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How Far Will the US go to Defend Taiwan?

The latest from our “Adults in a Room" series.

Words: Robert Manning, Mercedes Trent, and Sam Gardner-Bird
Pictures: Rachel Martin

Adults in a Room” is a series in collaboration with The Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI). The series stems from NAEI’s monthly networking events that call on analysts to gather virtually and hash out a salient topic. The goal of this series is to give you a peek into their Zoom room and a deep understanding of the issue at hand in less than the time it takes to sip your morning coffee, without the jargon, acronyms, and stuffiness that often come with expertise.

What were the experts talking about this January? Concerns over the future of Taiwan and its relationship with China has become one of the top issues in US foreign policy. There is, however, little consensus over how China will approach Taiwan, and whether it will seek integration through force or political manipulation or preserve the status quo. Is it in the interests of the United States to bolster Taiwan’s defense? How will the US approach to Taiwan shape its relationship with China?

The Atlantic Council’s New American Engagement Initiative’s (NAEI) January networking event brought together a number of experts to discuss US policy toward Taiwan and its implications. The participants generally agreed that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was not imminent. Members also largely agreed that the policy of “strategic ambiguity” should be maintained and that calls to clarify the US position on Taiwan’s defense would heighten tensions with China significantly. There were differing views about whether the United States should attempt to further bolster Taiwan’s defense to dissuade a Chinese invasion, with some saying it was unnecessary and not in US interests and others arguing it would help to decrease the chances of China invading the island. 

Three participants expanded on their thoughts on how the United States should craft its policy toward Taiwan: 

Robert Manning, Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council

Taiwan has become a touchstone of US-China relations, and a driver of its downward spiral and of mutual demonization. China’s aggressive actions toward Taiwan, misread by many to be the first step toward an invasion, are aimed at intimidating and wearing down Taiwan to dissuade it from the impulse to declare independence. This has sparked a frenzied US response, both militarily (aimed to counter Chinese air and naval provocations) and politically (to a competition to see who can more tightly embrace Taiwan). This in turn generates a nasty Chinese response. So goes the cycle. Yet, China is years away from having the amphibious assault capability required, and has a rich menu of non-kinetic options to coerce Taiwan to accept reunification.

In both China and the US, assessments of American credibility are best evaluated by looking at US actions and rhetoric toward Taiwan, rather than by forcing connections to unrelated US actions in Ukraine.

The debate over the US’ longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan reflects this mania, with calls for “strategic clarity,” which is a call to deal with Taiwan as a treaty ally — though the only formal US commitment is to help Taiwan defend itself. This would be counterproductive on several levels. The three Communiques — the 1972 Shanghai Communique, the 1979 Normalization of relations communique, and the 1982 communique, all acknowledging China’s position of “One China,” and the third limiting arms sales to Taiwan — and the Taiwan Relations Act are the foundation of US policy toward China. China is increasingly wondering if the US is walking away from that, and senior US officials calling it a “strategic asset” in the first island chain does raise that question. The ambiguity policy, therefore, maximizes US leverage with both sides.

There is an important asymmetry in US-China interests when it comes to Taiwan. For China, Taiwan is an existential issue over which the Chinese Communist Party will risk war, even nuclear war. For the US, Taiwan is important but whether or not it’s a vital interest for which the US could go to war over is a matter of debate.

Mercedes Trent, 2021 Foreign Policy Fellow, US Senate and Nuclear Policy Advisor, Foreign Policy for America

Congress has a unique relationship with Taiwan — and those on the Hill are quick to point out that the relationship would not exist at all without Congress. The Taiwan Relations Act was drafted by Congress to protect relations with Taiwan after President Jimmy Carter unilaterally switched the US’s diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China and abrogated the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan. The TRA is, therefore, the cornerstone upon which the US–Taiwan relationship has been built since 1979. As such, Congress feels a special protectiveness over the relationship with Taiwan and can at times be paranoid about the degree to which the executive branch shares its dedication to ensuring Taiwan’s continued wellbeing.

As China has become the salient foreign policy issue in Washington over the last few years, Taiwan policy is becoming yet another vehicle through which Congress attempts to “counter China.” The result of this shift in political thinking is that policy toward Taiwan is becoming less about establishing a stronger, more mutually beneficial bilateral relationship and more about using Taiwan as another cudgel against China. Some members openly and aggressively advocate for abandoning the US’s policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward defense of Taiwan, with some going so far as to offer up a preemptive authorization of military force for war with China over Taiwan. Policies like these put Taiwan in more danger by creating a false sense of urgency around resolving the cross-Strait issue for all involved.

Keeping pressure on the executive branch to actively support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international institutions, deepen economic and educational ties, and expand global cooperation with Taiwan are much more valuable policy pursuits for Congress. Meaningful actions that advance the bilateral relationship and increase deterrence by helping Taiwan become an even more irreplaceable part of the international community are essential for regional stability.

Sam Gardner-Bird, Young Global Professional, Atlantic Council

Russia’s military buildup on the borders of Ukraine has led some to question whether US credibility will be implicated if it doesn’t respond to an invasion with sufficient force, suggesting to China that the US will not defend Taiwan. Both Ukraine and Taiwan face threats from their autocratic neighbors, but their similarities end there. Taiwan benefits from a long and close relationship with the US, one that is explicitly codified in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which requires the US to provide for the island’s self-defense. Ukraine, on the other hand, is a more recent recipient of US security support, and is neither a former treaty ally nor a member of NATO. Perhaps most significantly, Taiwan is located in the Indo-Pacific — the priority region for US policymakers — whereas US interests in Eastern Europe or Ukraine are of secondary or tertiary importance.

China doesn’t need to look to Ukraine to surmise US intentions. It simply needs to look to the past. On three separate occasions, the US has signaled a willingness to use force to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, including in 1995–1996 when Taiwan was no longer a treaty ally. In 2022, US intentions appear even clearer. The US Navy has conducted transit through the Strait roughly every month. 

Both the Trump and Biden administrations have deepened unofficial ties with Taiwan, sending cabinet level officials to Taipei and stationing a small number of US Marines on the island to train Taiwanese forces. Notably, President Joe Biden referred to asacred commitment” to Taiwan early in his tenure, straining the definition of strategic ambiguity. In both China and the US, assessments of American credibility are best evaluated by looking at US actions and rhetoric toward Taiwan, rather than by forcing connections to unrelated US actions in Ukraine. Misguided arguments fretting over the potential loss of American credibility have become far too common and they too frequently suggest policy choices that would embroil the US in costly and unwinnable conflicts.

Robert Manning, Mercedes Trent, and Sam Gardner-Bird

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