"It is the policy of the United States … to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, as well as the people on the China mainland and all other peoples of the Western Pacific area… to declare that peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern… to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan" -- Taiwan Relations Act, 1979
Turns out Vladimir Putin was not bluffing. The sabers are doing far more than rattling.
With the horrific images and news coming from Ukraine, the once-common-then-absurd notion of a land war in Europe a few hours’ flight from Rome or Berlin is once again a reality. The breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia nearly 30 years ago doesn’t count as a European land war, I guess because it was a fabricated republic dissolving into civil war that was bereft of a sovereign invasion. But I digress.
So far, the U.S., NATO and other actors have refused direct military action in Ukraine, opting instead for economic sanctions that appear to be having initial success in cutting Russia, and its citizens, off from the Western financial system.
While I won’t speculate what might happen, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raises the question of China’s relationship with Russia in a new light. While China continues to take a neutral stance and downplay Russian requests for assistance, the invasion of Ukraine brings new immediacy to the wildcard question: would China invade Taiwan?
And if China did, would the U.S. defend Taiwan?
The answer is an emphatic maybe. Several presidents, however, have answered it with a yes, the U.S. without a doubt would defend the island.
The security triangle surrounding Taiwan is obvious. Born out of the ashes of a civil war in China pitting the Communists against the Nationalists, the Nationalists parted from the island of Formosa in 1949 to forge an economic powerhouse and, eventually, a bastion for democracy in East Asian.
In the 1970s, with the U.S. mired in Vietnam and seeking to force a wedge between China and the Soviet Union, the U.S. recognized the People’s Republic of China on the mainland as being China, and through the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act established what many call “strategic ambiguity.”
The U.S. would engage in informal relations with Taiwan— via an American Institute— while maintaining that any reconciliation would occur by peaceful means. The U.S. diplomatically declared that China was China, Taiwan did not declare independence, China let it act as an independent nation, and the U.S. sold weapons to Taiwan to create an uneasy status quo.
There is not a flat-out obligation for the U.S. to defend Taiwan, but there is a resilient inclination to do so. Prior to the attacks of September 11, over two decades ago, President Bush argued that the U.S. had such a commitment. President Biden did so last fall, prior to the crisis in Ukraine.
Both walked back their statements. China Policy remains China Policy.
Since 1979, the U.S. Congress has legislated Taiwan defenses numerous times to express the sense of Congress that the U.S. and Taiwan should build capacity for Taiwan to defend itself and for a peaceful resolution of regional conflicts. Congress spends a lot of time expressing the sense of Congress.
Rick Scott, Republican senator from Florida, last year introduced Senate Bill 332 to authorize the president to use the U.S. military to “secure and protect Taiwan” against an attack from China, the taking of Taiwanese territory, or the endangering of lives on Taiwan, as well as calls for joint military exercises between the Taiwanese and U.S. military.
There has been a movement in Congress reminiscent of President Bush’s 2003 doctrine of preemption for invasion of Iraq that the U.S. will face e threat before the threat is there. That bill is currently in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Given the U.S. has military rights not too far from Taiwan, action against Taiwan would create ripples, if not a tsunami, throughout the region. My personal suspicion is that the U.S. will exercise these rights more in the near future, especially as Compact of Free Association financing comes up for renewal. The compacts, open immigration and employment rights in exchange for military access, work both ways, after all.
Is it shortsighted of island nations to see China as less of a threat than the U.S. does? Perhaps. China’s exchange of funding for sovereign assets elsewhere in the world is a cautionary tale, but I for one have often described the Compacts of Free Association with Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands being equal in this, as diplomatic afterthoughts.
Lackluster development, economic and otherwise, scant accountability for local use of development funds and the escape valve of compact migration have created impassable roads and sanctimonious politics.
Whatever happened to the Pacific Pivot, the Obama-era assertion that the U.S. would assert leadership in the region?
I hope I’m not the only one asking that question.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. He is currently weathering the pandemic stateside. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.