Will America come to Taiwan’s defense?

The West won the Cold War without firing a shot, but the intensifying struggle with China may not end so well. The record number of Chinese military aircraft flying near Taiwan last week raised alarm bells—and questions.

For decades China’s leaders bided their time, knowing that a military confrontation with the U.S. would end badly. But during the past quarter-century, China steadily ramped up its investment in the People’s Liberation Army. Between 2010 and 2020, spending rose by 76%, and the PLA’s war-fighting ability has vastly improved. In recent years, the Pentagon has staged multiple war games testing U.S. ability to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The American team has lost nearly all of them.

This increase in China’s capabilities has coincided with shifts in outlook. Statements from President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders characterize the U.S. as a declining power mired in division and dysfunction. They doubt America’s will to use force overseas, a mindset not discouraged by our disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan. Beijing believes that China is within reach of replacing the U.S. as the world’s dominant power.

In this context, a once-unthinkable event—a successful Chinese invasion of Taiwan—has become possible, perhaps even likely. Senior U.S. naval officials have been especially blunt about this. “To us, it’s only a matter of time, not a matter of if,” Rear Adm. Michael Studeman, director of intelligence for the Indo-Pacific command, said earlier this year.