Congress Should Debate Now Whether We Defend Taiwan, Not on the Eve of Invasion

Guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins conducts Taiwan Strait transit
U.S. Navy sailor identifies contacts while standing lookout watch on the bridge wing of the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins as the ship conducts routine Taiwan Strait transit. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Donavan K. Patubo)

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China is our economic, ideological and military adversary. The military flashpoint between our two countries is Taiwan, which China's Chairman Xi Jinping has sworn to seize.

Our current policy is to refuse to declare whether we will or will not defend Taiwan. In a speech in 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson placed South Korea and Taiwan outside America's defensive perimeter. Months later, to protect South Korea, we had to fight a three-year war at a cost of 37,000 American lives. We now risk repeating that mistake by inviting China's miscalculation that we will not defend Taiwan.

In declaring that we will defend Taiwan, our values and our interests align, just as they do in our defense of Europe. For 248 years, American values have emphasized individual rights and freedom. The Taiwanese also identify as living in a democracy, willing to defend against totalitarian China.

As for our self-interest, if Taiwan falls, China will then control the western Pacific, including all seaborne trade with Japan, South Korea and others. No longer the world's dominant superpower, America will fall back to Guam and Hawaii. Losing in Vietnam and Afghanistan was humiliating; shirking in the face of Chinese aggression would be world-altering. It is in our vital interest not to be driven from the Pacific.

Nor can we stand aside and only provide aid, as in the case of Ukraine. If Taiwan is attacked, obviously military aid must be rushed to Taiwan. That would immediately entangle our transport ships and aircraft in the fight.

And what follows, once we are in the middle of the battle? It's impossible to predict how far that war would escalate. Unclassified wargames project at least tens of thousands of casualties on both sides. Assuming Japan joins in the fighting as an ally alongside the U.S., the Chinese assault would likely be defeated. With its ports blockaded by our submarines, China's economy would crumble. In sum, Xi would imperil China's entire future by attacking Taiwan, if America fought back.

Granted, our will as a nation is badly fractured. Dyspepsia defines our intellectual class. Courses on Western civilization have been dropped from our universities. Our history is frequently depicted as one of oppression. Our defense budget is not keeping pace with inflation, and our Navy is shrinking. Military recruiting is down. Faith in our institutions is plummeting. Due to foolish policies and fundamental political divisions, we lost the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Knowing our frailties, Xi will persist in pressuring Taiwan to dissolve from within, while employing military provocations to test America's martial resolve.

Do we have such resolve? Here's the surprising news: Despite our internal discord, three-quarters of Americans view China as our adversary. By 37% to 22%, Americans on a bipartisan basis believe we should militarily protect Taiwan, while the other 41% say they don't know enough to decide. That indecision invites either a miscalculation by Xi plunging us into war or, if we choose to be bystanders, the shameful retreat of America from the Pacific.

In the brief crisis window preceding an invasion, there will not be a reasoned debate whether we should fight. Xi, unleashing a torrent of disinformation, will thunder about nuclear perdition. The very word "nuclear" has prevented President Joe Biden from sending the appropriate military aid to Ukraine.

The time for open debate is now, not later when Xi is about to assault and rattles the sword of Armageddon to scare America into paralysis. Who, then, will inform the 41% of undecided Americans why Taiwan must not be abandoned? Most certainly not the White House. Biden cannot articulate coherent arguments.

"I just want to make sure we have a relationship with China that is on the up and up," he said last week. The phrase "up and up" is attractive but hollow.

Former President Donald Trump claims that promising to defend Taiwan would undercut his negotiating leverage with Xi, whom he admires. To Trump, values appear to be merely transactions -- Taiwan might be traded for lithium batteries. Under either man, the White House offers no bully pulpit for education about the stakes if we refuse to defend that island.

The correct setting for debate is Congress, where the Select Committee on China has capable, bipartisan leadership. The goal would be the passage of a congressional resolution to defend Taiwan. The White House will vigorously disagree. Xi will threaten economic excommunication. Lobbyists for the many corporations entangled with China will withhold campaign contributions. Fearful of losing Chinese students paying full tuition, professors and the intellectual elite will predict apocalypse.

Such hyperbole is unwarranted. Our steadfastness in NATO deterred the Soviet Union and led to its collapse. Similarly, if Congress declares the defense of Taiwan to be in our vital interest, Xi will not attack and ruin his country. We can lance this boil before it becomes poisonous. Trusting in the common sense of the American people, Congress should hold an open debate.

-- Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security, has written a dozen books about America's wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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