Center for American Progress

Taiwan: A Progressive, Principled, and Pragmatic Approach to Managing Tensions With China

Taiwan: A Progressive, Principled, and Pragmatic Approach to Managing Tensions With China

The United States has the means to help preserve Taiwan’s resiliency and autonomy while managing tensions with China.

An election worker holds up a ballot as the official counting gets underway.
An election worker holds up a ballot as the official counting gets underway in the presidential election in Taipei, Taiwan, on January 13, 2024. (Getty/Annabelle Chih)

See other chapters in CAP’s Report: A Progressive, Principled, and Pragmatic Approach Toward China Policy

Taiwan: A Progressive, Principled, and Pragmatic Approach to Managing Tensions With China

CAP China Working Group on Taiwan

Washington can manage Taiwan Strait tensions—perennially one of the thorniest issues on the U.S.-China agenda—in a way that aligns to our strategic interests, through military deterrence, direct engagement with Beijing, and continued diplomatic efforts to pull third countries into the conversation. But there’s also a vibrant economic picture; the United States should deepen technological and economic engagement with Taiwan, which also helps preserve its resiliency and autonomy.

Key assessments and recommendations

  • The ultimate goal of U.S. policy should be to help Taiwan preserve its resiliency and autonomy to maximize the prospects for a peaceful resolution of tensions.
  • We can manage tensions in the Taiwan Strait through a balance of military deterrence, direct engagement with Beijing, and continued diplomatic efforts to pull key third countries into the conversation on cross-Strait stability.
  • Congress must respond to China’s strategy to pressure Taiwan through intimidation, coercion, and isolation by expanding America’s toolkit for countering Beijing’s “gray zone” playbook.
  • Deepening economic and technological engagement with Taiwan is critical for U.S. economic security and prosperity.

Context: Taiwan—A measured, firm, low-on-symbolism U.S. posture toward PRC aggression

Despite repeated claims that it wants “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan, Beijing is leveraging an expansive array of military, economic, diplomatic, and information tools to demoralize the people of Taiwan and isolate them from the global community. In Beijing’s view, accomplishing these ambitions will create a direct path to formally incorporating Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China.

While Beijing continues to threaten a direct military attack on the island if this “peaceful” path is foreclosed, it is clear from both actions and authoritative statements—including by President Xi Jinping—that China’s leaders perceive the potential economic and diplomatic cost of an invasion as unacceptably high, largely owing to the expectation of a forceful U.S. military response. Thus, the challenges for the United States are to help Taiwan defend itself, to further integrate it into the global community, and to ensure U.S. actions don’t unnecessarily escalate the situation or antagonize Beijing.

The only sustainable approach to support Taiwan is one that is measured and firm, prioritizing effectiveness and impact over symbolism and political stunts. While it may appear unsatisfactory, the U.S. approach should be to “kick the can down the road” in a way that lets Taiwan bolster its resiliency even as Beijing continues to believe there is a long-term path to “reunification.”

The United States has vital interests in ensuring that the Taiwan Strait remains stable and peaceful and that any long-term resolution to tensions between Beijing and Taipei is peaceful and enjoys the direct support of the people of Taiwan. These interests are not gauzy or theoretical. Taiwan is an irreplaceable technology partner, especially in its unrivaled semiconductor manufacturing capabilities. Any disruption in Taiwan’s technological supply chains would impose significant economic cost on the United States, our key allies, and China.

Taiwan remains a resilient and vibrant democracy in a region that has witnessed democratic backsliding and a rise of authoritarian powers. The island also stands out as a leader on a range of social justice issues, most notably its expanding protections of LGBTQI+ rights. Despite its exclusion from most international organizations, Taiwan punches above its weight on a range of global challenges, including public health, climate change, and combating disinformation. Finally, Taiwan is geographically positioned on major sea lanes vital for international trade and the unimpeded movement of U.S. and allied militaries.

The role of Congress

Since the United States and PRC normalized relations, Congress has played a vital role in supporting Taiwan while managing relations with Beijing. The foundation of this is the Taiwan Relations Act, which institutionalized America’s commitment to Taiwan, but, more importantly, signaled the deeply bipartisan nature of U.S. support for Taiwan. The foundation of Congress’s role in managing tensions in the Taiwan Strait thus remains projecting steady, unwavering bipartisan commitment to Taiwan’s democratic system, its security, and its economic resilience. Signs of deteriorating resolve in Congress in continued U.S. security leadership and political engagement in the Indo-Pacific region embolden Beijing and demoralize Taiwan.

Military deterrence

The United States has played a critical role in deterring a Chinese attack on Taiwan since the founding of the PRC in 1949. Yet beginning in the 1990s, China’s leadership has invested substantial sums in modernizing and strengthening the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Congress must continue to support Department of Defense efforts to strengthen forward-deployed forces in the Indo-Pacific and to make longer-term investments in capabilities to meet the rising Chinese threat. The Pentagon can achieve these objectives in a fiscally prudent way by reforming what it buys and how it buys it—looking beyond legacy contractors to promote innovation, economy, and agility.

Taiwan also has to be able to defend itself or, at a minimum, show that it can and would substantially complicate a PRC invasion. Congress can continue to support military sales to Taiwan but can also help clear the substantial backlog of weapons that have been sold but still undelivered. At the same time, deterrence is undermined if China believes the United States is moving to abandon its long-standing “One China” policy.

Partners and allies

 The United States must continue to lead in creating a strong coalition of countries that support Taiwan, which is crucial to prevent conflict and ensure that Taiwan continues to thrive as a vibrant and robust democracy. The wider and more deeply connected this group is, the clearer the message to Beijing that increased pressure on Taiwan would come with substantial costs. This push for more unified support among allies underscores the fact that Taiwan’s situation has worldwide implications; instability in the Taiwan Strait would affect global economics, finance, and supply chains.

The looming U.S. presidential election—and a perception of unpredictability in U.S. foreign policy—causes current and potential allies to hedge about aligning with Washington to back Taiwan. U.S. reliability and consistency concerning Taiwan lay a critical groundwork for enhancing worldwide support. On the other hand, wavering, lack of consistency, or abandoning the “One China” policy will inhibit progress in building this coalition.

Economic security and prosperity

As the world’s leading manufacturer of the most advanced semiconductors, Taiwan’s continued prosperity and resilience is a global public good—and critical to sustaining U.S. competitiveness. Thus, strengthening economic and technological ties is not only important for America’s own long-term economic health but also strengthens Taiwan’s ability to resist China’s pressure. The United States should work to advance the U.S.-Taiwan Initiative on 21st Century Trade; find new avenues to deepen collaboration on supply chain resiliency and technology deployment; and end double taxation for Taiwan companies and individuals operating and working in the United States.

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CAP China Working Group on Taiwan


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