Support Taiwan to Deter China

How is it the U.S. does not claim Taiwan as a strategic ally nor consider Taiwan an adversary?  Taiwan is what we want in a trustworthy ally: a rule-based, thriving democracy that upholds human rights.  Unfortunately, we do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation though it has its own government and its own defense and monetary systems.  In fact, Taiwan, the keystone island strategically positioned between U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines, has the world’s 20th largest economy, is America’s 10th largest trade partner and produces 60% of the world’s semiconductor chips.

If defending Taiwan is one of our most vital strategic interests, the U.S. should immediately stop worrying about offending the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), act as the global leader that we are, shed the outdated strategic ambiguity on Taiwan, and acknowledge the reality that Taiwan is a nation.    

History shows strategic ambiguity has led to conflicts 

Strategic ambiguity, peppered with opaqueness in the mistaken and forlorn hope that it can deter adversaries, has invited miscalculations and unintended armed conflicts. In 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s speech to the National Press Club on January 12, 1950  made no mention of the Korean peninsula being part of the U.S. defensive perimeter.  Six months later North Korea, encouraged by China, invaded South Korea.  The resultant Korean War yielded three million deaths, including 35,000 U.S. servicemen

On July 25, 1990, U.S. ambassador April Glaspie told Iraq’s Saddam Hussein that “we (the U.S.) have no opinion on… Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait,”  A week later Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait drew the U.S. into a conflict that heads into its third decade and at a cost of thousands of U.S. lives and untold billions of dollars.     

In February 2014, Russia militarily annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s southernmost peninsula, in defiance of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances guaranteeing Ukrainian security.  Apart from $1 billion in aid to Ukraine by the U.S. and words volleyed across the Atlantic calling for a Russian withdrawal, there was no U.S. or UK show of force nor any UN assistance; the Russians stayed put.  Over the next months, Russia, with renewed bravado, subsequently occupied eastern Ukraine, where it remains to this day. 

Strategic clarity and clear intentions, like the Monroe Doctrine, might have been more likely to preserve peace. 

Will Biden-Blinken “…Choose the Harder Right Instead of the Easier Wrong…”?

Washington needs to divorce itself from its decades-long “One China” policy and its strategic ambiguity mantra to deter Chinese aggression towards Taiwan. 

To avert potential conflicts, a new U.S. Taiwan policy should be that in addition to complying with the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. will defend Taiwan if Taiwan is attacked, militarily or otherwise, without provocation.  In the event of such aggression, the U.S. will recognize that there is the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan and the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on China.  

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the “One China Policy emerged when Jimmy Carter recognized the PRC.  Ronald Reagan later added the “Six Assurances” in 1982 to further compliment the TRA.  Unfortunately, the declarations are not legally binding:  1) the TRA does not lawfully require the U.S. to defend Taiwan; it merely states the U.S. will provide “necessary defensive articles for Taiwan to protect itself”; 2) the “Six Assurances” guide U.S.-Taiwan relations but is a non-binding, unenforceable resolution. 

The U.S. has never formally stated if it will aid Taiwan if China invades and its continued adherence to this strategic ambiguity will encourage China to inadvertently pull the U.S. into war.  Biden’s 2020 Interim National Security Guidance augmented this vagueness: “We (the U.S.) will support Taiwan, a leading democracy and a critical economic and security partner, in line with longstanding American commitments.” 

The premise of the strategic ambiguity and the One China policy are obsolete 

They were effective when:

1) The U.S. was the dominant global superpower; 

2) China was economically depressed and militarily weak and awakening from a nightmarish Cultural Revolution; and

3) Taiwan was a developing country under martial law and barely taxiing to the ramp to become one of Asia’s Four (economic) Dragons.  

Strategic ambiguity has lost its effectiveness today because:

1) U.S. swagger has dimmed globally as domestic issues (i.e., gender and racial politics) vie for influence and resources;

2) China’s might, militarily and economically, has increased exponentially as it

   a) spreads its brand of ideology via the Belt and Road Initiative,

   b) suppresses basic human rights against ethnic and religious minorities,

   c) disavows civil liberties and universal suffrage they legally agreed upon for Hong Kong,

   d) has refused to denounce the use of force to overtake Taiwan (see 2005 Anti-Secession Law); and

3) Taiwan has

   a) matured into a rule-based, thriving democracy,

   b) successfully managed the coronavirus pandemic to become a model for the world, and

   c) created a nurturing and paternalistic platform for world-class semiconductor manufacturers to flourish. 

Taiwan is of a Vital Strategic Interest to the United States 

Biden needs to acknowledge Taiwan’s geostrategic position, its vibrant democracy and world-class semiconductor industry are economic and security benefits the U.S. and the free world need to defend, but would lead to catastrophe if not protected.  Foreign Policy defines vital strategic interests as “conditions strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance a country’s survival as a free and secure nation.”

If China invades and occupies Taiwan, the CCP will control the ingress/egress of the South China Sea, one of the world’s most vital sea lanes, where one-third of all global shipping transits.  Taiwan, Douglas MacArthur’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” at the north end of the South China Sea, sits in a commanding, over-watch position to monitor and control all shipping flow.  Other strategic advantages for China:

  • China’s blue water navy will have unimpeded paths directly to Hawaii, North America, and South America.
  • China will control the sea lanes where 40% of its total trade transit through.
  • China will have unencumbered sea lines of communication and control of the Taiwan Straits.
  • China will gain access to 60% of the world’s $85 billion semiconductor chip manufacturing industry. Without these chips, computers cannot compute, smart phones cannot be smart, F-35s cannot fly nor fight.    

A China-occupied Taiwan gives China the ability to disrupt trade that may lead to or precipitate a global economic crisis.  When that happens, will Biden-Blinken still debate whether Taiwan is of vital strategic interest to the U.S.?  

A Path to Conflict 

The 1989 Tiananmen Massacre started the slow death spiral of the West’s dream of a politically open China.  China’s ethnic/religious genocide against the Uighurs and the Tibetans cast doubts on the CCP’s respect of human rights.  China’s unilateral abolishment of legal commitments to Hong Kong’s autonomy and the passage of the 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law nailed shut the coffin on universal suffrage for Hong Kong.  Combined with the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, its unabashed declaration of intent to occupy Taiwan and not renounce the use of force against Taiwan, China’s actions foretell its “reunification” intentions with Taiwan.

China’s actions and its intent with Taiwan, combined with the past strategic ambiguity the U.S. leading to unintended conflicts do not bode well for Taiwan to remain free and democratic.  To extricate the U.S. from being unintentionally led into a conflict with China or avoid losing Taiwan to China, Biden-Blinken need to explicitly state U.S. intentions to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.  Ambiguity leads to miscalculations; clarity begets maximum deterrence.

Dean Chang retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel and from the State Department as a foreign service officer with combined service in the continental U.S., Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Image: Luo Shaoyang