The likelihood of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is
rising, and the prospect of direct US military support in that event is
falling. Both trends are driven by the shifting strategic balance in the
Western Pacific, where China is approaching the status of ‘near-peer
adversary’, able to challenge US naval and air operations around Taiwan with
some prospect of success.
Pelosi is not a military strategist, but she cannot have failed to notice the
changing tone of the military briefings she gets on the subject from the US
Navy and Air Force. They can no longer guarantee that they would prevail in a
war fought 12,000 km. from home to thwart a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
The official US strategy remains ‘strategic ambiguity’: it won’t say whether or
not it would actually fight China to protect Taiwan.
This used to be just a device to get around the awkward contradiction between
recognising the Communist regime in Beijing and protecting the separate
existence of the island state of Taiwan – but everybody assumed that the US
would fight for that if necessary.
Now strategic ambiguity is mostly a way to disguise the fact that Washington
would probably not intervene directly to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
China has accumulated so many ballistic and cruise missiles along its east
coast that the US Navy is reluctant to risk its carriers in those waters in
wartime, and only one air base within range of Taiwan is available for USAF
Beyond these tactical and operational considerations, there is the immense
strategic fact that neither China nor the United States wants to risk a nuclear
war. However, China might be able to conquer Taiwan without resorting to
Hence China’s growing confidence, and Taiwan’s belated anxiety (an $8 billion
boost to defence spending last January), and President Joe Biden’s attempts to
reassure Taiwan by making impromptu declarations that the US would indeed fight
for Taiwan (which are promptly walked back by Biden’s staff).
But the reality is clear from Biden’s ultra-cautious response to the Russian
invasion of Ukraine – slow and selective arms deliveries, no NATO troops on the
ground, not even a ‘no-fly’ zone over Ukraine. He’s being very careful and
measured because he doesn’t want a nuclear war.
So if he’s that cautious with Russia, how careful would he be if Taiwan is
invaded by China, a country with ten times Russia’s population and twenty times
its wealth? Well, if the Taiwanese are still standing after three weeks, and
the Chinese military turn out to be another paper tiger, maybe then he’d send
The long-standing American policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ has lost credibility
as a deterrent, and Taiwan is really on its own now. This doesn’t mean that it
is doomed, but its free ride is over.
Taiwan is an island 180 km. from China, which means that it could theoretically
defend itself from anything except Chinese nuclear weapons. (Beijing is
unlikely to use nukes on fellow Chinese people.)
Getting Chinese troops onto the island in sufficient numbers by seaborne
landings and air-drops would be a military operation fraught with risk,
and fully prepared Taiwanese armed forces could conceivably defeat it. However,
they are not remotely prepared for that now.
Taiwan’s defence-related spending has fallen gradually from a peak of more than
7% of GDP in the late 1970s to only 1.9% last year, and obligatory military
service has been cut to only four months.
As cold reality dawned in Taiwan in the past year, that long decline has gone
into reverse, but it would take half a dozen years of defence spending at 5% or
6% of GDP to acquire the weapons and capabilities that might enable the country
to defend itself without help.
It’s unlikely that this is the message Nancy Pelosi brought to Taiwan; she just
wants to show solidarity with their struggle to remain free. Biden even thought
her visit was poorly timed, given Xi’s impending coronation as
dictator-for-life at the October congress of the Chinese Communist Party. It
wouldn’t do to spoil his party.
But other American officials have doubtless been breaking the bad news to the Taiwanese government as gently as possible. The next five years will be very tricky even if President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration goes into overdrive on defence.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.