From trade to security issues, the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) find themselves drifting towards competition. However, no issue threatens peace more so than the sensitive nature of Taiwan. The U.S. seeks to ensure that a peaceful resolution is found, but in contrast, Beijing views Taiwan crucial to regime legitimacy. China continually makes its perspective clear that Taiwan’s sustained separation remains unacceptable. To American voters, however, Taiwan remains an often overlooked foreign policy issue. Nevertheless, it is an issue in which the three sides could stumble into a catastrophic great power war.
American Strategic Ambiguity
Since the normalization of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the PRC in 1979, Washington has maintained an ambiguous approach toward the political status of Taiwan, also referred to as the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. As a result, the U.S. has not specified its view on the Taiwan issue, nor has it stated if it will defend Taiwan should the PRC resort to unification by force. American policy ultimately acts as a deterrent to both PRC and Taiwan. Unable to determine what will trigger the U.S. to defend Taiwan deters a Chinese invasion, while Taipei is deterred from unilaterally declaring de jure independence due to the lack of indisputable American support.
Washington has maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan since 1979, and sought to ensure both Taipei and Beijing find a peaceful resolution to Taiwan’s unresolved political status. For example, in the carefully worded 1978 Joint Communiqué, Washington states that it acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of “One China,” yet simultaneously sidesteps acknowledging the American position. Similarly, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) states that it is U.S. policy to “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” as a significant concern to the United States. Also, the TRA requires the U.S. to “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion and to make defense articles available to Taiwan,” which the U.S. has done in the form of arms sales since 1979. These policies enable the U.S. to maintain what former Assistant Defense Secretary Joseph Nye called “strategic ambiguity,” along with unofficial support, towards Taiwan.
Increasing Congressional Support for Taiwan
As a result of increasing Chinese pressure on Taiwan, there has been a significant shift in congressional support to reaffirm the American security commitment. Most notably, the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019, still under consideration in Congress, urges the U.S. to conduct regular transfers of defense articles, particularly asymmetric capabilities like undersea warfare and air defense capabilities, to Taiwan. This legislation illustrates the growing support for Taiwan in Congress and along with it, the likelihood of the U.S. defending Taiwan. However, this does not necessarily represent the American opinion on a whole. Washington has come to the aid of Taiwan during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1996, when the Clinton Administration deployed two carrier battle groups to reign in Beijing’s attempt to influence the ROC’s first direct democratic presidential election and demonstrates American support for Taipei.
East Asia has undergone tremendous change since 1996, but Beijing remains resolute to reunify with Taiwan. For instance, the 2005 Anti-Secession Law and Chairman Xi Jinping’s 2019 speech addressed Beijing’s intent to reunify the island, by force if necessary. Meanwhile, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which was a rag-tagged infantry-centered military in 1996, has modernized with hypersonic glide vehicles, stealth fighter planes, state-of-the-art submarines, long-range precision-guided artillery, amphibious assault ships, and mobile solid fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The American Public May Not Be Ready for a Great Power War over Taiwan
According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, only a minority of Americans support the deployment of the U.S. military to defend Taiwan should China invade. Compared to 64% of Americans supporting military intervention on behalf of South Korea should North Korea attack, only 35% of Americans support direct U.S. military involvement over the Taiwan Strait. However, American support for U.S. intervention over the Taiwan Strait, Japan, South Korea, and NATO has risen sharply since 2015. In Taiwan’s case, American support for military intervention in response to a Chinese attack has risen from 28% in 2015 to 35% in 2018. It is important to note that such support has never risen above 33% until 2018. Additionally, amid the U.S.-China Trade War, the negative American perception of China has risen to an all-time high at 60%.
Based on the growing trend of the negative American perception toward China, it is likely that the percentage of Americans supportive of the use of force to defend Taiwan could exceed 50% in the coming years. If more than half of Americans consider Taiwan to be a democratic-ally worth spilling blood for, Congress could then seriously consider upgrading the TRA into a mutual-defense treaty like the one Washington has with Japan and South Korea. If this were the case, Washington would be obligated to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. However, policy makers must weigh the costs and benefits of such an upgrade. U.S.-China relations would suffer significantly and increase the chance of a U.S.-China conflict, which could escalate across the nuclear threshold.
Conclusion: Americans Need to Start Talking About Taiwan
Ultimately, both ordinary Americans and beltway policymakers believe in the democratic peace theory, which argues that liberal democracies do not fight against each other. Therefore, Washington has the strategic and ideological interests to spread, promote, and defend liberal democratic norms. In Taiwan’s case, Washington has an interest in not only maintaining Taiwan’s liberal democratic institutions, but also hoping that Mainland China liberalizes politically by following Taiwan’s example, ensuring long-term security for the U.S. and its allies.
However, the TRA has no legal requirement for Washington to defend Taipei should Beijing attack. Regardless, Washington owes a moral commitment to defend liberal democracies from hostile takeover from authoritarian states. By failing to defend Taiwan’s liberal institutions should the Mainland attack, Washington risks losing legitimacy to maintain its alliances with Japan and South Korea. Losing Taiwan would also erode American strategic leadership in the Indo-Pacific, endangering American and Allied positions.
It is time for the American public to include Taiwan’s unresolved political status in their daily political discussions. The public discourse reflects the will of policy makers to demonstrate American commitment to Taiwan’s security. To reflect this shift, 2020 Presidential candidates must bring this issue to the forefront for debates on foreign policy. Without taking this issue seriously, Washington, Beijing, and Taipei risk sleepwalking into a potential nuclear war.
Wei (Josh) Luo is an M.A. in Asian Studies candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He holds a B.A. in Diplomacy and World Affairs from Occidental College and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has worked in Mainland China and India, and has studied in Saint Petersburg, Russia and Hong Kong.
Matthew Geason is an M.A. in Asian Studies candidate and a Freeman Foundation International Fellow at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He received his B.A. in Political Science at the University of New Hampshire. Prior to his graduate studies, Matt worked as a Research Analyst at Thomson Reuters and also worked at the Truman National Security Project.