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HomeInsightsCampaigns & ElectionsHow might US policy change in the course of a Taiwan crisis?

How might US policy change in the course of a Taiwan crisis?

By Michael Mazza

“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” An unscripted remark, uttered by President Joseph Biden at the end of a major presidential speech in Poland, had observers wondering if the United States was about to embark on a major escalation of the war in Ukraine. Was an explicit policy of regime change in the offing? That concern turned out to be much ado about nothing, but American goals have nevertheless evolved since the start of the Russian invasion. This is natural: in war, political goals drive strategy and battlefield developments affect political aims, in a constant feedback loop.

Given an expectation that war aims will evolve over the course of a conflict, it is worth anticipating how they might do so ahead of time. As the war in Ukraine drives greater urgency in preparing for a Chinese attack on Taiwan, American planners should be grappling now with how Washington’s objectives in a potential Taiwan Strait crisis might change over time.

American objectives in the Ukraine War

How and why have American political aims changed in the course of the Ukraine War? Initially, US goals were relatively modest. Expecting that the Russian military would steamroll Ukraine’s armed forces, the United States wanted to ensure that the invaded nation would become a quagmire for Russia – a resistance would wage a long-term fight for Ukrainian independence, denying Russia a more-or-less painless victory even if Moscow could claim triumph. Of course, Western expectations were wrong. Russian forces utterly failed to make quick work of their Ukrainian counterparts, and the United States and its allies adjusted their sights in response.

Writing for The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen sums up how Western goals have changed thus far:

From the point of view of Ukraine’s Western allies, objectives have also shifted. Originally their purpose was supporting a plucky but doomed Ukrainian conventional battle for survival and helping lay the groundwork for an insurgency that would make Russia pay a price for its aggression. When it became clear that Ukraine could bleed Russian forces dry and even defeat them, the goals subtly changed. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently said, the United States now aims to weaken Russia to the point that it is incapable of similar future aggression against Ukraine or any NATO states.

Ukrainian battlefield successes enabled that shift. Essentially, the Ukrainians proved that Russia could be defanged, and the United States determined it would not only support that defanging but take steps to ensure Russia could not regenerate offensive capability any time soon.

American objectives in a Taiwan strait conflict

As in Ukraine, the relative performance of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Taiwanese military – and, of course, of the United States armed forces and those of any others that might opt to intervene directly – will shape American goals. The way in which the PLA fights will likewise affect US objectives. Consider that Russian war crimes in Ukraine have likely further steeled Ukrainian resolve, and have had the unintended consequence of making Kiev less amenable to territorial concessions than it might otherwise have been.

There are numerous ways a cross-Strait conflict could play out -and thus, numerous paths along which American objectives might evolve. In the following paragraphs, I lay out some potential objectives, dividing them between limited, moderate, and ambitious goals. I will assume that China has launched an invasion of Taiwan proper, and that the United States has decided to militarily intervene at the outset.

Limited objectives

Barring an utter disaster in a war’s early stages, the United States is likely to aim, at the very least, to ensure the survival of both its hub-and-spokes alliance network in Asia and of its forward defense perimeter. Were a conflict to leave the US military essentially pushed back to Guam, the United States would find itself arguably more vulnerable than at any time since 1941. Even as it might rely on allies to support its intervention, then, the United States is likely to place a premium on defending those allies against Chinese retaliation.

Of course, if the United States does opt to intervene, it will do so with the intention of ensuring Taiwan’s de facto independence. This is a limited goal because it asks little of China beyond halting its assault, and it need not entail broader changes to order in Asia. Achieving that goal, however, is likely to be costly. It may well entail intense naval and air combat and may require dislodging Chinese invaders from the island. A strategy to defend Taiwan and no more could still involve force-on-force encounters in a battlespace stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Sea of Japan and beyond.

It would not be surprising for that level of violence to spawn new objectives. As Cohen argues, “war is about passion and ideas no less than slices of territory. Ignoring the importance of those emotions, which are just as real as the more concrete purposes often discussed, would be a mistake.”

Moderate objectives

There are a range of imaginable moderate objectives, which in turn may vary in their ambition. Moderate objectives are likely to entail a desire for changes to the regional security order that make that order more conducive to US interests and less conducive to China’s own. For example, if PLA outposts on disputed territory in the South China Sea play a role in the fighting and complicate American operations, the United States might seek not only to destroy those installations during the war but also to seek relinquishment of Chinese claims during peace talks.

The United States might similarly seek to diminish Chinese influence in the Pacific Islands and to secure the cancelation of any security agreements Beijing has in the region. That goal is likely to emerge if Chinese forces are able to operate out of the islands during a conflict in ways that cause difficulties for the United States. An effort to push China out of the Pacific Islands could likewise arise due to allied pressure should Australia (and perhaps New Zealand) contribute to American efforts to defend Taiwan. Indeed, in a coalition contest, allies will get a vote on war aims. It is worth considering ahead of time how such aims might differ from America’s own—they may be more limited, but they might also be more ambitious.

Efforts to push China out of the Pacific Islands and the South China Sea would amount to efforts at rollback – returning Chinese influence and power projection capabilities in those regions to levels comparable to what they were in the early 21st – century. But the United States might opt, in turn, to extend its own influence and power projection capabilities. Perhaps most likely, Washington could aim to secure a permanent military presence in Taiwan (if amenable to the Taiwanese people). More expansively, the United States might seek out new access arrangements and even permanent bases, and perhaps new allies, across the region. That would be far easier in the wake of naked Chinese aggression than it is now.

Most ambitiously – and perhaps “moderate” only relative to the potential goals outlined in the next section – Washington might seek to so weaken the PLA that reconstituting its combat power would require a years-long effort. Washington might likewise seek to so significantly hobble the Chinese economy that it would face stark “guns versus butter” choices. This would be akin to US goals vis-à-vis Russia now, and would likely require military operations that go far beyond those required to more narrowly defend Taiwan.

Ambitious objectives

A war that is particularly vicious or that sees major American casualties, and in which American victory remains viable, could see a significant escalation of US war aims. The United States might direct efforts to weaken China – not only in terms of military or economic strength, but also in terms of China’s very unity. As Charles Horner and Eric Brown of the Hudson Institute have argued, Beijing already “finds itself engaged in an open-ended struggle on many fronts – against Xinjiang’s Muslims and Tibet’s Buddhists, against Chinese compatriots in China proper itself, against the citizens of Hong Kong and the nation on Taiwan, and against Chinese communities around the world.”

If in the course of a war the United States finds it is able to successfully place pressure on the internal seams of the Chinese empire – such as those that run between Han China on the one hand, and Tibet and Xinjiang on the other, or between mainland China and Hong Kong – Washington might be tempted to see if it can rip those seams apart, leaving a still-very-large Chinese rump state with far more limited geographic and diplomatic reach. Washington might look to its own history of supporting Tibetan separatists during the Cold War for inspiration, but diplomatic and economic initiatives would likely also have a role to play.

Alternatively (or additionally), American leaders might conclude in the course of a war that China under current leadership is so dangerous that it cannot be allowed to continue running the show. Washington might employ covert means to effect a change at the top of the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy or could opt for forceful regime change.

Perhaps less ambitious, but with far-reaching consequences even so, the United States might aim to lead a wide-ranging group of countries to establish formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in the wake of a Chinese invasion. As with the immediately preceding objectives, such an effort would arise from a conclusion in Washington and other capitals that there can be no going back to the status quo ante – that the world China’s invasion begets must be far different than the world China sought to forge. Even if not an initial goal, Washington would be wise to telegraph its potential adoption before and in the opening stages of a conflict. The limited goal of ensuring Taiwan’s de facto independence outlined above will seem more acceptable to Beijing by comparison, and sharpen the risks for Beijing of persisting with efforts at forced unification.

Conclusion

The preceding discussion is not intended to be predictive. Importantly, it does not take into account how Beijing might react and adapt to shifting American objectives. Nor does it consider how nuclear escalation concerns would shape US goals – indeed, those concerns probably make the specified ambitious objectives fairly unlikely.

Even so, it is a useful exercise to think through how American ends might evolve over the course of a war. They are unlikely to remain static. Knowing this, American leaders should ensure that the United States has sufficient means to pursue a variety of potential political goals in what may be a drawn-out conflict, and that the United States can exercise flexibility in how those means are employed.

The main point: American goals might evolve in a number of ways over the course of a Taiwan Strait conflict. Initial, relatively limited goals are likely to include the preservation of the US alliance system in Asia and of Taiwan’s de facto independence; more ambitious goals might include regime change in China or worldwide establishment of diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Michael Mazza is a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute, a non-resident fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, and a non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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