America's future in Taiwan

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Intensifying threats of China unifying Taiwan have brought uncertainty to the stability of regional security for south east Asia, according to some critics. (Photo by Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Intensifying threats of China unifying Taiwan have brought uncertainty to the stability of regional security for south east Asia, according to some critics. (Photo by Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Why should the U.S. care about the island-nation of Taiwan? Here's one reason: It produces more than half the world’s ultra-modern semiconductors.

“What Taiwan is to chips is what oil was to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Taiwan is kind of the controller of what will make our economies move in the 21st century," Steve Blank says.

Recently, China has been ramping up military activity around Taiwan.

China's armed forces are capable of blockading Taiwan's key harbors, posing what the island's government calls a "grave" military threat. And the rhetoric between Washington and Beijing is heating up.

Today, On Point: What is America's 21st century strategic interest in Taiwan? And are those interests worth risking war?


Oriana Skylar Mastro, fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Non-resident senior fellow at American Enterprise Institute. (@osmastro)

Yun Sun, director of the China Program and co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a non-partisan think tank. (@Stimson_EAsia)

Steve Blank, adjunct professor and co-creator of the "Technology, Innovation and Great Power Competition" class at Stanford University. Senior fellow for entrepreneurship at Columbia University.

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Tong Zhao, senior fellow at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

Brian Hioe, journalist and founding editor of New Bloom Magazine in Taiwan. (@brianhioe)

Interview Highlights with Oriana Skylar Mastro

Is possible military action on the near horizon from China to Taiwan?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "I actually think the increase in recent tensions does not tell us that there's a higher likelihood of war. And so I think it was mentioned that we have this uptick in Chinese military activity in the vicinity of Taiwan. The number of air incursions in particular has increased, exponentially. The month of October in particular saw record high rates. The highest number of Chinese aircraft in one day, for example, October 4th was 56 aircraft. And we had 159 aircraft total entering Taiwan's air defense identification zone.

"However, I think this is mainly political signaling. Beijing is trying to tell Taiwan, You're on your own. As much as the United States can make statements, can make agreements ... when push comes to shove, they are not here. And they also want to tell the United States and other regional partners that there's possibly a real cost to the type of cooperation and coordination we see with U.S. partners and allies. There might be a conflict. And those countries might be called upon to support the United States in that military effort. So I see these as mainly political signals. Because the bottom line is when China makes a move, a real move towards Taiwan, they don't want anyone to be looking. That's how they win."

They don't want anyone to be looking. Meaning what?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "Meaning paying attention. So there are certain situations under which the United States could have difficulty in pushing back China. One of the main ones is if the United States just doesn't have enough warning. It takes a long time for the U.S. to amass the necessary forces to defend Taiwan. So if China can move quickly, they could take the island before the United States can even respond, regardless of the level of the U.S. resolve.

"So a lot of Chinese writings, military generals have said that could be even as less as 100 hours. And so when they do these types of activities that we're seeing now, this uptick in air incursions, it really makes us all focus on this issue. Probably more national U.S. theater assets, right? Satellites and things are paying attention to what the Chinese military is doing. So in my mind, this is not the ideal situation to actually go for a full amphibious assault."

President Xi Jinping's been clear that he has not ruled out an actual assault on Taiwan. Is there a timeline for the possibility of China trying to do something like that?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "I think there is absolutely the desire in Beijing to take Taiwan by force. Your previous guest ... mentioned that won't happen in the next two to three years. And I think he's right. But in my discussions with Chinese government, or strategists or other military personnel, their timeline is a little bit longer, it's more like five to seven years. But we're talking about major, major war.

"One of the largest wars that the United States has ever fought. So five to seven years is, I think, still should give us a great sense of urgency. And there's many reasons why this has changed. It used to be the case, the only way we would get war is if Taiwan declared independence or we had war by accident. But I argue that there are many factors that make us think that China might actually initiate this conflict on purpose."

And if it does, how would you advise the United States to act?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "This is a difficult question. I would say, based on the high-level strategic issues, of course, the United States needs to defend Taiwan. We have strategic interests, economic interests. U.S. commitment to our allies and partners is so critical. The United States is not a resident power in Asia. We rely on other countries hosting our military to be able to project power there.

"And part of that exchange, explicit or implicit, is that we would defend them. So there is the argument, which I find convincing, that if the United States does not defend Taiwan, it will call into question the U.S. commitment more broadly."

On what happens if the U.S. tries to defend Taiwan and loses

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "I think it's absolutely the case — and you'll hear this and read about this — that if the United States doesn't defend Taiwan our commitment to our other allies might be in question. But I think there's a worst case scenario. And that is if we try to defend Taiwan and we lose. If we try to defend Taiwan and we lose, then allies and partners are 100% sure we cannot defend them.

"If we don't intervene at all, there's the possibility that we could convince Japan and Australia that Taiwan was a unique situation. And we still are in a better position and more willing to defend them. And so I'm not sure what advice I would give if China is able to move quickly, does establish a fait accompli, for example. Chinese boots get on the ground on the island of Taiwan before the U.S. military can really put a lot of force into the defense of Taiwan.

"I'm not sure under that scenario if it makes sense for the United States to try to start a war to reverse it. I firmly believe that once China has boots on the ground, they're never going to leave. And that's why it's so important to have this early warning. And I know part of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and some other military initiatives are designed to put resources precisely into this to make sure the United States has enough warning. But I do think it's worse if we lose than if we don't do anything at all. And I'm not sure what the implications are of that, but it's very problematic."

How do you think China sees the United States right now?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "I think Chinese views on this are actually much more complicated, especially when it comes to our thinking on Afghanistan. So the first thing is a lot of the Chinese writings I've looked at originally thought the U.S. was very casualty averse. Maybe 20 years ago, they looked at Bosnia. They looked at Somalia, and they decided, OK, you kill a handful of Americans, the United States goes home. But they very explicitly lay out that the United States was in Afghanistan for a very long time, for 20 years.

"And at least in the view of these Chinese strategists I've read, Afghanistan is not half as important as Taiwan is. So I think there's a lot more of a debate in the Chinese strategic community of whether or not the United States is really casualty averse. And how much you can really predict what the U.S. resolve is. And when it comes to the U.S. decline, of course, I don't think the United States is in decline. But the important thing to note is that Chinese thinking on this is actually that a U.S. in decline is much more dangerous and much more willing to fight in a last ditch effort to maintain its position than a confident United States. So I think there are a lot of people in China that are actually saying under the current scenario, the United States is more likely to fight."

We are talking about two major militaries engaging with each other. What could justify that for the United States?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: "I'm obviously here speaking in a personal capacity, but, you know, I am quickly deployable to this scenario, so I think about this issue all the time. The bottom line is that China has a different vision of what it wants the world to be like. And it's not only that China wants to control what governments do, they want to control what corporations, universities, individuals can say and do. The only thing that is stopping them from that level of influence, from being able to reach in even to the United States, to punish people for saying or doing things China does not like, maybe freezing your bank accounts, maybe stopping your computer from working, maybe convincing Stanford not to give me tenure because they don't like what I have to say.

"The only thing that stands in the way of China having that degree of power is the United States. And China has demonstrated whenever it has economic power, diplomatic power or military power, they are more than willing to use it to hurt others. So if national security is being free from foreign dictation, being free from other countries telling the United States and the American people what to do, then it's absolutely critical that we stand up to China.

"War is very easy to prevent. You just give the other side everything they want. The difficulty is ensuring our own peace and security, stability and prosperity in the face of this challenge. And so for that reason, I think it's very important. And Taiwan is only the sort of the biggest flashpoint, and the first step to ensuring that the United States maintains its position in Asia. And therefore its position in the world."

From The Reading List

Foreign Affairs: "The Taiwan Temptation" — "For more than 70 years, China and Taiwan have avoided coming to blows. The two entities have been separated since 1949, when the Chinese Civil War, which had begun in 1927, ended with the Communists’ victory and the Nationalists’ retreat to Taiwan."

This program aired on November 10, 2021.


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Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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