The latest episode of The President’s Inbox is live. This week, Jim sat down with Susan M. Gordon, former principal deputy director of National Intelligence, and Admiral Michael G. Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are the co-chairs of CFR’s recently released independent task force report titled, “U.S.-Taiwan Relations in a New Era: Responding to a More Assertive China.”
Susan M. Gordon, former principal deputy director of National Intelligence, and Admiral Michael G. Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, sit down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the nature and extent of U.S. support for Taiwan in the face of growing Chinese power.
They discussed what the United States should be doing to prevent a war in the Taiwan Strait in an era of great power competition with China.
Here are five highlights from the discussion:
1.) Tensions are rising in the Taiwan Strait. For four decades, the United States has pursued a policy of strategy ambiguity on Taiwan, leaving uncertain what measures it would take if China tried to forcibly unify the island with the mainland. That policy is now being tested. Chinese President Xi has repeatedly vowed to unify Taiwan with China. U.S. intelligence officials say he has directed the Chinese military “to be ready by 2027 to conduct a successful invasion" of Taiwan. At the same time, U.S. President Joe Biden has publicly said four times that the United States will come to Taiwan’s aid in the face of an invasion—only for White House staff to immediately say that his remarks did not constitute a change in U.S. policy. Sue said that while the United States needs to “come down on the clarity issue,” it’s not a U.S. decision “around what China and Taiwan decide to do together.”
2.) Taiwan matters to the United States. Sue noted that Ukraine highlighted the U.S. interest in maintaining the international order. She put it this way: “What happened in Ukraine puts a very fine point of where we stand in terms of the international order and whether it is now okay for someone to just resolve geographic boundaries by force.” Taiwan also produces most of the world’s cutting-edge semiconductors. She acknowledged that the United States would lose an economic and democratic partner in the region and that it would “create more instability in the region, not only for our interests but for our allies’ interests.”
3.) Invading Taiwan wouldn’t be easy. Taiwan sits more than one hundred miles off the coast of China. But amphibious invasions, as Mike noted, take the crown for being among the toughest military operations to pull off. At the same time, Mike said that China has invested heavily in its military. “They are much more capable than they used to be,” he pointed out. “All of that said, back to the complexity of the operation, it’s not a given.”
4.) The United States needs to bolster deterrence in the Taiwan Strait without provoking China. Mike said that the U.S. deterrent posture “is failing, and we need to restore the deterrence that stood us well over four plus decades.” The United States can accomplish this by communicating its deep interests in the region and by getting allies on the same page. Mike acknowledged that U.S. focus has largely been elsewhere in the world for the last twenty years. Now, he says, “we need to refocus and build capacity there to make sure that China can’t forcefully generate this outcome of taking Taiwan.”
5.) Avoiding conflict will take great diplomatic nuance. Mike and Sue stressed the importance of nuance. A heavy-handed U.S. approach could come with a heavy cost. Many Chinese see the island as theirs, while many younger Taiwanese continue to see a distinction between Taiwan and China. The way Mike put it, “the complexity here is enormous and we have to be very careful and—I think—very nuanced in how all this gets handled to sustain the kind of stability in terms of a lack of conflict.”
David Sacks, who directed the CFR task force, has started a blog series that dives into specific topics the report discusses. His first piece analyzed why what happens to Taiwan matters for the United States. He also recently co-wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs that explored what steps the United States needs to take to deter China from invading Taiwan.
CFR has a great backgrounder on why tensions between China and Taiwan continue to rise.