U.S. Isn’t Alone in Support of Taiwan

COMMENTARY Asia

U.S. Isn’t Alone in Support of Taiwan

Oct 19th, 2021 7 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Walter Lohman

Director, Asian Studies Center

As Director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, Walter Lohman oversees the think tank’s oldest research center.
Pro-Taiwan independence activists march during a demonstration rebuking Beijing in Taipei, Taiwan on October 20, 2018. SAM YEH / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

The Chinese are ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan to a degree unseen in at least 25—and perhaps 60—years.

Close strategic alignment with the U.S. leaves very little doubt that if it came to blows in the Taiwan Strait, the U.K. will be with the U.S.  

Taken together, the importance of the international concern for Taiwan’s security is that it helps to deter China from taking military action against Taiwan.

There has been an extraordinary amount of talk in policy circles recently about Taiwan and the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security—and for good reason.

The Chinese are ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan to a degree unseen in at least 25—and perhaps 60—years.

The good news is that the U.S. is not alone. It has friends and allies who also support Taiwan. The following are the five most critical:

1) Japan

Japan is Taiwan’s second-best friend in the world, after the U.S. This is true in peacetime. Look at how quickly Japan welcomed Taiwan’s application to join the successor agreement to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Building these kinds of economic equities in Taiwan’s future is important to creating the incentives for the international community to keep Beijing at bay.   

But Japan is important to deterrence in more direct ways, too. In the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the U.S. Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force will work hand-in-glove in its defense. That’s saying something, because Japan has one of the most capable navies in the world, and one that regularly operates together with its American counterpart.

The challenge for Japan is with military scenarios short of outright invasion. There are any number of other paths China could take to coerce Taiwan. Taiwan is not just one island. Beijing could move to seize one of its small islands—Kinmen, for example, from which you can literally see the Chinese mainland—or Taiwan’s territory in the South China Sea.

Alternatively, China could take advantage of a humanitarian or political crisis and take military action gradually and surreptitiously.

The Heritage Foundation (of which The Daily Signal is the news outlet) has done some war-gaming on these more subtle scenarios. Reconciling the obvious threat they pose with Japan’s pacifist constitution ties Japanese bureaucracy in knots. In a real-life situation, this could delay, if not prohibit, the commitment of Japanese ships to the fight.  

2) Australia

Australia has a smaller military and is farther away from Taiwan than Americans sometimes imagine. What commends it most is its military’s demonstrated interoperability with U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific and its remarkably consistent record of alliance with the U.S. in international crises, from World War I to the war in Afghanistan.

Topping up U.S. confidence in Australia, Canberra recently embarked with the U.S. and U.K. in a new security partnership called AUKUS that will provide Australia with new nuclear-powered submarines that will give its navy a range it has never before had.

There are a lot of details to be worked out, but if it meets expectations, AUKUS will embed Australia even deeper in its alliance with the U.S. and position it to play an important role in any defense of Taiwan.  

The only risk with Australia is that the U.S. will take it for granted. It is, after all, a democracy. If ever called upon to help defend Taiwan, it will have its own electorate to answer to. 

That said, Australia is a long way from where it was just a few years ago in its concerns about China. And it’s a lifetime away from the debates of 15 or 20 years ago, specifically about what it would do in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

3) The United Kingdom

This one might come as a surprise. The U.K. has not been much of a power in the Indo-Pacific for decades. Like Australia, what makes the U.K. so critical is its intensive capacity for interoperability with U.S. forces. The U.S. has no closer ally in the world.  

The U.K. also has real naval power. Its recent deployment to the Pacific of a carrier strike group and related joint carrier operations with the U.S. and Japan underscore this strength.

It’s also just had a second carrier come online and is planning to permanently deploy two smaller ships to the Indo-Pacific in a manner that should pave the way for a larger, more durable presence.

Close strategic alignment with the U.S. leaves very little doubt that if it came to blows in the Taiwan Strait, the U.K. will be with the U.S.  

Any doubt about the U.K. concerns its commitment to Taiwan during peacetime. Unlike the U.S., which is generally in retreat on international trade (to the detriment not only of its own economy, but also to its ability to advocate for Taiwan), the U.K. is seeking to economically entrench itself in the region.

It has applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. That’s all to the good. There remains, however, a lack of clarity in the U.K.’s approach to the region. The “integrated review” it issued earlier this year hedges on China. Taiwan is not mentioned once. 

4) France

The truth is there are only two militaries in Europe that are relevant as fighting forces in the Western Pacific. One is the U.K. The other is France.

In fact, setting aside the quality of its relationships with the U.S., France is a much bigger presence in the region. It has vast sovereign territory in the Pacific, two permanent armed forces commands, military aircraft, ships, and a couple of thousand troops. And since 2014, it has regularly deployed more powerful ships to the Pacific—on average twice a year to the South China Sea.

France is supportive of Taiwan. It recently agreed to service or upgrade French-made military equipment, fighter jets, and frigates it sold to Taiwan in the early 1990s. That’s something pretty much no other country but the U.S. has the guts to do.

Paris does, however, still harbor ambivalence about how to deal with China. Does it see China more as partner or rival?

The operational drawback with France is the mirror image of the U.K.’s strength. It’s not as fully interoperable with U.S. forces. The U.S. is working on this with the French, very gradually. But one cannot assume that because we have a common command structure in NATO, and do joint missions in Africa, that the two militaries can easily do the same in the Pacific.

5) The European Union

Getting a ship to the region from the Netherlands or Germany—both of which have done so this year—is a constructive demonstration of concern for stability. And inasmuch as Taiwan sits in the most potentially instable place in the region, that’s good for Taiwan.

The EU itself, however, has no navy. Its value in the Taiwan Strait is mostly economic, and to some degree, diplomatic. 

The EU is very broadly engaged with Taiwan across a range of economic and regulatory issues. There’s even the prospect—pushed hard by the EU Parliament—that it could enter into a bilateral investment agreement with Taiwan.

The European Union’s foreign ministry, the External Action Service, is also deeply engaged on the diplomatic side.  

These non-military sources of support are important because they signal to China that it would pay a heavy price for an armed attack on Taiwan—and not just from the countries who are positioned to respond with force.

On the downside, the EU is made up of 27 nations. It’s not easy for it to develop consensus, on Taiwan or anything else involving China policy, especially given a couple of Chinese-friendly members with records of obstructing consensus.

Also, as strong support as the Parliament is offering, it has limited power to impose its will on the rest of the EU bureaucracy.

There are other countries that could be mentioned here. Singapore is by far the best peacetime partner Taiwan has in Southeast Asia. Otherwise, it holds its cards close to its chest.

India has tentatively reached out to Taiwan in recent years, but its main concern is China’s presence in its own neighborhood at sea, but especially along its norther border. It’s going to shy away from anything it sees as provocative.       

Taken together, the importance of the international concern for Taiwan’s security is that it helps to deter China from taking military action against Taiwan.

As like-minded nations, we must work together to ensure that each day Beijing wakes up, its leadership says, “Today is not the day.”

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal