Three experts on U.S. role and response options in Taiwan-China conflict

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense is warning that current Chinese military exercises could be cover for a future invasion. China's President Xi Jinping has said he wants to reunite with Taiwan peacefully, but Beijing has increased the pace of its exercises, leading to questions about what the United States should – and would – do if Beijing invades Taiwan. Nick Schifrin reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, Taiwan's Ministry of National Defense warned that Chinese military exercises now being conducted could be cover for a future invasion.

    China's President Xi Jinping has said he wants to reunite with Taiwan peacefully, but Beijing has increased the pace of its exercises and boosted its capacity to invade Taiwan.

    That has led to questions about how the United States would or should respond if Beijing tries to take over.

    Here's Nick Schifrin with more.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Chinese army videos, the world's largest military practices launching missiles quickly. Chinese Navy drills improve ships' ability to fight combat. And a slickly produced package shows off soldiers rehearsing amphibious assaults and beach landings.

    The unmistakable target, Taiwan. The island is across the Taiwan Strait about 100-miles-wide. And Taiwan has its own islands just off mainland China's coast. Taiwan worries China could turn these exercises that Chinese TV releases with English-language subtitles into a surprise attack to reunify Taiwan with China, which has been a dream of Beijing's for decades.

  • Narrator:

    In Formosa, 80 miles from the China coast, Chiang Kai-shek presides over his defeated nationalist remnants.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 1949, General Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party fled to Taiwan, then called Formosa, after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's mainland communists. Communist China never controlled Taiwan, but has always considered Taiwan a breakaway province.

    For decades, Taiwanese lived under martial law, and the island was a one-party state. But in the last 30 years, Taiwan has tried to create a multiparty democracy with respect for rule of law, human rights, and a booming economy.

    Last year, President Tsai Ing-wen was reelected on a platform of protecting Taiwan from Chinese domination. Today, she highlights U.S. military and diplomatic support.

  • Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwanese President (through translator):

    This collaboration between the defense industries of Taiwan and the United States signifies the solid vow of partnership.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the requirements of that partnership are deliberately ambiguous.

    In the early 1970s, President Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger launched U.S.-People's Republic of China diplomacy. In a joint communique, the U.S. acknowledged — quote — "All Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China."

    In January 1979, President Carter officially normalized relations with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and broke relations with Taipei. But he also signed the Taiwan Relations Act that says: "The United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."

    The act is ambiguous about the U.S. military responding to a Chinese invasion.

    But in an October CNN town hall, President Biden seemed to end that ambiguity.

  • Anderson Cooper, CNN:

    So, are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if China attacked?

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: Yes. Yes, we have a commitment to do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki immediately walked that back.

  • Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary:

    Well, there has been no shift. The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, should the United States be more clear about whether or not it would defend Taiwan? Should the U.S. even come to Taiwan's defense?

    For that, we get three views.

    Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and has served in a number of jobs at the State Department and National Security Council staff since the 1980s. Bonnie Glaser is the director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund. She's written extensively about U.S.-China relations. And Charles Glaser, not related to Bonnie Glaser, is professor of political science and director of the Institute for Security and Conflict at George Washington University.

    Welcome to all three of you. Thank you very much.

    Richard Haass, let me start with you.

    Has U.S. policy of ambiguity about whether it would defend Taiwan from Chinese invasion run its course?

    Richard Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, it's worked well for about four decades.

    The Chinese have not been able to dismiss the possibility we would come to Taiwan's defense. Taiwan could not be assured we would, and that's kept everybody essentially on their heels a bit. The problem now is, China has built up its military significantly. It's got real capabilities to overwhelm Taiwan if left alone.

    And there's real doubts in China's mind about America's willingness to come to Taiwan's aid. They look at what's happened in Afghanistan. They look earlier at what we did with the Kurds, the red line and Syria, how we didn't respond to Hong Kong, how we didn't respond to Crimea. So there's a lot of people in China who think there's a major opportunity.

    So I would essentially say we need to be much more explicit about our willingness to come to Taiwan's defense. Our allies in the region, Japan, Australia and others, are expecting that, want to see that.

    And I much prefer to deter China through certainty, through specificity, through clarity, rather than leaving this up to ambiguity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Bonnie Glaser, deter China through specificity?

  • Bonnie Glaser, German Marshall Fund:

    Well, Richard makes the assumption that strategic clarity would deter China, and I would argue that it would likely provoke China.

    I think that Beijing would view the U.S. stance of strategic clarity as reneging on the understandings reached between our two countries when we normalized relations in 1979, which included breaking our mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, under which we had an ironclad commitment to Taiwan's defense.

    So I agree with Richard, in that he has argued that the United States has to make significant investments in developing capabilities to defend Taiwan. But, right now, we have questions about whether or not we can come to Taiwan's defense.

    So, perhaps the most dangerous thing we would do would be to say, yes, we will under all circumstances defend Taiwan, but then not have the capability to do so. We might tempt China to take that action today, rather than postpone it until the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Charles Glaser, should the U.S. defend Taiwan at all?

  • Charles Glaser, The George Washington University:

    I think it's actually time to reconsider that commitment.

    And I think we should actually break our commitment. The key issues have already been touched on in a certain way, which is that China's much more capable. The leadership is much more determined to achieve its sovereignty aims, its identity aims.

    And so I wouldn't say war is likely in the next few years, but I wouldn't say it's unlikely over the next couple of decades. And that's going to be a large war. It's a war that could escalate to nuclear war. And I think, on net, giving U.S. interests, the risks are too large, the risk being the probability of war and then the potentially huge costs of a large conventional war and a war — that war could go nuclear.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Richard Haass, pick up on that point. Is Taiwan important enough to risk war?

  • Richard Haass:

    Let me disagree with both my colleagues.

    Taiwan is important enough. At stake is the entire American position in the critical — this critical part of the world, where a lot of 21st century history is going to be written. It begins with our relationship with Japan. If the United States is not there for Taiwan, we not only allow a democracy to disappear, the principal producer of semiconductors to come under China's sway.

    China would gain strategically in terms of its ability to use Taiwan that as a forward base. But Japan and other countries would conclude they could no longer rely on us. And I think you would either see appeasement of China or the nuclear proliferation in places like Japan.

    So, what we would do is take what has been the most stable, successful region of the world and turn it into anything but.

    Let me just disagree with Bonnie on an important point. There is nothing that is inconsistent with the one-China policy, with our commitments to China by the United States articulating a position of strategic clarity. She's right it just can't be verbal.

    We should tell China, this is — we're not supporting Taiwan's independence. This is not a two-China policy. We continue to be committed to a good relationship with you, if you, in turn, are committed to the same.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Bonnie Glaser, could the U.S. be more explicit and maintain one-China policy?

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    I believe, again, that we would provoke an attack from China if we did so.

    I think that the Chinese know that the United States would come to Taiwan's defense. Richard and others have argued that, in fact, the Chinese could miscalculate. I think that all the PLA modernization over the last few decades has been based on the assumption that the United States is likely to intervene in a war in Taiwan.

    I believe that we should wait until the contingency arises and allow the president the flexibility to determine based on circumstances.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Charles Glaser, why not wait? Why not maintain that flexibility, as Bonnie Glaser just said?

  • Charles Glaser:

    I think the ideal policy is a clearly conditional commitment, one that's clear that we will protect Taiwan if it's attacked by China, an unprovoked attack, but, at the same time, clear to Taiwan that we will not come to Taiwan's aid if Taiwan provokes the attack by declaring independence or moving too close to China's red lines.

    But I'd like to return to Richard's point about that — essentially, that if we break the commitment to Taiwan, we're giving up in East Asia. And I think this greatly exaggerates the risk. We can explain to Japan and other allies that Taiwan is very different than they are, from the U.S. perspective, and, most importantly, from China's perspective.

    China does not think Japan is part of China. Second, we can do many things to make clear that our commitment to Japan and our other East Asian allies stands, including increasing our defense spending, increasing the tightness of the alliances and so forth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Richard Haass, could the U.S. explain the difference between Japan and Taiwan?

  • Richard Haass:

    I think we're kidding ourselves.

    If China's allowed to take Taiwan, and the United States does not respond, Japan, Australia, India and every other country in that part of the world, including South Korea, will recalibrate their dependence on the United States. It gives China tremendous geographic and strategic advantages to pressure its neighbors.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Bonnie Glaser, I wonder if I could just in the last few minutes we have left zoom out a little bit.

    Richard Haass mentioned Afghanistan, the withdrawal from there. We have also seen a desire from multiple administrations to reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. There is a perception around the world that the U.S. is not committed as it once was.

    How do you believe that affects the Taiwan question?

  • Bonnie Glaser:

    I don't believe that the Chinese draw the conclusion from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that the United States would not come to the defense of Taiwan.

    Taiwan is extremely different from Afghanistan, as is Hong Kong. Hong Kong was already part of China, having been returned to China in 1997. So I think the United States has to make statements and actions that will ensure that China doesn't draw the wrong conclusion and see the U.S. as weak.

    But we have many different ways of doing that that are — fall short of a position of strategic clarity. So, in other words, the U.S. government has to walk a very fine line.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Charles Glaser, can the U.S. thread that needle?

  • Charles Glaser:

    I'm not confident that, even if we thread it as well as we can, that we can avoid war over the next few decades.

    We could get into a really large war with China over Taiwan, and it could be an extremely costly war. And, hopefully, if we maintain our current policy, deterrence will work. But it may not work. There are a variety of reasons it could fail, no matter how well we manage that policy.

    So I would come to the hard conclusion that we should break the commitment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We will have to leave it there.

    Charles Glaser, Bonnie Glaser, Richard Haass, thank you all very much.

  • Richard Haass:

    Thank you.

  • Charles Glaser:

    You're welcome.

Listen to this Segment