Countering China’s Intimidation of Taiwan

Why a firm stand against Beijing’s intimidation and coercion of Taiwan is both timely and important right now.


On the first weekend following President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry reported back-to-back incursions by two large fleets of Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan’s self-declared southwestern air defense identification zone. On Jan. 23, the fleet comprised eight nuclear weapon–capable Chinese H-6K bomber planes, four J-16 fighter jets and one anti-submarine aircraft. This was followed the next day by another fleet of 12 fighters, two anti-submarine aircraft and a reconnaissance plane. Beijing repeated these exercises several times in the subsequent months.

Since the election of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, Beijing has markedly stepped up military pressure on Taipei. According to Taiwan, Beijing sent warplanes into the same area on at least 100 days in 2020. In January 2021, Chinese military planes flew into that zone 26 out of the first 30 days. Previously, such flights were usually conducted by one to three reconnaissance or anti-submarine warfare aircraft. According to Bernard Cole, a professor at the National War College, the latest incursions “demonstrate the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s ability to put together a multiplane strike, which we would likely see in the event of a hot war against Taiwan.” Additionally, Taiwan’s defense minister informed its legislature last October that nearly 50 Chinese aircraft had crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait in the first nine months of 2020.

Analysts have concluded that the latest intrusions are specifically intended to pose a direct challenge to the Biden administration regarding its future policy toward Taiwan and the region. On Jan. 23, for example, a spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office asserted that these exercises are designed as warnings to “separatists” in Taiwan and “external forces” who intend to interfere in China’s affairs. Following the exercises, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters: “The United States frequently sends aircraft and vessels into the South China Sea to flex its muscles. This is not conducive to peace and stability in the region.”

In response to the exercises, the State Department issued a press release: “The United States notes with concern the pattern of ongoing PRC attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.” State added: “The United States will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan” and “to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability.” It concluded: “Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.”

Just How Solid Is the Commitment?

Despite such official statements, Richard Haass and David Sacks at the Council on Foreign Relations note in a September 2020 Foreign Affairs article that the U.S. government has maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over the past four decades that “resisted answering the question of whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China mounted an armed attack.” They note that the Taiwan Relations Act only calls on the United States to “provide Taiwan arms of a defensive character” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

Does the United States view the step-up of Chinese military exercises against Taiwan as justifiable or as a “form of coercion”?

While acknowledging that this policy has maintained cross-strait stability thus far, Haass and Sacks argue that ambiguity is “unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities.” They recommend that the U.S. government “introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan” while clearly stating its adherence to the one-China policy. They warn that the failure of the United States to respond to such a Chinese use of force would undermine U.S. credibility among its allies, such as Japan and South Korea, across the region.

Following publication of this article, other foreign policy analysts raised alarms about the proposed change in the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Some contend that a change was unnecessary because China, despite its provocative military exercises, is still unlikely to attack Taiwan. Others argue that Beijing’s increasing pressure on Taiwan could be seen as a reaction to provocative U.S. and Taiwanese policies. Some are concerned that such a commitment would demand a much larger defense budget than the United States could afford. Above all, these analysts express concerns that a policy of “strategic clarity” with respect to Taiwan could actually provoke Beijing into launching an attack on Taiwan.

Putting aside the merits of these arguments for the moment, this open debate has highlighted questions about the credibility of U.S. commitments to Taipei. Does the United States view the step-up of Chinese military exercises against Taiwan as justifiable or as a “form of coercion”? If the former, would the United States intervene to help defend Taiwan? If the latter, does the U.S. government currently have the political will or capacity to help defend Taiwan? In a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, while a majority of American opinion leaders favored the use of U.S. troops to support Taiwan in a Chinese invasion, only about 40 percent of the general public favored such action. It thus appears that there is still significant uncertainty among Americans as to whether the United States should or will actually defend Taiwan against an increasingly powerful Chinese military.

A Moment for Clarity

President Biden has underscored repeatedly that he considers the promotion of democracy and human rights values abroad as one of his highest foreign policy priorities. He indicated that in his first year in office, the United States will host a global Summit for Democracy to, as he put it in an article in the March/April 2020 Foreign Affairs, “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world” and “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda to fight corruption, defend against authoritarianism and advance human rights.” With reference to Taiwan, Biden wrote in an Oct. 22, 2020, opinion piece in the World Journal (a Taiwanese Chinese-language newspaper published in America) that the United States will “stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security and values in the Asia-Pacific region. That includes deepening our ties with Taiwan, a leading democracy, major economy, technology powerhouse—and a shining example of how an open society can effectively contain COVID-19.”

President Biden has also made clear that he sees China as currently posing the top foreign policy challenge for this administration. In his first media interview in February, Biden said that, while needing to avoid conflict, he expected “extreme competition” with China. According to a White House readout of his phone conversation with China’s President Xi Jinping, “President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.”

President Biden has made clear that he sees China as currently posing the top foreign policy challenge for this administration.

In his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken labeled China’s internment of an estimated 1 million minority Uyghurs as “genocide,” and said in a subsequent interview that the United States will be “building stronger alliances, standing up for our values, investing in our people, and making sure our military is properly postured.” Similarly, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in an event hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace that the United States will “speak with clarity and consistency in regard to China and other foreign policy issues.” Specifically, he said this includes “being prepared to act as well as to impose costs for what China is doing in Xinjiang, what it’s doing in Hong Kong, and for the bellicosity and threats that it is projecting towards Taiwan.”

Given the above, it seems this is a critical moment as well as an opportunity for President Biden to underscore his foreign policy priorities by increasing the clarity of U.S. commitment not only to defend Taiwan but, more pointedly, to defend its democracy against China’s blatant resort to military and other forms of coercion “to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means.” In their recent public statements, President Biden and his team have called out Beijing for its coercive actions, emphasizing that any cross-strait agreement must be “consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan.” In mid-April, former Senator Chris Dodd, accompanied by former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and Jim Steinberg, traveled to Taiwan and met with President Tsai Ing-wen to deliver a personal message from President Biden reaffirming U.S. support for Taiwan on the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act. The recent deployment of U.S. aircraft carrier groups to the region and transits through the Taiwan Strait have further underscored U.S. commitment.

With or without an explicit security guarantee, it is thus essential that the United States continue to affirm and demonstrate U.S. political will and capacity to counter Chinese military pressure against Taiwan. Congress should pass the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act to demonstrate bipartisan support and provide authorization to use military force, if necessary. The United States also needs to move quickly to expand bilateral trade, social and cultural ties (e.g., inviting Taiwan to the Summit for Democracy) and negotiating a trade agreement, to strengthen the relationship. This will help build more support among Americans for the need to defend Taiwan and underscore to Taiwan and our allies, as well as such strategic competitors as China and Russia, that the United States is committed to the principles of democracy and human rights, and intends to impose costs and undertake risks to defend democracies and advance the values of the rules-based liberal international order.

Countering Beijing’s Strategy of Intimidation

According to China’s Xinhua news service, Xi Jinping warned Biden in their call that “in matters concerning Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity,” referring to Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, “the U.S. side should respect China’s core interests and act with caution.” Thus, the Biden administration should expect Beijing to escalate military pressures to continue to test U.S. resolve. As it has done in the cases of the East and South China Seas and in Hong Kong, Beijing will justify these actions as a response to foreign interference against China’s core interests.

Nonetheless, I believe Chinese leaders are fully aware of the tremendous costs that would result from an armed conflict involving Taiwan. This situation is entirely different from those in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, where Beijing has full control, and the United States has little to no leverage. To begin with, Beijing would be facing a modern and well-armed Taiwan military in entrenched defensive positions that would exact a heavy toll on an invading force, even if it could not ultimately win the fight. A full-scale armed conflict would destroy vital cross-strait economic ties and disrupt critical global supply chains, which will in turn have a debilitating impact on the large but still developing Chinese economy that is heavily dependent on international trade and investments.

There are risks to maintaining the strategy of ambiguity as Chinese military power builds up in the coming years.

It would also be impossible to avoid collateral damage that would endanger the lives and interests of a sizable foreign population in Taiwan, thus forcing a widespread global response. Under these circumstances, it would be difficult to imagine the U.S. military in the region remaining uninvolved. While some in China may initially support such an invasion, there would almost certainly be substantial domestic opposition, including from those who have visited or have family and business ties to Taiwan, questioning the necessity of the conflict, especially as Chinese casualties and economic repercussions mount. Hence, an armed invasion of Taiwan would be Beijing’s very last resort because its tremendous costs would far outweigh any possible benefit China could derive even from a “successful” invasion.

Thus, as I see it, Beijing’s increasing provocations do not necessarily suggest that it is currently preparing for an armed conflict. Rather, these actions are designed to intimidate and to create and fuel doubts about U.S. commitments to Taiwan and, increasingly, to isolate and undermine the morale of the people of Taiwan. Beijing’s ultimate goal, in the tradition of China’s war strategist Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, is to use military intimidation to divide and coerce the people of Taiwan into accepting Beijing’s formula for political reunification, which, as in the case of Hong Kong, it can then discard after assuming greater control. In short, Beijing is seeking to win a war through intimidation and without the actual use of force.

To counter this strategy, the United States must stand firm and counter China’s intimidation tactics. It should demonstrate its commitment to help defend Taiwan and its democracy, and deepen the bilateral relationship in ways that bind our interests and values. In confronting China, the United States should be prepared to accept greater risks and be prepared to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, if necessary. The objective should be to convince Beijing that the use of military intimidation and coercion against Taiwan will only backfire, making China’s goal of political reunification even more difficult, if not impossible. At the same time, the United States should also make clear that it welcomes dialogue and a peaceful resolution of cross-strait ties that fully respects the wishes and interests of the people of Taiwan.

At the same time, the United States must make it very clear to the people of Taiwan that we “have your backs”; and we need to work with Taiwan to bolster our joint defense capability. The United States needs to assure the people of Taiwan that our commitment is not transactional, and that we will defend their freedom to determine their own political future in cross-strait negotiations without fear of Chinese intimidation. The United States should make clear to all that it is committed to ensuring that, as mandated in the TRA, “the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means” and not through the use of force or coercion.

Strategic Ambiguity and Its Risks

There are risks to maintaining the strategy of ambiguity as Chinese military power builds up in the coming years. First, this strategy will not reduce Beijing’s increasing assertiveness toward Taiwan and the region. From my own involvement in many years of negotiations with Chinese officials, it is my view that Beijing will see a U.S. effort to hang on to this strategy simply as a sign of weakness and fear, not clever diplomacy, and will seek to exploit this weakness by increasing the pressure and pushing for concessions from both Taiwan and the United States. I believe we are seeing this play out today. In time, the lack of a clear U.S. commitment will allow Beijing to succeed in sowing doubts about U.S. credibility—not only among the people of Taiwan, but in the region and the world as a whole.

Beijing will continue to escalate its military pressure as it senses uncertainty and weakness on the part of the United States.

Second, as the people of Taiwan sense a relatively weakened U.S. commitment, many more will succumb to Chinese pressures and seek a cross-strait compromise that does not reflect their own values and interests, but their fears. For others, especially in the pro-independence camp, this could result in greater frustration and even desperation that could lead to an open push for Taiwan independence to force the hands of both Beijing and the United States. This would create a serious dilemma for the United States either to defend Taiwan or simply accept a Beijing-imposed reunification solution along the lines of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems.” The former could lead to an armed conflict, while the latter would essentially destroy Taiwan’s democracy and U.S. international credibility for the foreseeable future.

Finally, a strategy of ambiguity raises the probability of miscalculation because Beijing will continue to escalate its military pressure as it senses uncertainty and weakness on the part of the United States. This could create situations in which the two militaries misinterpret each other’s intentions in particular cases that result in an accidental military conflict. To avoid this, as National Security Adviser Sullivan has said, the United States must “speak with clarity and consistency in regard to China and other foreign policy issues.”

Can the United States Deliver?

Addressing the Munich Security Conference in mid-February, President Biden announced to the world that “America is back.” On China, he said: “We must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China. How the United States, Europe and Asia work together to secure the peace and defend our shared values and advance our prosperity across the Pacific will be among the most consequential efforts we undertake. Competition with China is going to be stiff. That’s what I expect, and that’s what I welcome, because I believe in the global system Europe and the United States, together with our allies in the Indo-Pacific, worked so hard to build over the last 70 years.”

It seems to me that how the United States confronts Beijing’s increasing military threats and coercion against Taiwan and its democracy will be the key test as to whether the United States can deliver on its global commitment.

Robert S. Wang, a retired Foreign Service officer, is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. During a 32-year career with the Department of State, Mr. Wang served overseas in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Taiwan and Beijing, where he was deputy chief of mission from 2011 to 2013. His last Foreign Service assignment before retiring in 2016 was as the U.S. senior official for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (2013-2015). He was a senior adviser at Covington & Burling LLP (2016-2018) and a visiting fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS (2009-2010).