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Is Taiwan Worth Defending?

China’s leaders have long been obsessed with Taiwan because its very existence as a thriving liberal democracy refutes the central premise of the Chinese authoritarian regime. That is why the United States must come to Taiwan’s defense in the event that Chinese President Xi Jinping decides to attack the island.

NEW YORK – No one seems to know how the United States would react if China were to invade Taiwan. For decades, US leaders did all they could to avoid this question. Then, in September of last year, President Joe Biden seemed to have ended Washington’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” when he said that US troops would defend the island in the event of “an unprecedented attack.” But almost immediately after Biden spoke, White House officials backtracked, insisting that US policy on Taiwan had not changed.

While the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty obliges America to go to war if Japanese territory is attacked, the US has no such treaty with Taiwan. If China decided to attack the island, it would have to guess how the US would respond. But while strategic ambiguity is meant to serve as a deterrent, the real question is whether it is enough anymore. After all, China is far more powerful now than it was when it tried to “liberate” Taiwan from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists by shelling the islands of Quemoy and Matsu during the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis. The US still had a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan back then, and American military leaders pushed to launch a nuclear strike on the mainland.

Today, China has the world’s largest military in terms of personnel and a substantial nuclear arsenal. Chinese President Xi Jinping knows that the US cannot risk a nuclear war, which is why it has not intervened directly in Ukraine, and that emboldens him. After all, if the US does not want to fight the far weaker Russia, it will certainly not go into battle against China.