Source: RAND Corporation

How the Chinese attack unfolds and how Taiwan responds will be critical to regional assessments of whether to aid Taiwan. Most regional countries do not have official relations with Taiwan. Regional countries are cognizant that China (1) views Taiwan as a core national interest, (2) is set on unification with Taiwan, and (3) views any conflict over Taiwan as an “internal affair.” This is likely to contribute to more caution in regional deliberations to assist Taiwan.

The cause of the Chinese attack on Taiwan is likely to shape regional and international responses. U.S. allies and partners are likely to assess which side is more to blame for the unfolding conflict. Did China launch a bolt from the blue? Did Taiwan take a bold new action or move toward independence against Chinese warning? Who is seen as being at fault and how aggressive China has been in the Indo-Pacific region at large are likely to influence whether allies and partners are willing to support Taiwan. The scale and damage of the Chinese attack is also a determining factor. A massive Chinese military attack on Taiwan resulting in significant casualties, such as launching an amphibious invasion of the main Taiwan island, could generate more regional willingness to assist Taiwan, particularly if significant numbers of allied and partner citizens are killed in such an attack: The Philippines and Vietnam, for example, are two of the countries with the most citizens in Taiwan, and each have over 100,000 citizens working or studying on the island. A more limited attack, such as military action against less populated Taiwan offshore islands, could result in a more muted regional response. Regional countries are also likely to consider how Taiwan responds to the Chinese attack. Allies and partners may be more inclined to come to Taiwan’s defense if the island’s response is limited to countering the assaulting People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces, compared to Taiwan engaging in some type of countervalue retaliation (such as striking Chinese cities) that results in significant Chinese civilian deaths that could cause Beijing to further escalate its use of force. If the conflict widens and escalates, regional countries could become involved if their territories (or claimed territories) are attacked by China or used by China to attack Taiwan. China, for example, could seek to deter or cripple large-scale U.S. and allied intervention by striking early at U.S. or allied military bases. China could also seek to launch attacks on the United States, Taiwan, or coalition members from assets based on disputed South China Sea (SCS) territories and expand Beijing’s control of the SCS. Such an expansion of activities in the SCS could draw such countries as Vietnam and the Philippines into the conflict.

A major factor that allies and partners will likely consider is how important Taiwan is for their country strategically and what Taiwan offers. This could involve assessments of whether maintaining a democratic and independent Taiwan is important for the ally or partner’s security and the importance of trade and other exchanges with Taiwan. On the security side, there is not a common, shared view of the degree of security risk or threat a Chinese attack on Taiwan poses to the Indo-Pacific region. Although regional countries might view an attack as representing Beijing’s increased assertiveness and willingness to use force to achieve its objectives, most allies and partners do not view an attack on Taiwan as directly and significantly threatening their security. Many are well aware of the decades of cross Strait tensions and China’s One China Principle, which claims Taiwan as part of China. Regional allies and partners may believe that how China uses military force to address what Beijing perceives to be an “internal issue” (Taiwan) is likely different than how China conducts foreign policy and considers use of force against other countries. A key exception is Japan, which is geographically located close to Taiwan. A Chinese takeover of Taiwan could have significant implications and complicate Japan’s security situation. Beijing’s control of Taiwan could enable the PLA to use Taiwan as a forward military presence to increase military activities around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, an ongoing territorial dispute between Japan and China. Chinese occupation of Taiwan brings PLA forces closer to Japanese territories and waters and could threaten the security of Japan’s maritime trade and energy routes. There is also increasing concern in Australia about the security and larger geopolitical implications of a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Similar to their Japanese counterparts, Australian strategists are worried that a Chinese attack on Taiwan could further enable the PLA to project power beyond the First Island Chain, allowing the PLA to be more active and more assertive in the Indo-Pacific, including by operating in areas closer to Australia. Australia, as well as Japan and other regional countries, may also view a Chinese attack on Taiwan as a challenge to the existing rules-based international order and a threat to democracies in the Indo-Pacific. As a sign of Taiwan’s growing importance, Australia and the United States “re-affirmed Taiwan’s important role in the Indo-Pacific” in a joint high-level statement that summarized discussions at the July 2020 Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations. Regional countries that have territorial disputes with China, such as India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, are also likely to recognize that if China were to successfully take Taiwan by force, Beijing could turn more attention to and direct more military resources toward “resolving” territorial disputes against them. It is unlikely, however, that this consideration by itself is sufficient to encourage regional allies and partners to militarily assist Taiwan, particularly given the potential for Chinese retaliation.

A critical factor that is likely to discourage allies and partners from assisting Taiwan is the fear of potential Chinese retaliation or punishment. Intervening, particularly militarily, is a strong signal that U.S. allies and partners have picked a side and that they have decided to align with the United States against China. The ally or partner’s degree of intervention is likely to determine the extent of PRC retaliation. China has a wide range of cards to play to punish U.S. allies and partners for supporting Taiwan. Allies and partners may worry that China could increase coercion or pressure against them politically, economically, and militarily. Examples of activities China could undertake include limiting cooperation with allies or partners on issues of top priority or importance to them (e.g., limiting cooperation with South Korea on North Korea); intervening in the domestic affairs of allies and partners (e.g., supporting separatist or violent extremist groups or increasing PRC influence operations); limiting educational and cultural exchanges, trade, or investment; or escalating tensions over disputed territories. Allies and partners may also fear that China could engage in military strikes against their territories or embrace other types of military operations to limit their ability to support Taiwan or punish them for aiding the island. There is also regional concern that if China’s power (especially its military power) continues to grow, it would be very difficult and costly to defend Taiwan. It might not be in the ally or partner’s interest to partake in a costly conflict against a more powerful China. Even if the United States and allies and partners were able to successfully counter an initial PRC attack on Taiwan and deny China from achieving its immediate objectives, Beijing could still remain committed to unification with Taiwan. China could wage a protracted conflict over Taiwan that would challenge and impose significant costs to countries defending the island.

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