Deterring China: Mission Possible | Opinion

On February 15, embarrassed Taiwan military officials publicly admitted that a Chinese Harbin Y-12 utility plane had flown close to Dongyin, an outlying island about 30 miles from China's coast, but maintained the aircraft had not entered sovereign Taiwanese airspace. They said China appeared to have been testing Taiwan's air defenses.Ten days earlier, Dongyin residents reported that they had seen the plane fly at a low altitude directly over their island.

The residents' accounts of the incident appear credible. If they're accurate, the incursion represented a significant escalation, the first time in more than four decades that China flew into Taiwan's territorial airspace without permission.

Deterrence of China in any event is breaking down. Beijing is not honoring, among other things, its heavily promoted "Olympic Truce."

How can America maintain stability in Asia with China's increasingly provocative behavior? Obviously conventional strategies are not working, and ideas once considered extreme look increasingly attractive. After three decades of deeply misguided policies, Washington now has no risk-free options.

Communist China considers Taiwan its 34th province and reserves for itself a right to use force to "reunify" the Chinese nation.

"Reunification" is impossible, however, because China's version of history is faulty. The People's Republic has never ruled the island, which considers itself an independent state. In fact, the international community has never formally recognized a Chinese regime, even Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government, as having indisputable sovereignty over Taiwan.

Beijing has its "One-China principle," which holds that Taiwan is part of its territory. Washington, on the other hand, has a "One-China policy." The U.S. recognizes the People's Republic as the sole legitimate government of China, acknowledges the fact that Beijing claims Taiwan, maintains that Taiwan's status is unresolved and insists that any resolution have the approval of the people of Taiwan. American policy, as the State Department has reiterated, is based on the "Three Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Six Assurances"—key documents that for decades have defined U.S. policy on Taiwan.

Yet the U.S. needs to do more than recite old diplomatic pronouncements and stop treating Taiwan as an offshoot of its ties to China. "The international community must re-imagine its Taiwan relations," Gerrit van der Wees, who teaches Taiwan history at George Mason University, tells Newsweek. "We need to look at Taiwan in its own light and its own right."

"Under the principle of universality as enshrined in the U.N. Charter, we also need to start supporting Taiwan as a full and equal member of the international family of nations," he points out. And van der Wees is correct—Taiwan meets the tests for statehood in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States.

Since 1979, when Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, American policy has not been clear about Taiwan's status. As a result, the U.S. has defended an ill-defined—and uneasy—status quo.

Taiwan flag
A CH-47 Chinook helicopter carries a Taiwan flag during national day celebrations in Taipei on October 10, 2021. Sam Yeh / AFP/Getty Images

To maintain that status quo, Washington has adopted a policy of "strategic ambiguity"—not telling either Beijing or Taipei what it would do if hostilities were imminent. Strategic ambiguity has kept the peace up to now, but it worked in a period far more tranquil than the present.

Strategic ambiguity worked when Beijing respected American power. Beginning early last year, however, senior Chinese officials have repeatedly declared that the U.S. no longer deters them.

Some, therefore, argue that Washington must react to an especially assertive China and adopt "strategic clarity"—a commitment to defend Taiwan. With China so aggressive, the thinking goes, only an unmistakable declaration can deter Xi Jinping, China's militant ruler.

To make such a declaration credible, the U.S. would have to go beyond words. It could, for instance, station forces on the island and even offer a mutual defense treaty to Taiwan. A treaty would make the American commitment firm.

Why is a firm commitment necessary? In Eastern Europe, President Joe Biden is not sending troops to defend Ukraine. In fact, he is withdrawing 150 military trainers from the country. On the other hand, he has been clear about protecting nearby treaty allies. "Make no mistake: the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power," the president said Tuesday afternoon. "An attack against one NATO country is an attack against all of us."

China needs to believe Washington would consider an attack on Taiwan as an attack on the United States. For a regime that is extremely casualty-adverse—Beijing took more than a half year to admit that four Chinese soldiers died in its June 2020 surprise attack on India, when in reality the People's Liberation Army death toll was more like 45—the prospect of hundreds of thousands of killed soldiers, sailors and pilots would stop the Chinese regime dead in its tracks.

There are other moves Washington can make. "To more effectively deter China from attacking Taiwan, the U.S. must move beyond its conventional approach of freedom of navigation exercises, occasional arms sales and incantations referring to legislation and communiques from the 1970s and 1980s," says Steve Yates, chair of the newly formed China Policy Initiative of the America First Policy Institute, to Newsweek. "Key industries in Taiwan are vital to the supply chains on which American industry and our way of life depend. Any attack on Taiwan is therefore a direct attack on the vital national security interests of the United States."

"In response," Yates states, "the U.S. would have no choice but to seize all overseas assets linked to Communist Party leaders and entities and cancel all repayment of financial instruments tied to the government, the party or its leadership."

Drastic? Yes.

Yet drastic solutions may be the only ones that can work at this moment. China is now regularly surging dozens of planes at a time through Taiwan's air-defense identification zone, and the flight of the Y-12 earlier this month is a warning of further acts of war to come.

Taiwan is not China's only intended victim. In recent months, Beijing has been pressuring other neighbors—in particular, India, Japan and the Philippines. It is, at the same time, encroaching on the territories of Bhutan and Nepal.

China, as noted, says America does not deter it today. Washington should take China at its word and develop the tactics that will be effective tomorrow.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

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