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A Symposium On The Taiwan Red Line

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

By David Brostoff, Kai Yuen Suherwan and Ben Brodt


The Unwinnable Crusade: A Critique of A Taiwanese Red Line

By: David Brostoff

China’s rise in global power constitutes a direct challenge to American national interest. At the present moment, the United States has the privilege of acting as the hegemonic power in the Indo-Pacific region. However, China, as a revolutionary state, seeks to overthrow the status quo; it wants to shed the yoke of the American regional order and, instead, impose a new order that upholds Chinese hegemony. Regaining control over Taiwan would offer China one opportunity to augment its sphere of influence and relative power. If the United States hopes to preserve its influence in the region, supporting Taiwan may help to dampen China’s rise to power. Nevertheless, the U.S. needs to recognize its actual military capabilities and understand that it would likely fail in such a conflict. Moreover, even if the U.S. could prevail in the conflict, American diplomacy must divest itself from the crusading spirit. Instead, American statesmen should prioritize a prudent approach to foreign affairs that aims to contain Chinese expansion politically.

Despite this reality, U.S. policymakers have to take a long, hard look at its capabilities and recognize the limits of its military power. Senior RAND Corporation analyst David Ochmanek reported that “In our games, when we fight Russia and China, blue gets its ass handed to it.” When RAND wargames and simulates military conflict in partnership with the United States Department of Defense, the U.S. military often loses badly against the Chinese and Russian militaries. Ochmanek is not the only person to report this reality. The National Defense Strategy Commission revealed a similar finding in its 2018 report: “If the United States had to fight … China in a war over Taiwan, Americans could face a decisive military defeat.” It is a disheartening reality, but one that Americans must face: that our military capabilities may not prevail in a conflict with China over Taiwanese independence.

Frankly, it would be imprudent for the U.S. to embark on a military campaign that it cannot win. This is an important lesson that American statesmen should take from the ancient historian Thucydides. At the end of the Peloponnesian War, Athens wanted to increase its relative power by conquering the distant island of Sicily. Against this decision, one general, Nicias, made a case for restraint, warning the Athenians that even if their military was “superior to [the enemy], we shall find it difficult to conquer Sicily or save ourselves.” The parallels between Thucydides’ time and ours are striking. Nicias knew that Athens’ military would ultimately suffer at the hands of Sicily; RAND and several other defense experts know that the United States’ military will ultimately suffer at the hands of China. Yet, Athens committed to the Sicilian Expedition, and Nicias’ prediction was realized: Athens was severely brutalized; its power was undermined; its allies abandoned it; and its empire eventually collapsed. If the United States hopes to avoid falling into the same fate as the Athenian Empire, it must learn from the failures of the past and reject a war that it cannot win.

But even if the U.S. could defeat the Chinese military in the conflict, it would be unwise to engage in a moralistic crusade. The notion that the U.S. has an obligation to spread and preserve democracy abroad is deeply ingrained in the American psyche; policymakers have echoed President Woodrow Wilson’s sentiments that the ultimate goal of American foreign policy is to make the world “safe for democracy.” Nearly one hundred years after Wilson’s proclamation, this philosophy has been used to justify the wars to spread and preserve democracy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Taiwan.

Indeed, this crusading spirit may appear noble on its surface; however, it often leads to destructive policies. A moralistic approach to foreign affairs demands absolute and universal adherence to a particular ideological system. In other words, every state must completely conform to a certain abstract principle; those that refuse to yield to the ideological system are condemned to war; and compromise or moderation are thrown out the window for absolute victory. The tragedy of this world view is that no state—no peoples—have ever, nor will ever, agree on a set of ideological principles. And as such, war becomes perpetual.

Take the Thirty Years’ War, for instance. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Europe warred with itself to enforce a particular sect of Christianity across the continent. While each state saw itself as a morally superior force attempting to spread its faith abroad, the actual outcome was a massive bloodbath that led to the deaths of millions of lives. Today, as Hans J. Morgenthau asserted, “[t]he two political religions of our lifetime [liberal democracy and authoritarian socialism] have taken the place of the two great Christian denominations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” The U.S. has vowed to embark on moralistic crusades with those opposed to liberal democracy, but this is simply a return to a deadlier past. If it hopes to avoid the mistakes of the seventeenth-century Europeans, it must avoid moralistic policies that enforce ideological systems—such as a war for the shining city upon the Far Eastern hill, Taiwan.

But that is not to say the Biden administration should avoid supporting Taiwan. The real question the United States must ask itself is how it can promote its national interest without using military force. The prudent diplomacy of containment would push back against China’s rise and its challenge to U.S. power. Although containment has been used to justify military intervention in places such as Vietnam, the strategy, as it was initially conceived by George F. Kennan, was not intended to be used militarily. In his memoirs, he revealed that he did not call for the "military means of a military threat, but the political containment of a political threat." Applying this sentiment to Chinese expansion, the U.S. must attempt to restrain China through diplomatic means: it should provide financial aid to Taiwan, develop a coalition to create a balance of power in the region, and create a legitimate order by engaging in cross-strait negotiations. Such an approach to foreign affairs could best curb Chinese power while promoting American interest.

Showing restraint from a Taiwanese red line seems somewhat contrary to the American identity. For the world’s most powerful country, it is incredibly difficult to see the shortcomings of its military capabilities. For a country founded and embedded in enlightened-liberal values, it is incredibly difficult to divest from the crusading spirit. But if the United States hopes to preserve its relative power in the world—if it hopes to dampen China’s rise successfully—it must forgo warfare over Taiwan in place of political containment.


Why the United States Should Support Taiwan in War and Peace

By: Kai Yuen Suherwan

The late President Franklin D Roosevelt once proclaimed that the United States must be “the great arsenal of democracy.” He gave this speech in December of 1940, almost a year before the U.S. entered the Second World War. I firmly believe that this proclamation still rings true to this day, especially in the case of Taiwan. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, threats from the mainland against Taiwan have greatly increased. As the People's Liberation Army (PLA) continues to grow its Naval and Marine forces, the Chinese government has reaffirmed its intention to take Taiwan by force. As the spokesman for the Chinese Defense Ministry has said, “we warn those 'Taiwan independence' elements - those who play with fire will burn themselves, and Taiwan independence means war." It is irrelevant to debate whether Taiwan is a “part of China” or an independent state, what matters is that the Chinese are willing to threaten the livelihood of 23.5 million people. It is indisputable that Taiwan is an island under siege. Therefore I believe that the U.S. should support Taiwan militarily both in peacetime and in the event of a war with China.

The U.S. should care about the sovereignty of Taiwan as it has both a moral obligation to support democracy in Taiwan as well as a strategic interest in the region. Freedom House, a non-governmental organization that assesses political freedom and human rights, has given Taiwan a score of 94/100, citing that a “vibrant and competitive democratic system has allowed three peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since 2000, and protections for civil liberties are generally robust.” When looking at these factors, it’s no surprise that I hold the opinion that the U.S. and Taiwan would be great ideological allies, akin to the relationship between the United Kingdom and the U.S. In defending Taiwan the U.S. would regain the confidence of the free world, after the political controversies of the last few years, and will once again be looked upon as the defender of democracy.

On the strategic side of things, the South China Sea is an important area for global trade, with 20% to 33% of global trade flowing through the region. China has claimed a large portion of the South China Sea known as the 9-dash line. They use this demarcation to claim ownership over a vast area of ocean that overlaps the exclusive economic zone claims of nations such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the entire island of Taiwan. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China has also been conducting naval exercises within the disputed territories. These actions take place alongside the continued construction of military and industrial outposts on artificial islands in disputed waters within the South China Sea. Because of these actions, the U.S. should support Taiwan as having a U.S. military presence there would not only serve as a deterrence to the PLA but also give the U.S. a base of operations closer to the disputed areas of the South China Sea. The South China Sea falls under the Indo-Pacific Command of the U.S. military and plays a key part in keeping the region free and open to maritime trade. With Taiwan’s strategic position in the South China Sea, the U.S. would also be able to have better reconnaissance as well as logistical support for its peace and wartime operations in the South China Sea. These advantages would also contribute to the defense of Taiwan in the case of a military invasion by China.

In the event that China invades Taiwan, the U.S. response must be swift and decisive. While the PLA outnumbers the Taiwanese Armed Forces in all, if not most of its military capability, war is hardly ever so simple. Factors such as morale, geography, and outside powers quickly shifting wars in favor of different sides. The people of Taiwan have extreme moral resolve and preparations for a Chinese invasion have been taking place since 1947. In contrast, the Chinese have only recently started to take the prospect of an invasion of Taiwan seriously. As Taiwan is an island, the goal of the air and sea forces of the U.S. should be to destroy not only PLA Navy ships but also their logistical supply lines. That would mean the targeting of ports and military shipping that would be used to support the PLA invasion of Taiwan. The U.S. should also commit ground forces to the defense of Taiwan to bolster the island’s defenses in the case that the PLA is able to secure a beachhead. These measures should give the Taiwanese much-needed time and firepower to hold out against a Chinese invasion until peace is brokered or international pressure forces the Chinese to withdraw.

In peacetime, the U.S. should continue to supply Taiwan with modern means to defend itself. The Biden administration has already approved the sale of military equipment worth $750 million, and if these sales continue it would give the Taiwanese a better chance against the PLA. These arms sales would also serve as a deterrence to the PLA. An invasion of Taiwan would be extremely costly to them, and with more weapons from the U.S. in the hands of the Taiwanese, the projected casualty numbers for the PLA would be higher than without. The U.S. must also step up its military cooperation with the Taiwanese to match the Chinese presence in the region. ​​Writing for Foreign Affairs, Oriana Skylar Mastro of Stanford University claims that, “the PLA wants to make its presence in the Taiwan Strait routine. The more common its activities there become, the harder it will be for the U.S. to determine when a Chinese attack is imminent." Because of this the U.S., Taiwan, and any other willing regional or international partners should conduct military exercises around Taiwan to make their presence as common if not more than China’s.

If the U.S. chooses to assist Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, the U.S. risks losing the lives of its soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen that they send to fight. While this is a hard pill to swallow, the alternative would be to allow the Chinese to impose their will on the millions of people that live in Taiwan. The U.S. would lose a great partner for democracy in Asia as well as lose the confidence of democratic nations in the region such as Japan and South Korea, who have both had issues with China in the last few years. A Chinese victory in Taiwan would give China complete hegemony over the South China Sea and the power to block global trade in that region. This would in turn cause many potential partners in the region to look to China instead of the U.S., lowering the U.S. from their place on the international stage.

Through the numerous threats against the Taiwanese, the Chinese government proves its willingness to impose its will on the Taiwanese people by force. We have seen what the Chinese Government has done to those who oppose their rule in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. The U.S. cannot let this happen in Taiwan. Any military action against Taiwan must be met by the full force of not only the U.S. Military, but by an international coalition of nations that stand for democracy. Therefore, the U.S. should do all that it can so that Taiwan remains a bastion of democracy in Asia.


Response To Brostoff and Suherwan: Asymmetrical Defense of Taiwan

By Ben Brodt

Taiwan is too critical of an ally to lose, but the US cannot allow any potential conflict over Taiwan to be devastating in terms of lives lost or money spent, so the US should focus on more cost-effective and proactive means of defense. Since its formation in 1949, mainland China has been trying to exert control over Taiwan. This is a decisive stage in China’s plan to regain power and prestige. Both David Brostoff and Kai Suherwan, along with former deputy director of the CIA Michael Morell, assume that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is a foregone conclusion. As an important ally with heavy investment and interest in Taiwan, it is expected that the US would assist in repelling China, but is that the best policy for the US? Brostoff and Suherwan aim to consider the risks versus rewards and decide if Taiwan is actually worth defending.

Both begin their arguments with moral reasoning. Suherwan firmly asserts that the US has an ethical obligation to defend Taiwan, a fellow free democracy, from being overrun by an authoritarian adversary. Brostoff challenges this, claiming that defense for perceived “moral obligations” is a weak reason to commit the US to such a costly and dangerous task. In this argument I agree with Brostoff; moral obligations to defend a free nation are not convincing enough. The US should not commit itself to war for the preservation of foreign democracy, especially if its defeat would mean the end of democracy for many of its allies who are dependent on the US. What Brostoff fails to recognize, however, is that principles are not the only reason Taiwan is important.

Taiwan is critical because of its location. It is close to the US’s adversary China and can be used as a forward point to conduct operations in that area if needed. It is also in between China and Guam, a US territory that is home to a sizable military presence. If China were to control Taiwan, it could launch attacks against Guam, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea---all major US allies. The US also needs continued Taiwanese autonomy in the event of a blockade of China. These are arguments that Brostoff fails to acknowledge, and Suherwan makes too little of. US obligations to defend Taiwan must come from a place of strategic importance, not a moral one.

While Brostoff doesn't adequately consider this strategic importance, prioritizing interests over values seems central to his condemnation of US intervention in the conflict. He argues that “American diplomacy must divest itself from the crusading spirit. Instead, American statesmen should prioritize a prudent approach to foreign affairs that aims to contain Chinese expansion politically.” Brostoff is unwilling to reconcile the juxtaposition of these two claims. On the one hand, he says that the US must “divest itself” from seeing Taiwan as critical, but on the other, he proposes that the US utilize Taiwan to contain Chinese expansion. If the US wants to use Taiwan, then we must defend it. How could the US use Taiwan to shape operations in the Indo-Pacific if Taiwan is controlled by China? It cannot.

Brostoff’s claim that Taiwan can be used as a wall to contain China is correct. Here, he and Suherwan agree. Taiwan is a strategically important ally and piece of land. The necessity of holding Taiwan stems from the ability to enforce a blockade on China if necessary, but also to signal to American allies that the US is willing to commit to war in defense of a partner. If Taiwan would fall without the US defending it, Japan and South Korea would have much to fear about Chinese plans to invade them. Japan and Taiwan are in similar situations since China also has a dispute over Japan’s Senkaku Islands. China has threatened to retake the islands, as it has with Taiwan. If the US’s allies cannot rely on the US for mutual defense, then the backbone of the US-led system of Indo-Pacific alliances would crumble, rendering the US unable to project any kind of meaningful power in that region.

Suherwan does recognize the strategic importance of Taiwan to the US-led alliance, though he does not concede that there are more important islands in this island chain. If the US is to expend all efforts on defending Taiwan, it will neglect its responsibilities in other campaigns. After the dust has settled on Taiwan, either still as autonomous or occupied by China, the US must still have the military ability and political will to defend other vulnerable allies. There are more important allies than Taiwan, namely Japan, South Korea, Guam, and Indonesia, all of which would be very exposed if the US cannot project power in the region. While the defense of Taiwan is essential, avoiding pyrrhic victory is even more so.

Despite the strategic need to defend Taiwan, the US faces many obstacles to a successful defense, which Brostoff points out. With roughly 13 times more active-duty military personnel, 1300% larger defense budget, and about seven times as many aircraft and armored vehicles, China’s military vastly overshadows Taiwan. US wargaming has shown multiple times that China would defeat the US in a conventional, force-on-force defense of Taiwan. Despite Suherwan’s claim that a recently approved arms sale to Taiwan will significantly improve Taiwan’s ability to defend itself, this sale is minuscule when comparing the severe overmatch that China has over Taiwan, and placing an American enhanced forward presence in Taiwan would only incite China to act more aggressively. So, despite the need to defend Taiwan, it has been shown that Taiwan cannot be successfully defended, a fact that Suherwan’s analysis fails to acknowledge. However, what this wargaming also shows is not the impossibility of defending Taiwan, but the impossibility of defending Taiwan against today’s China with present-day US military capabilities and tactics. This should be a wake-up call to the defense community that its preparations for “near-peer conflict” are failing and it will lose the next war unless something changes immediately. Luckily, top defense officials are taking note of the alarming losses in wargaming. Recently, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have begun changing how the US will fight in future conflicts, brainstorming new ways to transport material, new systems of communication, enhancing the military’s ability to conduct information warfare, and emphasizing joint maneuver.

The bulk of responsibility for defending Taiwan should not fall on the military, however. While military readiness is important, the strongest defense Taiwan has comes from other elements within the US foreign policy sphere. Brostoff implies one such defense: countering adversarial influence. Under China’s unofficial policy of “unrestricted warfare,” control or influence in Taiwan’s financial system, infrastructure, politics, academia, and businesses are all considered warfare. China’s constant “grey-zone” attacks are aiming to destroy popular support for Taipei through cyberwarfare, intimidation, and disinformation. China’s coercive and ambiguous foreign policy would render Taiwan at Beijing’s mercy before a conventional invasion is even necessary. This is the type of invasion that is already occurring, and one the US has the ability to stop. It would require a whole of government approach led by the State Department, intelligence community, and US private sector, with the DoD focusing on conventional deterrence and contingency planning.

This does not mean that the US defense community should do nothing while counter-influence operations are ongoing. The US must prepare for an asymmetric engagement, and they must prepare to support an ally fighting in this asymmetric conflict. Suherwan highlights this when explaining how the US can defend Taiwan, stating that “...the goal of the air and sea forces of the U.S. should be to cripple the logistical supply lines….” The US should be preparing the Taiwanese military for irregular warfare, especially insurgency. While China could defeat the US and Taiwan in a force-on-force engagement. The US should leverage its strengths to divert Chinese defensive capabilities to Taiwan, exposing Chinese supply lines and infrastructure to American high speed, long-range missiles, and aircraft. Taiwan’s military, repurposed and retrained to fight guerrilla-style, would create difficult dilemmas for Chinese military planners.

As Suherwan argues, Taiwan must be held as a strategically critical island. In order to avoid the last resort of war, the US must shore up Taiwan’s grey-zone defenses which are constantly under threat. The US also needs to radically rethink the way that it would engage China if conflict were to occur. The US foreign policy establishment first has to make itself more adaptable than China is far-sighted. The question is not if the US should defend Taiwan, but how?


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