With a string of U.S. allies in East Asia wary of China’s rising power, the region is a focus of growing security concerns. A key U.S. partner, Taiwan, is in a particularly precarious situation, as Beijing has never abandoned the vision of the island’s reunification with mainland China. The Biden administration is taking steps, as it did at the recent NATO Summit, to reassure American allies about the longstanding U.S. commitment to their security, ties that were seriously undermined by President Joe Biden’s predecessor.
But after decades of being mired in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the pressures are strong to minimize U.S. security engagements abroad. The Biden administration and Congress should beware of yielding to these short-term pressures. Taiwan warrants a stalwart U.S. security commitment not only to stymie China’s strategic but relentless crawl in East Asia. Amid the march of illiberal regimes across the globe and in the face of intensifying pressure from the mainland, Taiwan functions as a true democracy. As such, it is a bellwether for other states and territories at risk of authoritarian backsliding — or conquest — and a glowing example of what a liberal democracy and open society could bring to the peoples of Asia and elsewhere. A look at its history reveals Taiwan’s resilience, as well as how – and why – the United States should reinforce its support.
An Unlikely State
Taiwan has survived and thrived against great odds. In 1949, when Communist forces led by Mao Tse-tung prevailed in the Chinese civil war following the end of World War II, what was left of the defeated forces of the Republic of China (ROC) led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island of Taiwan off the South China coast. A victorious Mao on Oct. 1, 1949, announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and claimed that the PRC was now the sole legal government of the Chinese people. The ROC in response declared from Taiwan that it was the legitimate government in-exile. So it remained for more than three decades, until 1979. During this time, the ROC represented China at the United Nations.
At first, U.S. President Harry Truman was uninterested in supporting Chiang Kai-shek, America’s ally during the war, and there is evidence that Truman was prepared to abandon the ROC and deal with Mao’s government. This changed in an instant, when on June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. Within a week, Truman ordered the U.S. 7th Fleet to prevent any attack on Taiwan, asserting that “the determination of the future status of Formosa (the island’s designation as a Japanese colony) must await the restoration of security in the Pacific.” At the same time, the president ordered U.S. air, naval, and ground forces to go to South Korea’s aid.
The later entry of the Chinese army into the Korean War was another incentive to give direct military assistance to the ROC government, and in 1954 the United States and the ROC signed the U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty, making the two governments allies once again. So for the next three decades, the United States continued to support the ROC’s claim to represent all of China and during this time maintained a defense alliance with Taiwan. The ROC and the PRC remained at least formally at war during all those years.
Between Two Chinas
In 1958, it became a shooting war. The PRC presumably decided to test the strength of U.S. support for its Taiwan ally and began shelling the Taiwan-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu, much closer to the Chinese coast than to Taiwan. Washington responded to Taipei’s appeal for help under the Mutual Defense Treaty by naval and air deployments to Taiwan. Alarmingly, the U.S. military, doubting that the island could be defended by conventional means, drew up plans for the use of nuclear weapons, according to recently unveiled documents. Fortunately, the 1958 crisis dissipated with PRC forces backing off and leaving the islands in ROC control.
The U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty permitted Washington to use Taiwan as a forward base against Beijing. But by the late 1960s, against the backdrop of the Sino-Soviet split, the normalization of U.S. relations with the PRC under President Richard Nixon’s administration meant that U.S. relations with Taiwan required increasingly careful balancing. This was the task of three joint U.S.-PRC communiques: the first signed in 1971 at the time of Nixon’s visit to China, the second at the time of normalization in 1978, and the third in 1982, during the Reagan administration, focusing primarily on arms sales to Taiwan. Additionally, shortly after normalization in 1978, Congress adopted the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). Together, the three communiques and the TRA have provided the framework by which Washington manages two competing policy objectives: the “one China’ policy and continued support for Taiwan.
Official recognition of the PRC as the legitimate government of China did not come until Jan. 1, 1979, under U.S. President Jimmy Carter in a speech from the Oval Office. It was based on the “one China” doctrine, although the United States over the years has been deliberately ambiguous as to whether it believed that Taiwan was part of this “one China.” As part of normalizing relations with the PRC, the U.S. in 1978 notified the ROC that it intended to terminate the 1954 U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty. The PRC replaced the ROC on the United Nations Security Council. In his December 1978 Oval Office announcement of the joint communique, Carter said the United States will “continue to have an interest in the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue.”
The TRA says that any forceful resolution of the Taiwan question would be “of grave concern to the United States.” While the TRA does not specifically mandate the United States to defend Taiwan against attack, it calls for providing Taiwan with “such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” In 2003, Congress mandated that Taiwan be treated as a Major Non-NATO Ally of the United States, which provided additional benefits in defense trade and cooperation.
`Rock Solid’ US Commitment
The State Department in August 2018 restated that the U.S. commitment to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defense capability remains unchanged. Days after Biden’s inauguration this year, after China flew strategic bombers into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, the new administration emphasized that the U.S. commitment to Taipei is “rock solid.”
Of course, China’s military power has grown exponentially over the past few decades and its stance in the region is more assertive. China launched over 90 major ships and submarines for its navy over the past five years; it builds some 100 advanced fighter planes per year. China still has not declared the precise size of its nuclear arsenal, which is estimated at 350 nuclear weapons. But recently, U.S. analysts discovered the construction of more than 100 new missile silos in western China. It is making rapid advances in hypersonics, precision missile weaponry, and military space technology.
The Chinese aggression against Taiwan goes far beyond the military. As have other revisionist illiberal powers, such as Russia, China has engaged in an array of sub-conventional influence operations. These have included cyberattacks, elections interference, and efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, all the while reinforcing the notion of Chinese nationality among the Taiwanese.
Indeed, on June 1, in a speech dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, President Xi Jinping reiterated the country’s commitment to the “unwavering historical mission” of complete “reunification” with Taiwan. Some observers argue Xi might dream of making this mission the crowning achievement of his reign. Meanwhile, the Taiwanese people show little interest in unification with China, with only 2.3 percent in support, 31.6 percent favoring eventual independence, and 60.7 percent preferring to keep the status quo or otherwise delay the decision. Xi’s talk of reunification provoked a forceful rebuke from the Taiwanese government.
Defending an Island of Democracy
The combination of China’s growing might, Taiwan’s resistance to Chinese designs, and the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security prompted The Economist to recently call Taiwan “the most dangerous place on earth.” The head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, testifying in March before the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated that China’s aggression in the region leads him to believe its takeover of Taiwan is more imminent than previously believed and could be expected within the next decade. And if U.S. military planners were unsure whether China could be deterred by conventional means alone in the 1958 cross-strait crisis when China’s conventional military was much weaker and it was not in possession of nuclear weapons yet, the risk of a similar crisis escalating to a nuclear level seems even higher today.
The awareness of such risks is the first step toward avoiding them. With this in mind, the United States, nevertheless, should not be self-deterred from continuing its support for Taiwan. For one, there are important reasons for Chinese restraint: Taipei and Beijing have significant economic ties, and an all-out invasion of Taiwan would be an extremely costly undertaking in terms of blood and treasure. That Taiwan is the home of TSMC, the maker of 84 percent of the world’s advanced semiconductor chips, could be a lure for China; but if TSMC’s operations are disrupted by the military campaign, the Chinese economy would be hurt in significant ways. China might want a future unification with Taiwan but not at a cost of a major war and economic disruption. Most importantly, U.S. support for Taiwan does more than contain unwelcome Chinese designs on the island; it buttresses an island of liberalism against the rising illiberal tides.
This is because an important transformation took place in the 1980s that made the United States and Taiwan much closer than anticipated in 1979. As the 1949 generation faded away, Taiwan ceased being a Cold War outpost and a military dictatorship and became a functional democracy — a true democratic ally. When ROC President Chiang Kai-shek died, he was succeeded by his son Chiang Ching-kuo, who took as his vice president a native Taiwanese. His name was Lee Teng-hui and upon the younger Chiang’s death in 1988, he succeeded to the presidency. Over the years, he carried out a number of democratic institutional reforms. In 1996, he ran for president in Taiwan’s first direct election of its leader and won by a landslide. Another candidate representing a small independence party ran well behind, although that party did better in other races. That demonstrated that, while Taiwanese were eager for democracy and majority rule, they were not interested in confronting Beijing with an attempt to gain formal independence. Around half a dozen presidents have subsequently been elected, and the democratization of Taiwan is complete.
Taiwan had always been supported by America’s conservatives, but now as a democratic state, it has garnered bipartisan support, which gives it a much stronger and well-deserved call on American power. Taiwan faces the largest dictatorship in the world just 60 miles away, a dictatorship that has brutally demonstrated, in Hong Kong, its willingness and ability to quash any expression of freedom. For America not to stand with the Taiwanese in a time of crisis, after 71 years of close partnership and evolution from a military dictatorship into a vigorous liberal democratic state, and watch China’s imperial legions march into Taiwan would be a strategic as well as moral failure of the highest order.
Keeping Taiwan safe will not be easy, especially since this must be done without reliance on nuclear weapons. It will require work on new types of conventional forces such as advanced fighters, global strike capabilities, and enhanced naval capabilities. It will require strengthening U.S. alliances across East Asia. It will also necessitate a dialogue with the Chinese to clearly communicate American red lines if the Chinese are willing to talk with the United States directly and honestly about this.
Finally, it will require planning for an appropriate response should China choose to cross these red lines, including sanctions and trade restrictions. It should be communicated to China in no uncertain terms that if the ultimate red line is crossed and China launches an invasion of Taiwan, the United States would commit the necessary forces to stop such an invasion. A clear understanding of this by China should serve as an effective deterrent. To counter Chinese non-military influence campaigns, the United States should help Taiwan buttress its own democratic institutions and domestic capacity in the cyber, information, and intelligence realms.
America’s own experience of the past few years highlights the value of robust liberal democratic institutions – and just how vulnerable they are to abuse and disregard by an illiberally minded leader. As the Biden administration mends the damage inflicted by its predecessor to America’s own democracy, it should keep in mind that the commitment to liberty does not stop at the national border. In the final count, America’s global leadership will be determined not only by the tenor of its speech or by the size of its stick, but also by whether it stands by its proclaimed values in both domestic and foreign policy, thus setting an example worthy of following.