Taiwan & Tensions with China: Five Recommendations for US Policy

Taiwan has built a vibrant democracy on values Americans share and is an important US economic partner. China is the largest power in the region and sees Taiwan’s fate as central to its own national interest. US leaders need to manage these realities in a way that enhances regional and global stability, rather than framing disagreements over Taiwan as part of a dangerous narrative of inevitable conflict with China. Rhetoric about “winning” wars that neither Americans nor the people in that region want to fight is misguided and reckless. The US can best serve Taiwan’s security, and our own, by stabilizing relations with China in a manner that reduces the dangerous tensions that have built up between Washington and Beijing. The Center for International Policy has developed the following recommendations for US action toward that goal.

Recommendation #1: Ratchet “competition” rhetoric down rather than up

The people and government of Taiwan—as well as nearly all countries in the region—are saying loud and clear that they want a reduction in US–China tensions. Most countries also do not want to be forced to align with one side against the other. 

The United States should amplify statements and actions that bolster the status quo. It should reiterate its longstanding position of strategic ambiguity to both China and Taiwan, and avoid inflammatory symbolic gestures that do little to increase Taiwan’s security but signal to China that Taiwan is moving toward formal independence. While opinion in Taiwan is highly fragmented on what status to ultimately aim for, there is an overwhelming consensus on what to do today: four of every five people in Taiwan want to maintain the ambiguous status quo.

When Chinese official actions warrant criticism, the United States must also take care to clearly distinguish between the Chinese Communist Party-controlled government and the Chinese people. Calling out the human rights violations, repressive policies and authoritarianism of the Chinese government is crucial, but so is countering the increasing vilification of China in American politics, which not only puts the Chinese diaspora and Asian-Americans at risk of increased discrimination and violence; it repeats the dangerous “clash of civilizations” narrative reminiscent of the disastrous “war on terror” era.

Recommendation #2: Support—don’t jeopardize—Taiwan’s self-defense

Meeting the United States’ long-held objective of preserving stability in East Asia and the Pacific requires avoiding and dissuading others from taking actions that increase risks of war, encourage militarist policies, or empower reactionary politicians. America’s key tasks in this regard are to foreclose on the prospect of a future crisis and make miscalculation less, rather than more, likely.

That means robustly supporting Taiwan’s self defense according to a principle of non-offensive or non-provocative defense, balancing the need to defend against and render prohibitively costly Chinese attempts at conquest with the twin imperatives of both preventing war in the first place and reducing the prospects of nuclear escalation should a war occur. Accordingly, US arms sales should focus on capabilities that support the political status quo and preserve strategic stability. That includes systems to help Taiwan blunt Chinese power projection while avoiding new weapons systems that could range deep into the Chinese mainland and eschewing an arms buildup on a scale that would be reasonably misperceived as mobilizing for war. It also means undertaking efforts to ensure Taiwanese cybersecurity and combat disinformation that could stoke belligerent sentiment and trigger confrontation.

Recommendation #3: Foster stability by ensuring the legitimacy of international law survive its tests in Ukraine and Gaza

While differences in the precise circumstances and histories of each conflict are apparent, Chinese aggression toward Taiwan would be subject to the same international humanitarian law (IHL) obligations as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war in Gaza. The extent to which the United States affirms and acts to uphold the laws of war, human rights and democratic principles with regard to those conflicts has a tremendous impact on the international legal landscape in which China operates vis-a-vis Taiwan.

Failure to champion adherence to international law in these conflicts – either by backing away from material support for Ukraine as it fights illegal conquest or by continuing to largely ignore Israeli IHL violations both in Gaza and in connection with its deepening occupation and annexation of the West Bank – undermines the universality of their application and makes it easier for actors like China to ignore them without fear of consequences from other states. The US unwillingness to take meaningful steps to protect Palestinian lives and rights in the Gaza war has led to accusations of hypocrisy. Continuing that mistaken approach, alongside the movement by rightwing forces in the US to limit or cease support for Ukraine, will only further degrade the international order the US constructed after WWII, eroding an important barrier to China and other actors that may consider more aggressive actions of their own.

Recommendation #4: Invest in the US domestic critical technology workforce, while cooperating with China on shared challenges like climate change.

The Biden administration has already taken steps to increase domestic production capacity for technologies critical to the security and economy of the United States, especially advanced technologies and those essential to address dire challenges like climate change. US technical innovation led the way in the 20th century and should continue to do so as we face new global challenges. Increasing government support for programs to ensure an ample and sustainable workforce for these industries – including through transitional income support, student loan forgiveness and substantially increased across–the-board investments in public education and societal welfare – should therefore also be pursued as a US security priority. 

At the same time, US strategic investments in American democracy, equality, and prosperity must be undertaken in such a way that they do not simply redirect insecurity toward the rest of the world. The technologies needed to survive, mitigate, and overcome challenges like climate change and global health threats will not be built in one nation, and will require significant investment and cooperation from governments across the world.

Both China and the US face tremendous challenges from warming temperatures, particularly in the area of desertification and water security. Cynically exploiting these vulnerabilities in China, as some have argued the United States should, in the hope that they lead to crisis and instability is both immoral and dangerous. Catastrophic or even substantial dysfunction in one of the world’s largest countries, economic engines and a nuclear power would imperil US and global security in a multitude of areas. Instead, the United States should approach cooperation on addressing urgent climate change imperatives – such as working with China to leverage non debt-creating climate finance investments and provide critical technical assistance to developing countries – as an opportunity to build trust and identify areas of mutual benefit on other issues.

Recommendation #5: Advance global priorities that break away from an outdated and counterproductive “Great Power Competition” mindset

The explicit embrace of a “Great Power Competition” worldview by the Biden Administration and much of the US foreign policy establishment drives its fixation on reducing China’s presence and influence around the world. The dangerously unquestioned need to “counter” or even “beat” China in region after region across the globe is not only reactionary, but subordinates US interests at home and abroad to a zero-sum fight that drains US resources and goodwill. China’s leaders, in turn, seem happy to accept the prestige that comes with being the apparently destined competitor of the United States. They shape China’s foreign and military policy with this confrontation paradigm in mind, with Taiwan’s fate teetering at the leading edge.

The United States needs to recognize and secure its interests in the reality of a multi-polar world, rather than futilely attempting to forestall it via a costly and ultimately self-defeating effort to constantly disadvantage China. US military spending is already three times that of China (which is investing much of the difference in sectors like green technology). While China has a larger naval fleet in terms of vessel numbers, the US has far greater naval capability. What ultimately matters is not the actual balance of forces, but what a nation does with its share of the balance–and that has much to do with the overall tenor of relations and policy choices outside the military domain. The challenges that we face globally – among them climate change, political instability and pandemics — require equally global cooperation and cannot be solved militarily. 

To break out of the zero-sum competition that dominates strategic thinking on both sides, a new approach to defining success in global influence is required, focusing on 1) global public goods like universal public health infrastructure and green energy for all; 2) significantly increasing development investment in those countries and regions that have been starved of capital for decades; and 3) guaranteeing human, political and labor rights globally. Building international cooperation around such a transformation of the global economy would reestablish US–China relations  on a new foundation, revive the legitimacy of international norms by expanding the opportunity it offers to people of all countries, and address the truly existential threats humanity faces today.

Senate Emergency Appropriations Bill Would Harm US Interests and Values, Human Security in the Middle East

The Center for International Policy commends efforts by Senators supporting vitally important aid to Ukraine to construct a viable legislative vehicle in a Congress rendered increasingly dysfunctional by rising rightwing extremism in its ranks. With Ukraine’s financial and military resources rapidly dwindling as it struggles to repel Russia’s illegal invasion, assistance from the United States is critical. We also commend lawmakers seeking to include more than $10 billion to address dire humanitarian crises around the world. 

We therefore regret that, despite the good faith efforts of many lawmakers, the bill as currently written is nonetheless unacceptably unbalanced by provisions that are deeply harmful to US interests and values, as well as human security in the Middle East.

In contrast to Ukraine’s demonstrated need for funds and arms to counter Russia’s expansionist military assault and occupation, the bill’s $14 billion in further US taxpayer funding for weapons for Israel to use in its devastating campaign in Gaza is neither financially, militarily nor morally justified.

With a per capita GDP greater than that of the UK, Canada and Japan – and more than twelve times that of Ukraine — Israel has not made the case to Congress or American taxpayers that it will be unable to carry out essential, legitimate defense activities without such financial assistance. Such extraordinary additional aid the Israeli government is especially inappropriate in light of its ministers continuing to spend Israel’s own funds on projects in illegal West Bank settlements, while urging Israel’s financial institutions to defy new US anti-terrorism sanctions.

While Israel has the right and responsibility to defend its people and take military action in response to Hamas’ horrific October 7, 2023 attack, Israel’s campaign in Gaza is failing to achieve its own stated objectives of rescuing the Israelis taken hostage or “eliminating” Hamas from the territory. Instead, Israel’s disproportionate bombardment and near-total siege of the territory with US weapons has resulted in approximately 27,000 deaths – two-thirds of which Israel itself estimates are civilians – including more than 11,000 children, as multiple Israeli ministers call for the mass forced displacement of Gaza’s residents.

Despite calls by lawmakers for conditions on further military assistance to prevent Israel’s continued use of US arms in a manner that President Biden himself has twice called “indiscriminate,” the proposed bill not only fails to include any such safeguards, but would reduce already insufficient opportunities for Congressional oversight of weapons sales to Israel under federal law. The new White House National Security Memorandum requiring foreign military aid recipients like Israel to adhere to international humanitarian and relevant US law is a step in the right direction, but not a sufficient replacement for durable, statutorily binding safeguards – especially in light of the Biden administration’s repeated resistance to enforcing existing human rights and arms control laws with regard to Israel.

Additionally, as Gaza’s civilian population faces a crisis of starvation and disease, the legislation unconscionably prohibits any of the humanitarian aid it allocates, as well as any previously appropriated aid funding, from being used for contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – the main provider of lifesaving aid and services in the territory. Far from addressing the growing threat to US and regional security that the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza represents, this bill would cruelly exacerbate it, while increasing the prospects of the United States being drawn into another costly and avoidable quagmire in the region.

​​Time and again we have seen the folly of pursuing military measures without transparency or accountability mechanisms and without due attention to civilian well-being. We urge lawmakers to redress these deficiencies in the bill, so that its other components vital to global human security can move forward.


Following Yemen Strikes, Biden Must Change Course in the Middle East

Center for International Policy President and CEO Nancy Okail released the following statement.

Five Recommendations for Ending the War and Ensuring Human Security in Israel-Palestine

Organizations and leaders in the progressive foreign policy community have strongly condemned the heinous and illegal acts Hamas perpetrated against Israeli civilians, as well as Israeli government actions that have killed and gravely harmed Palestinian civilians in violation of international law. It is also essential for progressives in the United States to propose and champion forward-looking recommendations for how the Biden Administration can help end the current war in Israel-Palestine and best ensure the security, rights and well-being of Israelis and Palestinians in the longer term.

The progressive foreign policy community is diverse in both its composition and views. Different groups and leaders will no doubt have their own specific prescriptions that go beyond those articulated here, but we hope the following recommendations can serve as a commonly supported basis for essential US action.

Recommendation #1: Push for a humanitarian ceasefire

A ceasefire or truce that begins as a temporary measure, but which could be extended, is vitally necessary to prevent further loss of civilian life on a mass scale. The delivery of needed humanitarian aid, additional efforts to secure the release of hostages, the re-establishment of water supplies and electricity and initial assessments of Gaza’s reconstruction and resilience needs would all be made possible by a break in fighting. A ceasefire could also help calm tensions in the West Bank and elsewhere in the region, greatly reducing the risk of full-scale fighting moving to an additional theater or drawing in outside actors such as Iran.

While we hope such a ceasefire will be extended indefinitely, a ceasefire is not a peace treaty. It is an ad hoc measure under which combatants do not waive their right to resume military operations if other efforts (see recommendation #2, below) to permanently end an armed conflict fail.

Recommendation #2: Undertake intensive diplomacy to end Hamas attacks, secure release of hostages and end the Israeli siege

With a ceasefire in place, the Aqaba group (the United States, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and representatives of Palestine Liberation Organization) should convene with the addition of Qatar and Turkey – US security partners with channels to Iran and Hamas – with a goal to secure the release of all hostages and an end to the current war. A guiding objective of that process must be an outcome that does not restore the status quo ante, i.e., at a minimum, it must not allow Hamas to have a Gaza-based offensive attack capability, nor can it allow for continued blockade and functional imprisonment of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Consideration should also be given to beginning the process of appropriately addressing accountability for the brutality against, and mass casualties among, civilians on each side.

Recommendation #3: Refocus regional diplomatic priority from bilateral normalization efforts to multilateral efforts toward a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the end of occupation

Once a negotiated end to the current Israel-Hamas war is in place, the United States must finally get serious about diplomacy to justly resolve the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That means moving away from prioritizing the Trump/Netanyahu vision of piecemeal bilateral normalization agreements between Israel and Arab- and Muslim-majority autocracies that have given cover to metastasizing permanent Israeli control of the occupied Palestinian Territories and the inherently discriminatory denial of fundamental Palestinian national, political and human rights in violation of international law. It means championing the inherent benefits of Israel’s full acceptance and integration in the Middle East, and moving away from an “arms for peace” model where recognition of Israel is bought with US weapons deals that increase militarization and instability in the region. It also means avoiding the previous and repeatedly failed model of meekly facilitating direct, bilateral negotiations between parties with a massive imbalance of military and diplomatic power.

Instead, the United States should lend its full diplomatic weight to helping construct a truly multilateral framework involving key regional players toward a just and comprehensive resolution of the conflict in accordance with international law. This would include universal normalization and recognition of the national rights of both Israelis and Palestinians – alongside ensuring the security and well-being of both peoples – as its northstar. Different models, such as the Arab Peace Initiative or recent confederation proposals – could be proposed by participants as terms of reference. Absent such an effort, the lack of a political horizon will only continue to feed despair, distrust, and extremism among both peoples.

Recommendation #4: Take meaningful anti-occupation, anti-annexation steps:

Permanent Israeli occupation and ongoing de facto annexation of Palestinian territory is incompatible with international law and shared human values. Failure to take concrete steps to counter permanent, undemocratic Israeli control in the territories would doom any diplomatic conflict resolution effort and continue to feed the current cycle of violence.

The United States must end its demonstrably inadequate practice of limiting itself to mild criticism of deepening occupation and instead take concrete steps to counter it. At a bare minimum, these include: reinstating legal guidance that settlements are inconsistent with international law; declining to use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to shield Israel from accurate and appropriate criticism for its settlement and annexation-related activities; and instituting a zero tolerance policy for the use of US-supplied or -financed arms in connection with violations of human rights or for other prohibited purposes by meaningfully enforcing existing US law on the misuse of aid and US-origin weapons.

Recommendation #5: Substantially expand support for the Palestinian people and Palestinian leaders who seek peace with Israel

The Biden Administration should strengthen the legitimacy of Palestinians seeking a peaceful path to conflict resolution by upgrading the United States’ own bilateral relations with PLO, including by finally following through on its promise to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem serving Palestinians, exercising existing executive authority to terminate the decades-old legislative designation of the PLO as a terrorist organization, and working with regional and other international partners toward a major economic support program benefitting the Palestinian people.

Additionally, the United States must stop blocking international organizations and discouraging other countries from recognizing Palestinian statehood. While a comprehensive final resolution to their conflict can only be agreed between Israelis and Palestinians themselves, Palestinians are well within their rights as a nation to seek recognition of their state from international organizations and governments around the world. Binding themselves to the obligations of statehood and acceding to treaties that require responsible conduct is a non-violent, international law-affirming effort that should be applauded, not discouraged or penalized. The United States should therefore cease its practice of delegitimizing these efforts, and instead welcome them as bolstering the prospects for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ukraine and the U.S. Defense Industrial Base

Ukraine and the U.S. Defense Industrial Base

The Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund (CTEF)

The Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund (CTEF)

U.S. Arms Sales: 2021 – Early 2022

Issue Brief: U.S. Security Cooperation with Taiwan

An overview of U.S. security cooperation with Taiwan amid rising tensions with China