American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous

Dire Straits
Should American Support for Taiwan Be
September 24, 2020
Bonnie S. Glaser
In their recent article (“American Support for Taiwan Must Be
Unambiguous,” September 2), Richard Haass and David Sacks correctly
note that China’s coercive tactics and military buildup are eroding
deterrence in the Taiwan Strait. But their proposed solution—a U.S.
security guarantee for Taipei—would not solve that problem and might
even provoke a Chinese attack. To reduce the chances of war, the United
States needs to signal credibly that Beijing would pay a high price for
invading Taiwan. Washington cannot, however, make its willingness to
defend Taiwan unconditional. Rather, the United States should reserve
the latitude to judge whether Taipei’s policies are consistent with U.S.
interests—and with the region’s peace and security.
If the United States extends an unquali?ed security commitment to
Taiwan today, without the ability to make its threats credible, China
could respond by mounting an attack. Chinese President Xi Jinping has
taken a tough approach to sovereignty disputes throughout his tenure: in
Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the disputed border with India, he has
doubled down in de?ance of foreign criticism. ?e United States might
try to head o? this reaction by assuring China that it still adheres to its
“one China” policy and does not support Taiwan’s independence. But such
blandishments would fall on deaf ears, especially if they come from U.S.
President Donald Trump, who has little credibility in Beijing. Rather, Xi
would likely calculate that failing to take decisive action would open him
to domestic criticism and jeopardize his bid to be China’s leader for life.
?e authors advise U.S. leaders against signing a treaty with Taipei on the
grounds that doing so would “force Xi’s hand,” but they don’t explain why
an ironclad security guarantee wouldn’t have the same consequence.
?at consequence hardly seems worth risking when there is little
evidence that China is poised to invade Taiwan. Xi has said that
“reuni?cation” of the island with mainland China is “inevitable,” but he
has given no indication that he is willing to jeopardize other Chinese
interests in order to urgently achieve this goal. Haass and Sacks cite
“speculation” that Beijing will force reuni?cation with Taiwan as soon as
2021—but the United States should base a major shift in policy on hard
facts, not rumors.
Nor should the United States be shortsighted about the potential
intentions of future Taiwanese leaders. Haass and Sacks are con?dent
that the island’s authorities have judged that pursuing independence is
contrary to their interests. Current President Tsai Ing-wen has indeed
taken a cautious stance toward Beijing and coordinated her approach
closely with Washington. But her successors may not do the same. A
clear statement of U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan regardless of the
circumstances could embolden pro-independence constituencies in
Taiwan to promote their cause. ?e United States should not give Taipei
a green light to bend to these forces or to advance policies contrary to
U.S. objectives.
U.S. treaty allies have a strong stake in preserving peace in the Taiwan
Strait. Japan in particular has a vital interest in averting a Chinese
takeover of Taiwan, because the island is located in the middle of the ?rst
island chain stretching from Japan to the Philippines and the South
China Sea. A Chinese occupation would threaten Japanese sea-lanes.
Japan and other U.S. allies in Asia, however, would likely see a U.S.
commitment to defend Taiwan against all threats not as evidence that the
United States is a reliable partner but as a potential provocation of China.
Moreover, such a commitment accompanied by a request that regional
allies assist the United States during a Taiwan contingency, as Haass and
Sacks propose, would likely lead those allies to fear being dragged into a
?e Taiwan Relations Act requires the U.S. president and Congress to
determine “appropriate action” in response to “any threat to the security or
the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to
the interests of the United States arising therefrom.” ?erefore, Beijing
cannot rule out the possibility of U.S. intervention in the event of an
invasion. Still, the United States does need to shore up its ability to deter
Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait. On this point, Haass and Sacks
are spot-on. China has developed “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities
that complicate the United States’ ability to defend Taiwan. If the United
States is to credibly head o? a Chinese invasion, it must ?nd e?ective
ways to counter these capabilities. Taiwan must also do its part to ensure
that its military can survive an attack and slow down an enemy force to
buy time for the U.S. military to arrive.
?e United States should revise its publicly declared policy in a manner
that strengthens deterrence, but not by issuing a statement of “strategic
clarity,” as Haass and Sacks recommend. U.S. policymakers could issue a
warning that any Chinese use of force against Taiwan would be viewed as
a threat to peace and stability and a grave threat to the United States.
Such a statement would signal U.S. resolve without the downsides of a
clear security guarantee. If Beijing looks set to move against Taiwan, the
U.S. president could forestall a crisis by privately issuing clear warnings to
China’s leader about the consequences of such an action.
Ambiguity has preserved cross-strait stability for decades and can
continue to prevent war. To keep the peace, the United States must
restore deterrence, not further weaken it.
BONNIE S. GLASER is Senior Adviser for Asia and Director of the China
Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Michael J. Mazarr
Richard Haass and David Sacks have done a great service by promoting
debate on an increasingly vexing issue—the United States’ commitment
to Taiwan. ?ey are right to worry that, as China’s thirst to resolve the
Taiwan issue intensi?es, the United States’ halfhearted commitment to
the island will become increasingly perilous: too weak to deter Chinese
aggression but strong enough to drag the United States into a war.
But Haass and Sacks’s solution—an unequivocal U.S. commitment to the
defense of Taiwan—has more emotional than strategic appeal. To begin
with, Taiwan does not yet face an imminent threat. Little evidence—
beyond belligerent statements and provocative exercises—suggests that
China is on the verge of invading Taiwan. As Taylor Fravel recently
argued, “China does not appear (yet) to have altered its view about the
importance of maintaining a relatively benign security environment.” ?e
United States should not pay the huge costs of a security guarantee if the
menace remains mostly hypothetical. Were China ever to move toward
invasion, the United States could issue more pointed threats.
Even if an invasion were imminent, however, a security pledge might not
be e?ective. In the late 1930s, many Japanese o?cials admitted that they
would lose a long war against the United States. Despite that grim
assessment, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, because it concluded that it had
no other option. History is full of such occasions, when nations—fueled
by a toxic brew of paranoia, desperation, and wishful thinking—felt so
compelled to act that they were e?ectively undeterrable. If Beijing ever
decides to take the risk of invading Taiwan, it will likely have arrived at
just such an urgent imperative to act. A tougher policy is unlikely to work
when it is needed most.
Worse, if China believes that the United States is about to make a
security pledge to Taiwan, that prospect could itself become the impetus
for China to take rash action. Once the United States makes such a
pledge, the situation becomes even more dicey, as U.S. o?cials will likely
worry about the guarantee’s credibility and agitate to deploy military
forces to Taiwan as a signal of resolve. Beijing is unlikely to tolerate such
action. Rather than forestalling war, the proposed policy could easily set a
chain of events in motion that would make con?ict inevitable.
An unquali?ed security commitment might also be counterproductive for
the United States’ relationships with other countries in the region. Haass
and Sacks rightly note that many Indo-Paci?c nations worry about U.S.
reliability. But those countries also want to avoid taking sides between the
United States and China. An ironclad security pledge would undercut
multilateral collaboration by reminding other states that to engage in a
closer security partnership with the United States means possibly getting
dragged into a war over Taiwan.
As for Taipei, Haass and Sacks claim that “deterring Taiwan from
declaring independence is no longer a primary concern,” in part because
few Taiwanese support it. But the sense of independent identity in
Taiwan appears to be growing. Moreover, an absolute security guarantee
could encourage Taiwanese authorities to treat Beijing with contempt,
?guring that the United States has the island’s back. Having made such a
promise, the United States will not be able to backtrack without
demolishing its credibility—leaving few means of in?uencing Taipei’s
behavior in a crisis.
If all these risks are not enough to make a Taiwan security guarantee
unattractive, Washington should consider the cost. ?e United States is
already strengthening its regional posture, but an unquali?ed promise
would demand a much larger investment if it is to be substantially more
credible than U.S. deterrence is already. Prevailing military trends do not
favor the kind of long-range power projection that such a posture in
Taiwan would require. Given the many domestic problems confronting
the United States, devoting scarce dollars to defending Taiwan is arguably
not the best way to make the country safer, more prosperous, or more
competitive with China.
?e United States should ?nd ways to deter Chinese aggression that
don’t involve making an unambiguous and costly military commitment to
Taiwan. Short of such a guarantee, Washington can still make much
more explicit that invading Taiwan will entail economic, political, and
military consequences for China. Options include intense and targeted
economic sanctions, conditional plans to deploy new U.S. forces in
neighboring countries, limits on academic and professional exchanges
with Chinese partners, and expelling Chinese diplomats from
international organizations. Although a detailed plan to undermine
China’s strategic position would not deter an attack on its own, it would
at least force Beijing to acknowledge and consider the potential costs of
its actions.
At the same time, the United States could help Taiwan deliver on its
2017 defense strategy, which shifts the island’s focus away from major
combat systems, such as tanks and aircraft, and toward potentially more
e?ective asymmetric defenses, such as smart mines, antiship missiles,
drones, and information warfare. A bold commitment from Taipei to
make itself a more costly target—supported by an increase in Taiwanese
defense spending, continued U.S. arms transfers, and perhaps even some
joint weapons development programs—would enhance deterrence as
much as any new U.S. promises.
No U.S. approach to Taiwan will o?er a perfect guarantee of peace. But
the United States has many options short of the provocative, costly, and
diplomatically risky step of an unconditional security pledge.
MICHAEL J. MAZARR is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND
Michael J. Glennon
In the 1972 agreement known as the Shanghai Communiqué, the United
States promised that it would not challenge China’s position that there is
“but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” In a separate
agreement signed in 1979, the United States agreed that the Chinese
authorities based in Beijing were the country’s sole legal government.
Taken together, these twin declarations—popularly known as the “one
China policy”—cleared the way for the modern relationship between the
United States and China. On the legal status of Taiwan, the United
States took the same position then as now: no position.
Richard Haass and David Sacks’ proposed security guarantee in their
recent article would forsake that purposefully ambiguous policy in favor
of a dangerously provocative unilateral commitment. Not only would
such a move abandon a policy that has functioned e?ectively for 40 years,
but it would also violate the U.S. Constitution and the Taiwan Relations
Act (TRA).
?e UN Charter would permit using force to assist Taiwan in the event
of a Chinese attack only if such action could be characterized as collective
self-defense: if a state is subject to an armed attack, other states may
lawfully use force in its defense. But the collective self-defense rationale
presupposes an external attack, not the use of force by a state within its
own territory. U.S. military assistance to Taiwan premised on collective
self-defense could align with the charter only if the United States
regarded Taiwan as a sovereign, independent state. ?e one-China policy
explicitly precludes this view.
A U.S. president might assert the authority to jettison that policy in favor
of a security assurance to Taiwan, but such a move would violate the U.S.
Constitution, which gives Congress the power to declare war and the
Senate the power to approve treaties. For the president alone to make a
formal security guarantee would manifestly encroach on those powers.
Long-standing U.S. custom and practice dictate that a commitment of
such magnitude—dedicating U.S. soldiers to the unconditional defense of
a foreign country—cannot be made solely by the chief executive. ?e
president cannot promise what is not the president’s to give.
Nonetheless, Haass and Sacks would have the president make a sweeping
promise of an absolute and automatic response to “any” Chinese use of
force against Taiwan, however limited in scope and whatever the
circumstances. Such a pledge would be extraordinary. As the U.S. Senate
Foreign Relations Committee said in its report on what would become
the TRA, the law that currently de?nes U.S.-Taiwanese relations, “an
‘absolute’ security guarantee for Taiwan would go further than any current
mutual security treaty to which the United States is a party.” ?e report
went on to note that it is “questionable whether, as a matter of
constitutional law, an absolute security guarantee can be made—either by
treaty or by statute.”
Haass and Sacks suggest, however, that the provisions of the TRA show
that such a move would not violate the one-China policy. To the contrary,
section three of the TRA expressly forbids the kind of action that Haass
and Sacks recommend. It states that “the President and the Congress,”
not the president alone, “shall determine, in accordance with
constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States” in
response to any threat to the security of Taiwan. ?e TRA, moreover,
does not contravene the one-China policy but honors it. As the
committee emphasized in its report, legislators drafted the TRA
speci?cally to allow U.S. relations with Taiwan to continue “on an
uno?cial basis” and to “reassure Taiwan without being inconsistent with
recognition of the PRC.”
China is undoubtedly more threatening to the United States and Taiwan
today than it was in 1979. As its power has grown, China has exhibited
an abysmal disregard for international humanitarian norms. In a dark
future, the United States might need to take military action to defend its
security interests in Taiwan. But formally and explicitly saying so would
in?ame an already volatile U.S.-Chinese relationship—with potentially
unimaginable consequences. As an esteemed former State Department
legal adviser used to say, success in diplomacy is like success in marriage:
not every truth need be articulated.
MICHAEL J. GLENNON is Professor of International Law at the Fletcher
School of Law and Diplomacy and served as Legal Counsel to the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee during the drafting of the Taiwan Relations
In our piece “American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous,”
which appeared in Foreign A

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