There is no getting around the fact that the United States’ primary strategic competitor for global leadership is the People’s Republic of China, which continues to extend its diplomatic, economic, and military influence internationally. Quite apart from China becoming the world’s second largest economy and its leading trading nation, policy makers increasingly describe its military buildup as a threat to U.S. and allied interests in the Indo-Pacific.
Put simply, the Pentagon considers China it most serious competition. Taiwan may be the issue with the greatest potential to turn competition into direct confrontation. Many military analysts note that after two decades of counterinsurgency wars, the U.S. can no longer be certain of its ability to uphold a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
By contrast, China has the military strength, and in particular the long-range missile capability, to overwhelm the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region according to the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. China is now an adversary that is also a military peer. It is in the enviable position of being able to use limited force to achieve a fait accompli victory over Taiwan before the U.S. could respond.
This is not unthinkable, since the Chinese Communist Party regards Taiwan as an inalienable part of China. The U.S. needs to defend Taiwan effectively against a Chinese invasion or blockade, because it is important to frustrating China’s strategy to achieve regional hegemony. For many countries in the region, it is the canary in the coal mine — a strong indicator of how far the U.S. would go to defend them against China.
The two million strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the primary concern of U.S. defense experts. According to a 2020 Department of Defense report, the PLA has “already achieved parity with—or even exceeded—the US” in several areas in which it has focused its military modernization efforts in the Indo-Pacific region where China certainly has the home court advantage.
The PLA’s modernization program has been supported by China’s rapidly growing economy and augmented by the purchase and alleged theft of militarily useful technologies. In 1996, China was deeply embarrassed and humiliated in the Taiwan Strait Crisis when the U.S. responded to Chinese missile threats meant to intimidate Taiwan with a massive show of force.
Two U.S. aircraft carrier groups emerged in the strait and exposed the weakness of the PLA’s Navy compared to the U.S. fleet. In response, China’s defense budget rose by about 900 percent between 1996 and 2018 and is now the world’s second largest behind the U.S.
For context, it should be acknowledged that the threats along China’s vast frontier should not be discounted. With a 13,743-mile land border, it counts 14 sovereign states as neighbors. It also shares maritime borders with Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
It should come as no surprise that among China’s grand ambitions is to extend its influence along its frontiers through means such as building and militarizing islands to gain exclusive control over the South China Sea through which about three $3 trillion of trade, or a third of the world’s cargo transport, flows each year.
Failure to respond to the growing threat China poses to its Indo-Pacific neighbors would raise questions about the U.S.’s willingness and capacity to act as a security guarantor in the region. Essentially, the U.S. needs support from allies and partners in the region to deter Chinese adventurism, including a potential attack on Taiwan.
The stakes could not be higher in this contest. As historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote: “Perhaps Taiwan will turn out to be to the American Empire what Suez was to the British Empire in 1956: the moment when the imperial lion is exposed as a paper tiger. Losing Taiwan would be seen all over Asia as the end of American predominance.”