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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe United States Should Defend Taiwan

The United States Should Defend Taiwan

Author: Elbridge Colby

Affiliation: The Marathon Initiative (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development)

Organization/Publisher: The National Review

Date/Place: December 2, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Debate 

Word Count: 2949 


Keywords: Defend Taiwan, China’s Dominance in Asia, the US Denial Defense Strategy, and Great Power Competition 




Colby frankly urges the United States to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China aimed at its annexation. The US defense action is not due to altruistic logic or Taiwan’s embrace of American liberal democratic values, but because of the great geostrategic importance of this island to the United States, to its freedom, and interests in the Pacific and the world. The article details the reasons behind that, and also suggests the most appropriate strategy to curb the enormous power of China and prevent it from dominating Asia in what the author calls the “Denial Defense Strategy”, which is the focus of his latest book published in 2021 entitled “The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict.” The author, then, explains the importance of Taiwan for the United States, and points out the limits of American action towards Taiwan and China in the complex and sensitive Pacific environment in terms of security and economics. 

The enormous power of China is the main reason why the United States must defend Taiwan, as this power constitutes a grave threat to the prosperity and freedom of Americans if it is allowed to expand. Taiwan is located in the heart of the western region of the Pacific, which is the largest economic market in the world. Therefore, if China is able to annex Taiwan, it would be able to dominate the Pacific and Asia, and thus determine the conditions, pace, and distribution of global power. All of this will eventually enable Beijing to impose its conditions on Americans, fundamentally changing and undermining their lives and national interests. It is not out of the question for China to do so. It suffices to consider what China is doing today in using its economic influence to undermine freedom of expression in several places, as it did with Australia, which had been punished when it called for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, or with other countries such as Canada, South Korea, Japan, and others. China has built a totalitarian social model at home with the help of surveillance technology, big data, and coercion to aim for domestic political control of its own people, so imagine what it could do against others.

To avoid this result, the author suggests the need for Washington to assemble a coalition of countries, regardless of their motives, that share the determination to prevent Beijing from dominating Asia and to ensure that it does not fracture. Taiwan will be at the heart of this coalition, of course, and this is the essence of the “Denial Defense Strategy”. The US alone has neither the power nor the influence to restrain China in Asia, so it desperately needs such a coalition. Trust and credibility are the vital force for the success of this coalition, i.e. the countries ’confidence in Washington’s readiness to defend them if they face any Chinese pressure or aggression. Otherwise, the coalition will be subject to a fracture and its countries will tend to go along with China to avoid sanctions, which will upset the regional balance of power in China’s favor.

In this strategic context, Taiwan’s importance to the US strategy emerges. The author focuses on three main reasons behind the importance of Taiwan. First, the countries of the region base their perceptions about the extent of Washington’s willingness to defend them against China’s behavior on what Washington is actually doing towards Taiwan. Despite the absence of any formal defense treaty that makes Taiwan an ally, these countries realize that “international politics is not a court of law.” Washington is also aware that its credibility is directly related to the issue of defending Taiwan. Second, the military and strategic importance of Taiwan to Washington and to the coalition position against China’s hegemony in Asia. Since Taiwan is located in the middle of the Western Pacific (which includes most of the important economies in Asia and the world), the US, as the leader of the coalition, cannot withdraw from the region without losing the whole of Asia to China. China’s seizure of Taiwan would enhance Beijing’s ability to dominate the region, removing any obstacle that prevents it from projecting its power abroad, as well as challenging America’s allies there. Once Taiwan submits to China, Beijing will focus attention and resources further afield, including the central Pacific, to deny Washington access to the western shores of the Pacific and thus defend its allies there. Third, there are worse alternatives in the event that Washington abandons Taipei. Its main feature is turmoil, as the abandonment would inevitably cause anxiety in important countries such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. In order to allay these fears, it is very likely that Washington will need to show its firmness and strength. Such moves would be unwise, which is why abandoning Taiwan would require Washington to adopt a more aggressive and dangerous approach than seeking to defend it. Moreover, this will also upset the balance of power in favor of China. Washington will then need to include other major countries in the coalition against China’s hegemony to be more able to resist China’s ambitions, and here it will face hesitation from new countries that will demand security guarantees from Washington so as not to risk getting in troubles against a powerful China in borders. Therefore, there is no easy option for Washington to confront China in Asia in a way that makes steadfastness in Taiwan better than other alternatives.

The final part cautions that a desperate defense on Taiwan risks a full-scale war with a destructive superpower. Therefore, there are certain limits in defending Taiwan, because the latter is not considered an existential issue for Americans. We cannot expect, for example, the United States to defend Taiwan by using a first nuclear strike against China, as this would be immoral, and would expose America to a similar strike. We cannot “tank our economy in hopes of forcing China to its knees… What we must be able to do is deny China’s ability to invade or truly strangle the island — a “denial defense”… Our job is to make it possible for Taiwan to stand up to China in order to uphold the anti-hegemonic coalition and thus deny Beijing dominance of the world’s largest market area.” The success of the “denial defense” strategy will make China face a bad choice. It will push China to escalate, then provoke more international support to defend Taiwan or make China eventually surrender.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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