Preserve America’s Strategic Autonomy in the Taiwan Strait


Preserve America’s Strategic Autonomy in the Taiwan Strait

Oct 30, 2020 10 min read

Former Director, Asian Studies Center

As director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, Walter Lohman oversaw the think tank’s oldest research center.
Anti-landing spikes and retired tanks along the coast of Taiwan's Kinmen islands, just two miles from the mainland China coast in the Taiwan Strait, October 20, 2020. SAM YEH / Contributor / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

It is in the interest of the United States to counter this pressure and to be prepared to help defend Taiwan with military force if it ever comes to it.

Integrating Taiwan more deeply in the global trading system would create the equity that each of its partners has in Taiwan’s well-being.

With its support for the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington can preserve both Taiwan’s security and America’s own strategic autonomy in the Taiwan Strait.

Last month, a Taiwanese air force pilot radioed a Chinese military aircraft that it was breaching the median line that divides the Taiwan Strait between China and Taiwan. The Chinese pilot responded, “There is no median line.” The assertion was not corrected by the pilot’s military or civilian superiors. To the contrary—soon after, China’s foreign ministry formally made the same point.

So, it is no accident. In fact, Chinese military aircraft have crossed the median line dozens of times this year. It’s part of a much broader, more threatening trend. Beijing is placing greater military pressure on Taiwan than it has in 40 years.

It is in the interest of the United States to counter this pressure and to be prepared to help defend Taiwan with military force if it ever comes to it. This has been American policy for decades, under Republicans and Democrats, for several reasons. First, an unanswered Chinese attack on Taiwan would destabilize the entire region. Taiwan is the classic canary in the coal mine. Abandoning Taiwan would send a shock wave through American security alliances and would mark the end of U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific. Second, Taiwan’s geography along China’s first island chain and its technological prowess make it an asset far too valuable to cede to Beijing, which is dominated by forces hostile to America’s role in the region. Finally, there is a simple moral imperative. Taiwan is a liberal democracy, and its people want to keep it that way.

Some in Washington argue that giving Taiwan an explicit security guarantee is the best way to deter China and defend Taiwan. This argument, however, is misguided. Clarity would actually detract from America’s own decision-making autonomy and leave Taiwan less secure. If safeguarding Taiwan and its way of life—and associated American interests—is the goal, then American policymakers already have all the tools they need in the Taiwan Relations Act. If anything is lacking, it is any sense in Beijing that the rest of the world will support Washington in defending Taiwan. As a result, the United States should work with allies and partners on diplomatic and economic initiatives that signal international support for Taiwan.

Ambiguity Still Works in America’s Favor

For decades, the United States has helped maintain peace in the Taiwan Straits through a policy known as “strategic ambiguity.” The idea is to convince China of American resolve without spelling out exactly what it would do in a crisis. President Donald Trump captured the essence of the policy in August when he said, “China knows what I’m gonna do,” but declined to be more specific.

This policy, backed by strong U.S. military capabilities, has kept Taiwan secure during a decades-long journey from authoritarianism to democracy, respect for human rights, and rule of law. This makes the growing chorus to scrap it all the more perplexing. Some policymakers and analysts want the United States to declare unambiguously that it will defend Taiwan against a Chinese military attack. Some, drawing parallels to China’s intervention in the Korean War, have long argued that ambiguity only invites China to test America’s commitment, while clarity will deter China and keep the peace.

It is a seductive, but ultimately unconvincing and dangerous argument.

An unconditional presidential security pledge would leave America exceptionally vulnerable to calculations made outside Washington. President Tsai Ing-wen’s democratic government in Taipei has scrupulously avoided crossing China’s red lines around moves toward formal, de jure independence—notwithstanding Beijing’s complaints to the contrary. But what if a future government in Taipei is not so careful?

If the United States ties its hands with an unambiguous commitment to intervene in a cross-Strait crisis, will it maintain the same ability to dissuade Taiwan from provoking China in a way that implicates the U.S. military? The decision to use force in the service of American interests is a solemn one. It should be reserved entirely to Americans—even when the friends they propose to protect are as dear as the Taiwanese.

Of course, the United States has made that decision in several other cases. The Senate has ratified treaties with JapanSouth KoreaAustraliathe Philippines, and Thailand. The United States once had a similar treaty with Taiwan. But in the process of establishing formal relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979, the United States abrogated the mutual defense treaty between the United States and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Those criticizing America’s policy of strategic ambiguity are essentially calling to reconstitute this treaty-level security guarantee without going back to the Senate.

Absent the advice and consent of 67 senators, an executive branch statement that the United States is prepared to go to war to defend Taiwan would raise more questions than it answers. Not least, the American people might reasonably ask, “Are we really?” It is hard to imagine a contentious public debate would instill much trepidation in China or confidence in Taipei. Evidence of political division at home could even embolden Beijing and could bring about the very events that advocates for clarity hope to prevent.

Perhaps recognizing this conundrum, some legislators are trying to offer congressional support through other means. The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act would authorize the use of force, not just in advance of any armed attack, but in advance of a request from the president. Similar authorizations, such as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the Formosa Resolution, were granted at the request of the executive branch. The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act would circumvent the normal process by which the president and his administration, prior to committing U.S. forces to combat, consults with the legislative branch on the necessary scope, duration, and limitations of an authorization for the use of military force.

Beyond Strategic Clarity

In sum, a formal executive branch promise to defend Taiwan would constitute a dangerous half-measure between the status quo and a formal security treaty. At the same time, a preemptive writ to use force would obliterate prudent checks and balances and empower a future president to involve the United States in a cross-Strait war even before it had begun, all without garnering the support they would need in Congress to successful prosecute it.

So is there nothing to be done to enhance Taiwan’s security and respond to China’s more aggressive posture?

Having worked these issues on Capitol Hill, we can attest there is more support for Taiwan in Congress now than at any time in at least 30 years. This is generating many sensible proposals on the Hill, among them the Taiwan Travel Act, the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, and National Defense Authorization bills that are stocked every year with reporting requirements on things like U.S.-Taiwanese cyber security cooperation, Chinese election interference, and assessments of the Taiwanese military. These bills can help Congress fulfill its responsibility as a coequal branch of government to safeguard U.S. national security.

Moreover, there is already a comprehensive legal framework in place to maintain peace and security across the Taiwan Strait and ensure that the future of Taiwan will be determined peacefully in accordance with the wishes of the people of Taiwan: the Taiwan Relations Act. The legislation passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support back in 1979. It declares any threat against Taiwan to be of “grave concern” to the United States. It obligates the United States to maintain the capacity to resist any form of coercion against Taiwan, and to provide to Taiwan with defense articles and services necessary for it “to maintain a sufficient self-defense.” The Taiwan Relations Act also directs the president to inform Congress promptly of any emerging threats, and for the two to determine together an appropriate response.

If some of this sounds a little like a security treaty, it’s for a good reason. The legislation was written to approximate those guarantees the best it could in light of then-President Jimmy Carter’s decision to break diplomatic relations with Taiwan and to pull the United States out of its treaty with Taiwan.

China is certainly increasing pressure on Taiwan. Whether it is to preempt Taiwan from pursuing more adventurous policies or to retaliate for manufactured slights, it is not entirely clear, but at this juncture the motive is less important than the reality of China’s growing aggressiveness. The United States should be prepared to help Taiwan defend itself. To do this, the legally binding provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act—which includes a provision to maintain America’s capacity to resist a Chinese resort to force—provide all the authorities needed.

Beijing does not appear to question Washington’s resolve on the issue of Taiwan. The Defense Department’s report on China’s military power makes it clear: China is developing the capabilities and military doctrine to deal with any American intervention. Instead of emphasizing what Beijing already takes for granted, the United States should work on building the resolve of American allies and partners to stand with the United States and in opposition to Chinese coercion. There are a number of modest steps that could be taken toward this end.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—which includes Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—should make Chinese threats to Taiwan a part of its agenda. Each government releases its own summary of these meetings. One or more of them could include a reference to these discussions and reiterate its concern about the evolving security situation in the Taiwan Strait.

The Group of Seven could include Taiwan’s security on its formal agenda. If the group is unable to achieve a consensus on doing so, the parties should agree to let it slip to the media that one of them, preferably a country other than the United States, raised the issue of Taiwan and that they are carefully monitoring the situation.

The U.S. State Department, at the assistant secretary level, should discuss Taiwan’s security in meetings with its European counterparts. One or more of the participants could let it be known publicly that Taiwan’s security was a prominent discussion point.

The United States, as well as its partners, should expand civil service exchange programs with Taiwan, especially on issues of mutual interest, such as public health, trade, cyber security, disaster response, and law enforcement. Integrating Taiwan more fully into such programs would improve the participating country’s capacity to cooperate with Taiwan and would provide Taiwan with a more durable international profile.

Most significantly, the United States should prioritize free trade agreement negotiations with Taiwan, a move that would incentivize others, including the United Kingdom, European Union, and Japan to follow suit. Japan and Australia should champion Taiwan’s entry into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Integrating Taiwan more deeply in the global trading system would create the equity that each of its partners has in Taiwan’s well-being. And at a time when free trade is not the easiest thing to sell on Capitol Hill, the strategic importance of Taiwan makes it one of the most plausible countries for the United States to negotiate a free trade agreement with.

These are not dramatic moves. The United States does not expect its security partners, other than Japan, to play an integral role in any armed defense of Taiwan. But taken together, these diplomatic measures would enhance Taiwan’s security by making it clear that Washington is not the only capital concerned with what China is doing to pressure Taiwan.

With its own action-oriented support for the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington can preserve both Taiwan’s security and America’s own strategic autonomy in the Taiwan Strait. China will interpret this message clearly and unambiguously.

This piece originally appeared in War on the Rocks