American Support for Taiwan

RICHARD HAASS is President of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author
of The World: A Brief Introduction.
DAVID SACKS is a Research Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
American Support for Taiwan
Must Be Unambiguous
To Keep the Peace, Make Clear to China ?at Force
Won’t Stand
September 2, 2020
For four decades, successive Republican and Democratic administrations
resisted answering the question of whether the United States would come
to Taiwan’s defense if China mounted an armed attack. Washington’s
deliberate ambiguity on the matter helped dissuade China from
attempting to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland, as it could not be sure
that the United States would remain on the sidelines. At the same time,
the policy discouraged Taiwan from declaring independence—a step that
would have precipitated a cross-strait crisis—because its leaders could not
be sure of unequivocal U.S. support.
?e policy known as strategic ambiguity has, however, run its course.
Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with
growing military capabilities. ?e time has come for the United States to
introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the
United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.
Washington can make this change in a manner that is consistent with its
one-China policy and that minimizes the risk to U.S.-Chinese relations.
Indeed, such a change should strengthen U.S.-Chinese relations in the
long term by improving deterrence and reducing the chances of war in
the Taiwan Strait, the likeliest site for a clash between the United States
and China.
When the United States severed relations with Taiwan (more accurately,
the Republic of China) in 1979 and discarded its mutual defense treaty
with the island, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which made
clear that the United States maintained special commitments to Taiwan.
?e TRA asserted that the United States would “consider any e?ort to
determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including
by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the
Western Paci?c area and of grave concern to the United States.” It also
stated that the United States would both maintain the capacity to come
to Taiwan’s defense and make available to the island the arms necessary
for its security. Importantly, however, the TRA did not declare that the
United States would in fact come to Taiwan’s defense.
American ambiguity worked to deter China from attacking Taiwan, as
Beijing could never be sure what the U.S. response would be. China
wanted above all to maintain a peaceful external environment so that it
could focus on its economic development. Moreover, even if the United
States chose not to engage directly, it had provided Taiwan’s military with
enough sophisticated equipment that China’s military would be ill
equipped to defeat it. A miscalculation would have imperiled China’s
economic development and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule.
Ambiguity had an equally important but often underappreciated e?ect on
Taiwan, which could not be assured of U.S. assistance if it provoked a
Chinese assault by declaring independence. When Taiwan tested the
limits of what the United States would accept—as it did in the early
2000s, under the administration of Chen Shui-bian—the United States
made clear that Taiwan did not enjoy a blank check and could not act
with impunity. Ambiguity kept this powder keg from exploding.
Maintaining this policy of ambiguity, however, will not keep the peace in
the Taiwan Strait for the next four decades. Too many of the variables
that made it a wise course have fundamentally shifted. China now has the
capability to threaten U.S. interests and Taiwan’s future. China’s defense
spending is 15 times that of Taiwan’s, and much of it has been devoted to
a Taiwan contingency. Chinese planning has focused on impeding the
United States from intervening successfully on Taiwan’s behalf.
Gone are the days when Taiwan’s dollars went further than China’s, as
China now ?elds equipment on a par with anything the United States
makes available to Taiwan. Whether the United States could prevail in a
Taiwan con?ict is no longer certain, and the trend lines continue to move
in China’s favor. Unless the United States devotes signi?cant resources to
preparing for a con?ict in the Taiwan Strait, it stands little chance of
preventing a fait accompli. Waiting for China to make a move on Taiwan
before deciding whether to intervene is a recipe for disaster.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has become ever more assertive in
advancing its interests. Xi once pledged to U.S. President Barack Obama
that China would not militarize the South China Sea, but in recent years,
it has done so. ?e country has imprisoned at least one million of its
Uighur minority. It has openly clashed with India along the two
countries’ disputed border. It has ramped up military exercises in the
Taiwan Strait and intensi?ed e?orts to isolate Taiwan internationally.
Equally worrisome for Taiwan, China has over the past year stripped
Hong Kong of nearly all its autonomy.
In light of these trends, China’s aim to gain control of Taiwan, through
force if necessary, needs to be taken seriously. ?ere is speculation that Xi
will marry his ambitions with the new means at his disposal to realize his
“China Dream” and force “reuni?cation” with Taiwan, potentially as soon
as 2021. No one should dismiss the possibility that Taiwan could be the
next Hong Kong.
Furthermore, deterring Taiwan from declaring independence is no longer
a primary concern. Taiwan understands that the United States does not
support its independence. President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the “proindependence”
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has adopted
cautious and prudent policies to manage relations with China (in close
consultation with the United States) and has carefully avoided moves that
might cross Beijing’s redlines. ?e Taiwanese are pragmatic and
understand that pursuing independence, which would provoke China, is
not in the island’s interest. Accordingly, fewer than ten percent support
pursuing independence as soon as possible, and a majority prefer to
maintain the status quo rather than risk a war.
Finally, while some may have questioned whether the authoritarian
Taiwan of 1979, ruled under martial law, was worth defending, the island
has since blossomed into a robust democracy with regular, peaceful
transfers of power. Taiwan became the ?rst place in Asia to legalize samesex
marriage and has one of the freest presses in the region. It has the
highest proportion of female legislators in Asia, nearly double that of the
United States. In its world-leading response to COVID-19, Taiwan
demonstrated its enormous capacity in global health and its generosity in
lending a hand to countries that needed it. Taiwan is a vital partner of the
United States on a host of global issues, and it is in the United States’
interests to defend Taiwan’s hard-won gains.
One thing, however, has not changed over these four decades: an imposed
Chinese takeover of Taiwan remains antithetical to U.S. interests. If the
United States fails to respond to such a Chinese use of force, regional
U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, will conclude that the United
States cannot be relied upon and that it is pulling back from the region.
?ese Asian allies would then either accommodate China, leading to the
dissolution of U.S. alliances and the crumbling of the balance of power, or
they would seek nuclear weapons in a bid to become strategically selfreliant.
Either scenario would greatly increase the chance of war in a
region that is central to the world’s economy and home to most of its
Meanwhile, the 24 million people of Taiwan would see their democracy
and freedoms crushed. China would subsume the island’s vibrant, hightech
economy. And China’s military would no longer be bottled up
within the ?rst island chain: its navy would instead have the ability to
project Chinese power throughout the western Paci?c.
?e fact that the United States, China, and Taiwan have kept the peace in
the Taiwan Strait for 40 years by ?nessing the issue is one of the great
postwar foreign policy achievements of the United States. It is a
testament to the skillful statecraft of Henry Kissinger and many of his
successors, who understood that settling this issue on terms acceptable to
all sides was out of reach. But ambiguity is now unlikely to preserve the
status quo.
To defend its achievement and continue to deter Chinese adventurism,
the United States should adopt a position of strategic clarity, making
explicit that it would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan.
Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which
is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait.
A change in U.S. policy is especially necessary given that President
Donald Trump has sown seeds of doubt as to whether the United States
would come to the aid of its friends and allies. He has questioned the
value of NATO and abandoned the United States’ Kurdish partners. He
is reducing the U.S. troop presence in Germany, threatening to do the
same in South Korea, and has signed an agreement with the Taliban that
is nothing so much as a cover for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Xi
Jinping can easily have concluded that the United States will not come to
Taiwan’s defense. As a result, the United States must restore deterrence:
announcing a policy of strategic clarity is the best way to do so.
Chinese ships in the South China Sea, December 2016
Stringer / Reuters
?e White House could articulate this new policy through a presidential
statement and accompanying executive order that reiterates U.S. support
for its one-China policy but also unequivocally states that the United
States would respond should Taiwan come under Chinese armed attack.
?e statement would make clear that the United States does not support
Taiwan independence, thus deterring Taiwan from attempting to
capitalize on the new U.S. policy. Importantly, the TRA, which is a
critical element of the United States’ one-China policy, premises
normalization with China on “the expectation that the future of Taiwan
will be determined by peaceful means.” A statement that the United
States would not tolerate a Chinese attack against Taiwan is thus
consistent with the one-China policy.
Strategic clarity would not entail that the United States recognize Taipei
or upgrade its relationship with Taiwan, nor would it involve a mutual
defense treaty or any signed document with Taiwan. Such steps would
force Xi’s hand. Rather, the statement would be a unilateral U.S. pledge,
and it would make clear that the basics of U.S. policy remain unchanged:
the United States would continue to avoid taking a position on the ?nal
contours of a resolution of cross-strait di?erences and insist only that any
such resolution come about peacefully and consensually. In short, the
ends of American policy would stay the same—what would change
would be the means.
By itself, a statement is not enough. ?e United States must pair it with
steps that bolster deterrence. It should station additional air and naval
forces in the region, redouble e?orts to disperse these forces in order to
complicate Chinese planning, and make preparing for a Taiwan
contingency a top priority for Department of Defense planners. ?e
United States should consult with Japan and South Korea to see what
types of assistance these allies would o?er during a Taiwan contingency.
?e CCP derives much of its legitimacy from its ability to provide
sustained economic growth. ?erefore, the United States should make
clear that using force against Taiwan would put China’s continued growth
at risk. Congress should pass a law that would impose severe sanctions on
China should it attack Taiwan. ?e United States should coordinate with
its Asian and European allies so they send similar signals.
At the same time, the United States should work with Taiwan to help it
maintain the integrity of its democracy in the face of Chinese coercion. It
should assist Taiwan with election security and cyberdefense and explore
a free trade agreement with the island to help ensure its economic vitality.
Some will no doubt oppose this change, arguing that it would risk a crisis,
lead to a rupture in U.S. relations with China, or both. But the United
States can reduce the likelihood of a breakdown by maintaining the one-
China policy and reiterating that the United States does not take a
position on the substance of any arrangement between China and Taiwan
so long as it is arrived at peacefully and with the consent of the people.
?e policy change recommended here would not foreclose any potential
resolution of cross-strait di?erences.
Xi moved swiftly against Hong Kong, but if the United States issues a
clear statement that it would respond to an armed attack on Taiwan—
and takes steps to make this credible—he will think twice before forcing
the Taiwan issue and bringing about a confrontation with the United
States. Above all, Xi is motivated by a desire to maintain the CCP’s
dominance of China’s political system. A failed bid to “reunify” Taiwan
with China would put that dominance in peril, and that is a risk Xi is
unlikely to take. Strengthened deterrence will thus help prevent a crossstrait
crisis and put Sino-U.S. relations on ?rmer ground by lowering the
chances of war.
?ose who argue that this new policy extends an additional U.S.
commitment at a time when the country is already overextended should
not delude themselves: U.S. allies in Asia already assume that the United
States will come to Taiwan’s defense. Deciding not to do so would
jeopardize these alliances. ?e problem is that currently, a chasm
separates what is expected of the United States from its declaratory
policy and its ability to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf. Strategic clarity
aligns U.S. policy with what U.S. allies already expect and sets a course for
narrowing the gap between commitments and capabilities.
?e current administration has chosen instead to symbolically upgrade
the U.S.-Taiwanese relationship and call into question the one-China
policy—both stances that court con?ict, because China’s greatest concern
is that Taiwan will move toward seeking recognition as an independent
country. Strategic clarity, by contrast, would eschew such symbolic moves
in favor of a policy that focuses narrowly on restoring deterrence. ?e best
way to ensure that the United States does not need to come to Taiwan’s
defense is to signal to China that it is prepared to do so. What happens
or doesn’t happen in the Taiwan Strait may well decide Asia’s future.
Copyright © 2021 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.
All rights reserved. To request permission to distribute or reprint this article, please
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