartedly?

    To be effective, a military needs abundant funding for superior weapons, but it needs even more a strong morale. However, no amount of money can lift morale that is lacking. So, increasing “military expenditures as a percentage of GDP” is not sufficient to make a military effective. The most advanced weapons are of no help when generals are among the first to surrender or defect.

    4. This guideline gets it wrong. Before the Taiwanese can arrive at “a domestic consensus on how to deal with China”, they have to decide on how strong a determination they are willing to express over their desire to defend the open and democratic way of life they have built for themselves. Are the Taiwanese willing to defend their country whatever it may take? If they are unwilling or unable to vividly demonstrate such determination, they won’t succeed for long in resisting China’s demands and they won’t convince the US that it is worthwhile to intervene militarily in the case of an attack.

    Only when the Taiwanese find strength in their determination to defend the freedoms their society enjoys will they be able to deal with China confidently. Otherwise it will be without consequence if there is “a domestic consensus on how to deal with China” or not. It will not make any difference regarding China’s attitude towards its dealings with Taiwan. Just like today China will set the agenda and Taiwan will react despondently.

    The Swiss are a role model the Taiwanese would be wise to emulate. Nobody doubts their determination to defend their country to the last drop of blood. They don’t rely on any other power’s willingness to defend them. They are strictly neutral in their international relations. And that is the consensual foundation on which their dealings with other powers are based.

    I agree with the author that “Taiwan needs to understand the imperatives of national interests in great power politics” to survive. I disagree that Taiwan should “continue defense cooperation with the United States” in the close manner outlined by the author because it would be a sure way to become the first to get trampled. I very much agree that Taiwan should “strengthen its self-defense capabilities”. However, I don’t see the problem in the military budget but in the weak defense determination. I do not agree with the need to “come up with a consensus on China”. This is a secondary issue. Much more important for Taiwan to survive is to build the population-wide determination to defend Taiwan’s freedom at all cost.


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