National Security & Defense

To Counter China, U.S. Policy toward Taiwan Must Change

Taiwanese soldiers take part in a drill in a military base in Hsinchu, Taiwan, January 19, 2021. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
The U.S. should move from strategic ambiguity to strategic coherence.

The ignominious U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan punctuated a feckless policy based on a false premise of opposition to “forever wars” promoted by the Trump and Biden administrations. The implications of that doctrine — that a commitment of U.S. troops overseas without a specified duration constitutes an endless war and “nation-building” — will ripple across U.S. relationships around the world for some time. The Biden administration has been explicit that the U.S. will not support extended military commitments for partners unwilling or unable to fight for themselves.

The lesson of the U.S. withdrawal was not lost on Taiwan, with which the U.S. has an important, long-standing relationship. President Tsai Ing-wen took to social media to acknowledge that the situation shows “that Taiwan’s only option is to make ourselves stronger, more united and more resolute in our determination to protect ourselves.”

Just the same, even applying the Biden worldview, Taiwan comes out pretty well. After all, Taiwan is one of the wealthiest, most vibrant democracies in the world. Nation-building? Not a problem; a nation has been built without a U.S. military presence and despite decades-long determination by the People’s Republic China and, in some ways by the United States, to blunt or ignore it.

Is Taiwan willing to defend itself? The PRC seems to be putting Tsai to the test. Marking the occasion of its National Day, October 1, China over several days sent nearly 150 military aircraft into Taiwan’s air-defense identification zones to remind Taiwan and the world that it has no intention of leaving the island nation to its own future. For its part, the U.S. has stepped up military operations in the region. Recent reports that U.S. special-operations teams are in Taiwan providing training suggest that the PRC’s provocations will not be ignored.

President Tsai’s comments indicate her resolve. And she’s putting actions behind the words. After several years of declining defense spending by previous governments, Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has committed to increase the spending to 3 percent of GDP, which the U.S. has long encouraged. This year’s budget reflects a rise of about 10 percent in defense spending, with additional increases projected in coming years. While even more is needed, including smarter acquisitions of the right capabilities, at 3 percent, Taiwan’s percentage of GDP spent on defense would be more than double that of Germany and Japan, where the U.S. has about 35,000 and 55,000 troops, respectively.

This emerging resolve is taking place against a backdrop of an ongoing debate about how the U.S. and other supportive countries should characterize the nature of their commitment to foster Taiwan’s freedom from control by Beijing. For decades, the policy has been characterized as “strategic ambiguity.” This means that the United States has no explicit commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by the PRC. U.S. policy has been to provide Taiwan military support but not to support by force any effort by either Beijing or Taipei to change the status quo.

Ambiguity has been embedded in U.S. policy since the 1979 passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed (with the support of Biden, a senator at the time) after President Jimmy Carter abrogated a mutual-defense treaty that the United States had signed with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China government on Taiwan in 1954.

The 1954 pact had been ratified by the U.S. Senate. Congress passed the 1979 Act to counter Carter’s decision to recognize the PRC as “the sole legal government of China.” Congress, in a bipartisan consensus, always has seen itself as the defender of Taiwan’s status even as presidents of both parties over the years treated the PRC with kid gloves in an attempt to modulate Beijing’s behavior. That approach has failed. The PRC has become more emboldened and aggressive on every front, including Taiwan.

Some analysts and many in Congress would like to see a shift in U.S. policy from “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity.” The Taiwan Protection Act, the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA), and other legislation has been introduced to provide that clarity. TIPA provides the president the authority to use military force “to secure and protect Taiwan against . . . direct armed attack by the military forces of the People’s Republic of China.”

In fact, that kind of clarity is not the most appropriate alternative to the current policy. As a superpower, the United States should preserve flexibility in its global security relationships. It also is not even obvious that Taiwan’s body politic would welcome an explicit security guarantee from the United States. Both major political parties in Taiwan — the ruling DPP and the opposition KMT — over many years have shaped how they refer to the current reality. They are not stuck in the rhetoric of 1979 even if the United States is. It could be problematic for the U.S. to be seen as upsetting their characterizations of cross-strait reality.

Even from the U.S. perspective alone, a security guarantee for Taiwan is not the most obvious response to the failure of strategic ambiguity. The U.S. is bound by treaty to respond to an attack on any NATO ally, and lackluster defense spending by NATO national governments is one apparent outcome of that guarantee. A commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a PRC attack could affect the policies of other countries in the region that are aligned with U.S. policy and concerned about Beijing’s posturing and defense buildups. As the superpower, the U.S. has marshaled the support of South Korea, Japan, Australia, India, and others. A security pact with Taiwan would give a propaganda wedge to the PRC, which could declare that the U.S. has upset the balance and created a potential casus belli.

Just because “strategic clarity” about a security guarantee for Taiwan is the wrong approach doesn’t mean that the status quo is preferable. Everything about the PRC and Taiwan has changed, in fundamental ways, since the policy was adopted more than four decades ago. A different approach is in order. Despite being coddled and cajoled by the world since 1979, the PRC has emerged as a totalitarian, human-rights-abusing, anti-market belligerent actor in the region and globally. And despite being isolated by the world, Taiwan has become a vibrant, democratic, free-market, progressive nation. To cite just one indicator: Taiwan’s per capita income on a purchasing-power basis is more than three times that of the PRC, where nearly half the population lives on $5 per day.

A better approach to PRC–Taiwan policy is one of “strategic coherence,” based on transparency about what is at stake. This begins by acknowledging and speaking to these realities: Taiwan is a friend of democratic, free-market countries, and the PRC is not. These inconvenient truths have been ignored by successive U.S. governments for decades. That should end. The U.S. president and other leaders should be at least as expressive about the value of Taiwan’s democratic capitalism to the world as prior leaders were in encouraging Beijing’s market-opening periods.

In practical terms, this should be accompanied by further opening of engagement with the Taiwanese government. The Trump administration upgraded U.S. diplomatic and political relations with Taiwan. President Trump spoke with President Tsai during his transition to office in 2016. This was the first and only direct discussion between a U.S. president or president-elect and a Taiwanese leader. If the United States can engage the Taliban in its role as head of government in Afghanistan, surely we can regularize presidential calls with the democratically elected leader of Taiwan. This opening should include continuing Trump-era cabinet-level and senior military engagement with Taiwan. Biden’s team has sustained some of the practices of its predecessor. It should continue them and build on them.

During the Cold War, Ronald Reagan reoriented U.S. policy toward the USSR through the simple recognition that the U.S. no longer accepted that Soviet power was inevitable, either within Russia or around the world. That initially rattled U.S. allies and much of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Both groups had grown comfortable in accepting that the USSR was an expansionist power that had to be reckoned with, provided space, and not pressured. Once it became obvious even within the Soviet politburo that Reagan was right, the U.S. foreign-policy elite and European allies soon found themselves recognizing that, if the Soviet Union itself knew it was in trouble, Western leaders should probably acknowledge it themselves.

A policy of strategic coherence toward the PRC and Taiwan would include the adoption of an analogous posture toward Beijing. The current global consensus is that the PRC is ascendant and taking bold steps to consolidate its emerging power. There are ample reasons to challenge that presumption by focusing on profound underlying structural fractures:

  • The population is aging and shrinking.
  • The one-child policy created crushing burdens on those who must support four grandparents and two parents.
  • The education system has failed to anticipate the needs of new entrants to this smaller workforce. Rural workers are poorly educated, with inadequate elementary and secondary education, leaving them unable to fill skilled-labor positions that are crucial to the PRC’s role in the global supply chain. In the cities, a burgeoning number of college-educated only children are overqualified for the jobs that are available. Urban college-educated unemployment is a serious problem.
  • The economy is burdened by a profound debt level, upward of 300 percent of GDP.
  • Real-estate speculation has led to bubbles that will create havoc when they burst. See the collapse of the developer Evergrande. While extreme, it may be just the beginning. Heavily leveraged urban middle-class homeowners are panicking at the prospect that their life savings may dissolve. Most of the rest of the world went through a period of economic contraction and financial crisis in 2008–10. The PRC avoided that through massive government action to inflate the economy and paper over underlying weaknesses. Whether or not Evergrande is a harbinger of the inevitable reckoning, a reckoning is coming.
  • The Chinese Communist Party has devastated China’s environment in its quest for development.

President Xi and the CCP understand that all of this creates a cauldron for social unrest. Xi, in his own words, has lowered expectations of what the CCP can deliver. Now it is simply “modest prosperity.” Recent actions of his — e.g., cracking down on ostentatious wealth, breaking up big companies — that prop up his own power also reflect his grave concerns that the promise of modest prosperity is at risk and that the public will not stand for the regime’s failure to meet that low bar. Chinese citizens generally are not agitated by the lack of democracy, freedom, and rule of law. The one commitment they understand is the one to modest prosperity, and now the prospect of that is uncertain.

The communist government knows that its hold on society is tenuous. Attempts by the party to maintain control are reflected in the totalitarian use of data, artificial intelligence, and facial-recognition technology as well as in the internment of religious minorities, the crackdown on Western values, the leaning into Chinese nationalism, and efforts to control of all media, especially social media. These are the actions not of a confident regime but of one that knows it is at risk.

These domestic challenges, and the CCP’s intensified nationalism, will be reflected in external actions. Most notably, we will see continued smothering of dissent in Hong Kong and attempts to stifle Taiwan through threats and military posturing.

A U.S. policy of strategic coherence is not intended to cheer on such disequilibrium. But without question the U.S. should speak truth about the actual situation on the mainland and about what is at stake in Taiwan. The PRC is not on a path to dominate the world. It is a fragile, unconfident power that will continue to take extreme measures to control its citizens, all the while blustering to be seen as projecting power and self-assuredness. As Reagan did with the Soviet Union, we should be honest and forthright in our own recognition of the truth. We should speak that truth clearly and, in so doing, express our conviction that the CCP is a malignant force in global relations and that it must be checked and confronted without fear or accommodation.

This should include other practical elements. The U.S. should continue to support Taiwan in improving its military capabilities. We should continue to work with like-minded allies to improve strategic readiness in the region. The recent meeting by President Biden with the so-called Quad Group is an important and healthy step in that direction, as is the superb decision by the administration to join with Australia and the United Kingdom to bolster Australia’s strategic naval forces. Whether that could have been handled with more aplomb vis-à-vis France is an academic question. France is an important ally and well positioned in the region. The United States must work with her and across the European Union to continue to accelerate strategic alignment to isolate and call out the PRC.

By the early to mid 1970s, the U.S. government and foreign-policy cognoscenti had concluded that the USSR was a rising hegemony and that the best the U.S. could do was accommodate it and establish a global consensus that it was possible to manage the decline of Western power in the face of rising Soviet communism. Reagan changed that through the simple act of exposing the lie and then developing a coherent policy to check that outcome. Core to that policy was the encouragement of countries, in Eastern Europe and around the world, that found themselves in the Soviet sights and then turning up the pressure. The Reagan Doctrine called for strengthening the U.S. itself and standing by those countries, in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, that were willing to challenge the Soviet perception of expansionism.

Nigh on half a century later, we face another faux rising power. We have it within ourselves to check that and reverse what has seemed inevitable for too long. Taiwan stands in the way of the PRC narrative of inevitability, and a policy of strategic coherence toward both the PRC and Taiwan could be the way to begin to roll that back. It is time.

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Therese Shaheen is a businesswoman and CEO of US Asia International. She was the chairman of the State Department’s American Institute in Taiwan from 2002 to 2004.

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