Americans Deserve Clarity, Not Ambiguity, on China and Taiwan | Opinion

If China were to invade Taiwan tomorrow, should America defend it, to what extent, and why?

This question is becoming ever less academic and ever more pressing. For its part, just last week the Biden administration threatened "terrible consequences" should China strike.

Given the increasing urgency of the matter, its outsize geopolitical significance and the way in which any such conflict involving America could escalate—with dramatic implications for our way of life—the American people deserve a genuine national conversation about Taiwan.

Elevating the issue would manifestly be in America's national interest: It would be expedient and simply the right thing to do.

A country that has committed so much blood and treasure to farcical, aimless, unbounded engagements for the last two decades in the Middle East deserves nothing less than crystalline clarity on what the Biden administration's intentions are—particularly given the confused message delivered to date.

While many leading American military officials project China will not seek to seize Taiwan before 2027, our national security, foreign policy and intelligence apparatus has consistently found itself surprised by China's military developments over the last two decades. For their part, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpieces have threatened Taiwan with "decisive measures" within one to two years. For a variety of reasons, it would be logical for China to speed up the timeline for an assault on Taiwan during this dangerous decade.

Xi Jinping is not getting any younger. His hold on power is not assured. The CCP general secretary's recent crackdown on prominent business leaders and virtually every other aspect of society suggests domestic insecurity. China is facing an energy crisis. It has a real estate bubble, exemplified by ailing developer Evergrande. Deeper demographic and cultural issues loom, threatening to unglue Chinese society.

A nationalist fervor-inducing effort to bring Taiwan to heel could be a convenient salve for the regime. Taiwan is, and always has been, the preeminent apple of the CCP's eye. Successfully subsuming it into the People's Republic of China ambit would constitute a crowning achievement, cementing Xi's place alongside Mao in the CCP's Dictator Hall of Fame.

Such a takeover would put China one step closer to regional hegemony, threatening Japan and the Philippines, to whom we are treaty-bound; give it greater control over the trillions in global commerce that traverse the seas surrounding Taiwan; enhance its technological capabilities, assuming Taiwan's preeminent semiconductor manufacturing facilities were not destroyed in any military incursion; and undermine American power in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. If the perception were that the U.S. failed to fulfill its statutory obligations to Taiwan or otherwise back up its rhetoric with sufficient action, it would suffer further losses in terms of power, prestige and credibility.

Moving from motive to means, the CCP's military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), has been rapidly modernizing and strengthening in its quest to rival the U.S. military. The PLA already boasts a navy larger than America's in terms of total ships and submarines (though not in terms of tonnage), a superior land-based conventional and cruise missile arsenal by both number and range, a robust integrated air defense system, "asymmetric ways and means to counter U.S. conventional capabilities" according to the Department of Defense's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, and, perhaps most disturbingly, a fast-growing nuclear weapons stockpile. The PLA, like the regime it serves, is engaging in ever more brazen exercises and provocations, threatening Taiwan directly. In wargames, Chinese forces have defeated American ones in a simulated assault on Taiwan. Indeed, China's military build-up seems squarely aimed at achieving this objective.

While China has acted increasingly aggressively both in Taiwan's airspace and across the world since the onset of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, global opinion has started to turn against it. This shift is occurring at a glacial pace, with few major substantive policy changes and no comprehensive, unified global campaign to counter and isolate Communist China. But the trendlines are not propitious for the Middle Kingdom, increasing its incentive to act now before the globe perhaps gets its act together.

A man sits on a rock overlooking
A man sits on a rock overlooking the Taipei 101 tower, once the worlds tallest building, and the Taipei skyline, on the top of Elephant Mountain on January 7, 2020 in Taipei, Taiwan. Carl Court/Getty Images

Last but not least, China may see in America the key stumbling block to its hegemonic ambitions—not merely an "emperor wears no clothes" scenario in terms of a Biden administration uniquely lacking in resolve, but one in which the emperor might literally be found stumbling around pants-less. With America ostensibly led by a commander-in-chief of questionable fitness, arguably compromised on Communist China and overseeing a woke and weak administration, Xi may well believe there is no better opportunity to seize Taiwan than during Joe Biden's lackluster tenure.

Prudence therefore demands that America be prepared for an invasion of Taiwan, which includes preparing the American people for it. There are three primary reasons why America's leaders should be using the bully pulpit to elevate the Taiwan issue—explaining what is at stake should China invade, what consequences we might face and what America's commitment to Taiwan's defense might entail, before we are plunged headlong into an unpredictable war Americans may well disapprove of.

First, for America's foreign policy to have any legitimacy, there must be buy-in from the people. What former United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick wrote in her vital 1990 essay, "A Normal Country in a Normal Time," is as fitting today as it was 31 years ago:

It has become more important than ever that the experts who conduct foreign policy on our behalf be subject to the direction and control of the people. We should reject utterly any claim that foreign policy is the special province of special people—beyond the control of those: who must pay its costs and bear its consequences.

If defending Taiwan is in our national interest, the Biden administration must make the case to the American people as to why that is the case—particularly given our war-weariness, the facially unclear relevance to Topeka of what happens a world away in Taipei and the way in which any conflict could escalate, up to and including the possibility of an exchange of nuclear weapons. Right now, it sometimes seems we are being sleepwalked into such a potential engagement without any discussion whatsoever.

For a picture of just how devastating a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan could become, see the spirited debate I moderated between Michael Pillsbury on the one hand, and Michael Anton and David Goldman on the other, at the recent National Conservatism II conference in Orlando, Florida.

Whether a Chinese incursion spirals into a cataclysmic conflagration or is limited to attacks on U.S. military assets and those of our allies and partners in the region, our blood and treasure will be at stake. And we should expect that China might engage in all manner of attacks aimed at destabilizing the American system and raising the costs to American action, exploiting our dependence on China for all manner of goods and the CCP's penetration of virtually every aspect of American society. America could impose costs too, via our superior military and force-multiplying allies and partners in the region, exploiting China's foreign energy dependence and its broader reliance on U.S. capital markets and a global trade architecture still dominated by the U.S.—all of which our leaders ought to telegraph, for deterrent purposes. In my view, America ought to seek to thwart China's regional hegemonic ambitions by arming allies like Taiwan to the hilt, sharing intelligence and fostering alliances and partnerships to build a further bulwark against China—achieving peace through shared strength, not direct confrontation.

Second, elevating this issue to the national level would simultaneously harm China while helping the U.S. Shining a light on Taiwan as a beacon of liberty and dynamism that demonstrates what China could be were it free of the CCP's shackles would stand as a rebuke to Xi's regime—a psychologically significant act of information warfare. Galvanizing public support for Taiwan among tens of millions of Americans might have a deterrent effect all on its own. An America awake and hostile to China's Taiwan designs would obviously pose a greater threat to China than an America asleep at the wheel. It might help prevent, or at least forestall, a Chinese annexation effort that could allow Taiwan and our allies and partners to beef up their own defenses and increase coordination—which itself might serve as an additional deterrent and also reduce the scale of any potential direct American commitment.

Third, a national conversation could simultaneously provide needed clarity to Americans while serving as a form of "strategic ambiguity"—America's decades-long Taiwan policy. If leaders were to lay out a range of hypotheticals about what America might or might not do to deter and possibly respond to a Chinese invasion—and evaluate the merits and demerits of these options—as well as publicly game out how China might respond and how we might counter, this could sow doubt and confusion on China's side while preparing Americans for a whole range of contingencies. It would also give Americans insight into China's nature, which is useful if we are ultimately to compete in the whole-of-society struggle that the China challenge demands.

For a nation to have legitimacy, its leaders must level with the people on matters of war and peace. If our troops may die; our commerce may be interrupted; our homeland may be threatened; and our freedoms may be imperiled, then we better know why and what we plan to do to ensure life and liberty is preserved—and the American national interest is best served.

Ben Weingarten is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, fellow at the Claremont Institute and senior contributor to The Federalist. He is the author of American Ingrate: Ilhan Omar and the Progressive-Islamist Takeover of the Democratic Party (Bombardier, 2020). Ben is the founder and CEO of ChangeUp Media LLC, a media consulting and production company. Subscribe to his newsletter at, and follow him on Twitter: @bhweingarten.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.