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Unlike Ukraine, An Invasion of Taiwan May Spur US Military Intervention

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April 3, 2022


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in its second month.  Pundits continue to debate the similarities and the differences between the Ukrainian incursion and a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

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Rational thinking is prevailing as NATO and the US want to avoid escalating the conflict into a third World War and the Ukrainian issue has not risen to the level that threatens US national security interests.

However, if China apes Russia and invades Taiwan to return it “to the Motherland,” it is conceivable that direct Western military aid would descend upon Taiwan.  No longer would the US hide behind its outdated (and shameful) “strategic ambiguity” policy of whether it would commit militarily to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

Unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is of great national security interest to both the US and the rest of the non-authoritarian and (mostly) democratic world.  The long history of US supplying Taiwan with defensive arms (the Taiwan Relations Act) also indicates a robust US-Taiwan relationship that is lacking in the Ukrainian scenario.

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Two factors portend US and the West possibly aiding Taiwan’s defense: 

  1. Taiwan’s geographical location and
  2. Taiwan’s dominance of global semi-conductor chip manufacturing.

Geography favors Taiwan

Like Pennsylvania that served as the geographically central “Keystone State” that held together the first 13 states, Taiwan is the main and central cog of the First Island Chain that stretches from the Japanese archipelago to the Philippines. 

First Island Chain Credit: Suid Afrikaanese CC BY-SA 3.0

To control Taiwan is to anchor the defense of the First Island Chain and, subsequently, dictate security operations in the western Pacific.

The US expanded its line of defense to the coast of continental Asia after its victory in the Pacific in World War II.  In a then-top-secret June 14, 1950, memo, General Douglas MacArthur wrote:

…the western strategic frontier of the United States rests…on the littoral islands extending from the Aleutians through the Philippine Archipelago.  Geographically and strategically Formosa (Taiwan) is an integral part of this offshore position which in the event of hostilities…(the) essential capability…of the United States is dependent…upon the retention of Formosa (Taiwan) by a friendly…power.

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MacArthur also saw the strategic significance of Taiwan:

I am satisfied, however, that the domination of Formosa (Taiwan) by an unfriendly power would be a disaster of utmost importance to the United States.”

And:

…the strategic interests of the United States will be in serious jeopardy if Formosa (Taiwan) is allowed to be dominated by a power hostile to the United States.

A 2014 US Naval Institute article by US Naval War College professor James R. Holmes echoed MacArthur’s sentiments when it re-affirmed that the First Island Chain is the most effective point to counter potential Chinese invasion of western Pacific and beyond

Would the US risk losing Taiwan to China so its People’s Liberation Army Navy could use the island to sail unimpeded to Honolulu and on to California?  Would Asian countries tolerate being at the mercy of Chinese naval vessels that could either turn northward to Japan or southward toward the Philippines to link up with its fortified atolls in the South China Sea immediately after crossing the Taiwan Strait?

As the key linchpin in the First Island Chain, Taiwan’s strategic location and its historic significance will not and cannot be easily ceded by the US to any nation unfriendly to it without significant amount of kinetic demonstrations of US firepower.

Taiwan’s strategic hold on global semiconductor chip capacity.

Semiconductor chips are a key to the 21st century economy.  Everyone needs them.  Chips are ubiquitous and omnipresent in each person’s daily life and in nearly every industry and the military.

Chips make smartphones talk, cars run, air conditioners cool, aircraft fly, ATMs spit out cash, electrical grid systems run, weapons systems fire and kill.  They are everywhere: an average automobile, circa 2022, has 1,000 semiconductor chips; a smartphone has 15-20 chips.

At ground zero of the global semiconductor chips industry stands Taiwan; its semiconductor chips makers account for 60% of the global chip market. Moreover, according to a January 2022 Center for a New American Security report, “Taiwan accounts for 92% of the world’s most advanced (below 10nm) semiconductor manufacturing capacity.”

No country exemplifies the need for updated and more powerful chips than America, especially as it continues to maintain and upgrade its defense and aerospace programs.  The advanced 10nm chips, with their combination of performance, power, and delivery parameters, are essential to America’s national security, its economy, and its infrastructure.  Unfortunately, nothing has changed for the US since a 2016 Congressional report that,

…the US) Department of Defense (will continue) to…heavily rel(y) on…non-U.S. suppliers for most of its electronic hardware and its (domestic) supplier program is used for only a small fraction of the chips in the defense systems.”

Today, the list of chip suppliers for US consumption is short: Taiwan, South Korea, China, and Israel; China and Israel, the third- and fourth-largest suppliers, account for just 6% of the global needs.

While Taiwanese semiconductor firms have deals to produce chips outside of Taiwan, i.e, to build a $12 billion plant in Arizona to be operational in 2024, a plant to supply Sony in Japan, and new facilities in Europe in an agreement with Germany, the majority of semiconductors will still originate from Taiwan in the near future.

The US will continue to depend on Taiwan until it can be a self-sufficient producer of chips…and Congress has yet to pass a bill to inject $52 billion into the US semiconductor industry.  Thus, it is unrealistic for the US and the rest of the world to sit by idly and tolerate a potential attack by China on Taiwan and take control of the global supply of chips.

Conclusion

Similarities between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan are few.  If China invades Taiwan, the best and only course is for the US to officially shed the benign paper tiger” policy known as strategic ambiguity” and intervene and aid Taiwan militarily.

Taiwan’s position within the First Island Chain and its prominent source as the most prolific supplier of semiconductor chips make the island nation indispensable to be left to its own if China invaded.

General MacArthur was prescient and his words ring true today as they did post-World War II.

We know China is, at the very least, an “unfriendly power” to the US with the potential to be hostile.  The only question is whether the current US administration has the willpower and the conviction to defend Taiwan if/when China invades and secure the First Island Chain and the global supply of semiconductor chips.

The author is a first generation Asian-American and a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York and Columbia University.  He is a retired US Army colonel and a retired US Department of State foreign service officer.

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