China’s Communist Party crackdown on Hong Kong gets more menacing by the day. This week’s roundup of democracy advocates including publisher Jimmy Lai is the latest assault on the once-free city, and hardliners in Beijing see Taiwan as the next prize. Given the possibility of a showdown over Taiwan in the next four years, the nature of America’s commitment to the island ought to make more than a passing appearance in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Taiwan’s importance to America’s Pacific alliances has long been recognized. If the U.S. allowed Taipei to fall under Beijing’s control—official or de facto—states like Vietnam would doubt America’s commitment to their independence and draw closer to China. If Beijing can then pry established allies like Japan away from the U.S., the Communist Party would be well on its way to regional hegemony.
Beyond traditional grand strategy, Taiwan now has a special significance because of its technological prowess. TSMC, based in Taiwan, is the world’s leading manufacturer of semiconductors, and it is consolidating its position. Its shares have surged this summer and U.S.-based Intel announced recently it might exit the chip-manufacturing business.
That puts Taiwan in the middle of the U.S.-China tech rivalry. China aims to lead the world in high-tech products and it has relied on computer chips made by TSMC. The U.S. is also wooing TSMC, which announced in May it would open a factory in Arizona. U.S. sanctions are making it impossible for China’s Huawei to buy chips from TSMC. Political scientist Graham Allison has speculated that Beijing may see the tech rivalry as cause to take control of the island and its flagship company by force.
Which brings us back to U.S. politics. China has been intensifying its military exercises near Taiwan, and coercion or even an assault of some kind rank high among the national-security crises the next President may face.