16 February 2024

The Taiwan Catastrophe: What America—and the World—Would Lose If China Took the Island

Andrew S. Erickson, Gabriel B. Collins, and Matt Pottinger, “The Taiwan Catastrophe: What America—and the World—Would Lose If China Took the Island,” Foreign Affairs, 16 February 2024.

  • Most-read article on Foreign Affairs website.
  • Weekend reading on RealClearDefense.
  • Summarized in Taipei Times as lead article/front page and most-popular article.
  • Cited in Ross Douthat, “What the Ukraine Aid Debate Is Really About,” New York Times, 21 February 2024.
    • “For an in-depth argument about these kinds of consequences, I recommend ‘The Taiwan Catastrophe’ by Andrew S. Erickson, Gabriel B. Collins and Matt Pottinger in Foreign Affairs. You don’t have to be convinced by every piece of their analysis to grasp the potential stakes. If a Russian victory in Ukraine would feed authoritarian ambitions, a Chinese victory would supercharge them. If Ukraine’s defeat would hurt American interests, Taiwan’s fall would devastate them.”

Washington and its allies face many potential geopolitical catastrophes over the next decade, but nearly all pale in comparison to what would ensue if China annexed or invaded Taiwan. Such an outcome, one U.S. official put it, “would be a disaster of utmost importance to the United States, and I am convinced that time is of the essence.” That was General Douglas MacArthur in June 1950, then overseeing occupied Japan and worrying in a top-secret memo to Washington about the prospect that the Communists in China might seek to vanquish their Nationalist enemies once and for all. More than 70 years later, MacArthur’s words ring truer than ever.

Then, as now, Taiwan’s geography matters. A self-governing Taiwan anchors Japan’s defense and denies China a springboard from which it could threaten U.S. allies in the western Pacific. But unlike in the 1950s, when Taiwan was under the authoritarian rule of Chiang Kai-Shek, today the island is a full-blown liberal democracy—whose subjugation to Beijing’s totalitarianism would hinder democratic aspirations across the region, including in China itself. And unlike in MacArthur’s time, Taiwan today is economically crucial to the rest of the world, by virtue of its role as the primary producer of advanced microchips. A war over the island could easily cause a global depression. Yet another key difference between MacArthur’s time and today is the flourishing of a wide network of U.S. allies across the Indo-Pacific, countries that rely on U.S. support for their security. A Chinese seizure of Taiwan could trigger a race among nations to develop their own nuclear arsenals as U.S. security guarantees lost credibility.

In recent years, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has shown an impatient determination to resolve Taiwan’s status in a way his predecessors never did. He has ordered a meteoric military buildup, instructing Chinese forces to give him by 2027 a full range of options for unifying Taiwan. These signals are triggering debate in Washington and elsewhere about whether Taiwan is strategically and economically important enough to merit protection through the most challenging of contingencies. But make no mistake: whether one cares about the future of democracy in Asia or prefers to ponder only the cold math of realpolitik, Taiwan’s fate matters. … … …

  • ANDREW S. ERICKSON is Professor of Strategy in the Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute and a Visiting Scholar in Harvard University’s Government Department.
  • GABRIEL B. COLLINS is a Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, Center for Energy Studies, and heads the center’s Program on Energy & Geopolitics in Eurasia.
  • MATT POTTINGER served as U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser from 2019 to 2021 and is editor of the forthcoming book The Boiling Moat: Urgent Steps to Defend Taiwan.

Please note: The views expressed here are those of the authors alone and do not represent the views of any organization with which any of them are, or have been, affiliated. Accordingly, they do not necessarily represent the views, policies, or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense or its components, to include the Department of the Navy or the U.S. Naval War College.