During his visit to Japan, when asked if the United States would militarily defend Taiwan, President Joe Biden replied, “Yes, that is the commitment we have made.” He said a very similar thing about that “commitment” during a CNN town hall last October.
The president is wrong in two ways. First, the United States has no such “commitment”. And second, to make such a promise is unnecessary and reckless.
A commitment to action?
The United States once had an explicit obligation to come to the defense of Taiwan in the event of a conflict with China. It was enshrined in a bilateral mutual defense treaty ratified by the US Senate in 1955. There, the United States and the Republic of China (Taiwan) agreed that they would “act to meet the common danger” represented by a attack on the territories of either county. This same language also appears in Article V of the US-Japan and US-Korea security treaties.
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However, by normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and abandoning diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, President Jimmy Carter abrogated the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan. The United States instead ended up with the relevant security provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act. When Carter sent a bill to the Hill for what would become the TRA, his main objective was to establish the basis for continuing an unofficial relationship with Taiwan. Congress had bigger plans: while it wanted to establish unofficial relations, it also wanted to piece together the Mutual Defense Treaty as best it could under the circumstances.
In the TRA, the security guarantee of the Mutual Defense Treaty became a legal commitment to “consider any effort to determine Taiwan’s future by means other than peaceful means.” . . of grave concern to the United States. There is no reference to “acting[ing] to face the common danger. In its place, the TRA directs the president to “promptly inform Congress of any threats” against Taiwan and work with the legislature to “determine.” . . appropriate action by the United States in response to such danger”.
Thus, President Biden cannot refer to a commitment made in the Mutual Defense Treaty, which is now lapsed, or in the TRA, which makes no promise to act. Thus, experts on the subject assumed that his assurances were blunders. What has kept the peace since 1980 is the undeclared prospect that the United States will defend Taiwan, the oft-cited “strategic ambiguity”.
Strategic ambiguity, tactical clarity
Ambiguity keeps the peace by keeping American options open and keeping the Chinese in limbo. Since the abrogation of the Mutual Defense Treaty, Taiwan has become a democracy. It has its own politics and a determined faction in favor of formal and expressed independence. For all intents and purposes, Taiwan is already independent, as President Tsai Ing-wen likes to point out. Those in Taiwan who lack his subtlety and skill – and frankly, his sense of responsibility – want to push the envelope. But a formal declaration of independence is for China (which would rather obliterate Taiwan’s existence entirely) a no-joke casus belli. Thus, a clear US security guarantee for Taiwan puts the trigger for the use of US forces in the hands of Taiwanese politicians.
In the event of some kind of declaration of independence – something Taiwan seriously flirted with in the early 2000s – the United States will be left with two choices. It can go to war to support its threats at a time and place chosen by another capital. Or he can say to Taipei, “Sorry, you’re alone. I had no intention of leading you” – a betrayal of faith that would cause catastrophic damage to the spectrum of US global security interests.
On the other hand, the ambiguity means that the Chinese must anticipate the possibility of a use of force by the United States. And it certainly is. Everything about Chinese military planning, from doctrine to procurement, centers on a possible conflict with the United States over Taiwan. The goal of US policy is to sow enough doubt in the minds of Beijing’s decision-makers that they never feel sufficiently prepared for a confrontation with the United States. makes war on him over Taiwan.
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You could call this “tactical clarity”. With tactical clarity, strategic clarity is superfluous. Without tactical clarity, all the assurances in the world are meaningless. And the combination of strategic clarity with the US military’s weakened ability to deliver is a reckless provocation.
The greatest irony of the current hubbub over President Biden’s personal security guarantee in Taiwan is his apparent inability to grasp it all. He actively participated in and supported the Senate debate on the TRA in 1979. He clearly understood the compromises that Congress has made to maintain peace and security in the region. By contrast, President Donald Trump, with no previous experience in foreign affairs and not known for the precision of his rhetoric, applied the policy flawlessly.
In August 2020, when asked what he would do if China moved on Taiwan, Trump said, “China knows what I’m going to do. China knows. . . . I don’t want to say that I’m going to do this or that I’m not going to do this. That’s strategic ambiguity in a nutshell. President Biden would do well to take the advice of his staff and come back to it.