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Report December 5, 2022

Taiwan: The key to containing China in the Indo-Pacific

By John B. Barranco



China is the pacing challenge for the United States, posing the most consequential global threat to US and allied security. As China flexes its military and economic muscles, Beijing’s increasingly coercive behavior tests the defense of its neighbors—and none more so than Taiwan. Much of the United States’ ability to prevent Chinese power projection in the Indo-Pacific hinges upon its relationship with Taiwan. This paper proposes a US strategy for strengthening the relationship between Taiwan and the United States in order to deter Chinese military aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

Taiwan as a flashpoint for Sino-US tensions

Taiwan offers a key strategic link, both within the Indo-Pacific and on the global stage. The island is strategically situated in the middle of the first island chain off the East Asian coast, making it geo-strategically important to Chinese military ambitions. Taiwan is also the primary supplier of semiconductors (which are used to make microchips underwriting advanced military systems) to the United States and its allies, winning Taipei a spot as a major player in the global economy.

While Taiwan is not a formal US ally due to the “One China” policy—recognizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legal government of China—Taiwan still falls under the US security umbrella. However, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s desire to reunify Taiwan is clear, and efforts to test Taiwanese and US resolve on this issue are increasingly bold. Security analysts often point to a potential Taiwan conflict scenario, positing that a failure to deter Chinese aggression could escalate into a war with global consequences.

China as the pacing threat

When China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, the threat posed by Beijing was still unrecognized by leadership in Washington, DC. Since then, China’s voice on the global stage has only gotten louder: The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) naval fleet exceeds the size of the US Navy, and China’s Military-Civil Fusion strategy allows it to rapidly develop artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other emerging technologies for military purposes. Moreover, Beijing’s annual economic growth rate has been three-to-four times that of the United States over the past two decades, and Chinese gross domestic product is projected to surpass that of the United States by 2030.

However, the China challenge is not just military or economic in nature—it is also ideological, posing a serious threat to the US-led rules-based global order. The 2018 National Defense Strategy recognized this for the first time, offering a strategic shift and reaching bipartisan consensus by identifying China as a major revisionist rival acting counter US interests.

Major elements of the strategy

In this report, John Barranco identifies the interests of key players in the Indo-Pacific region, which then flow into his strategic plan. Particularly, he identifies the following as key goals of the United States and China:

The United States aims to preserve and revitalize the US-led, rules-based global system, as well as to prevent the rise of regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and Europe.

China seeks to overthrow the traditional balance of power, supplanting the United States as the world’s preeminent power, and ensure regime stability through both domestic policy successes and establishing regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.

China sees Taiwan as central to achieving all its interests. Therefore, the United States ought to consider this lens when crafting strategies to deter China and understand how the defense of Taiwan fits into its own plans.

The way forward for US-Taiwanese relations

The goals of this strategy are to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, deter China from attacking Taiwan, and, if necessary, deny it from taking Taiwan upon attack. To achieve these objectives, the United States must bring Taiwan into the fold, tying it more closely with potential allies and partners diplomatically, economically, and defensively. US strategy can do so in myriad ways, to include:

  • Strengthening regional security and trade relations with Taiwan;
  • Accelerating and realigning US force posture in the Indo-Pacific; and
  • Increasing bilateral US-Taiwanese military cooperation through joint military exercises.

An effective strategy for containing China in the Indo-Pacific must include consideration of Taiwan’s role in the region. Read the full strategy for more details on the path ahead.

About the author

Forward Defense, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, generates ideas and connects stakeholders in the defense ecosystem to promote an enduring military advantage for the United States, its allies, and partners. Our work identifies the defense strategies, capabilities, and resources the United States needs to deter and, if necessary, prevail in future conflict.