“If Hong Kong falls, or if the Chinese government imposes the national security legislation on Hong Kong, we don’t know what is going to happen next. It might be Taiwan.” Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), conveyed those worries during a Fox News interview last week. Although Beijing appears unlikely to take precipitous action against Taiwan at present, there is reason for concern given China’s ongoing domestic difficulties and its taste for external assertiveness. What can be done? Mike Gallagher, a congressman from Wisconsin, has one idea:
Now is the time for a declaratory statement of policy committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan. While this approach is not without risk, as we have learned painfully from decades of failed policy toward the [Chinese Communist Party], the greatest risk of all comes from complacency.
Gallagher is right. The ambiguity in Washington’s approach to the defense of Taiwan—will it or won’t it come to Taiwan’s aid in a time of need?—is no longer conducive to the stability of the Taiwan Strait. There should be little doubt in Xi Jinping’s (習近平) mind that the United States would seek to intervene decisively in the event he opted to use force.
In order to achieve that clarity, the United States could pursue a mutual defense agreement, but that is likely to be difficult absent a significant loosening of America’s “One-China” policy. It might also be provocative in a way unilateral American action would not. This may explain why Gallagher calls for a “declaratory statement.” Here is what such a statement, delivered by the American president sometime in the near future, might look like:
My fellow Americans,
Tonight, I want to talk to you about an issue of grave concern to the American people: the risk of a crisis in Asia and the Chinese Communist Party’s role in elevating that risk.
Thanks in no small part to American leadership, the Indo-Pacific region—stretching east from India to the American west coast—has experienced more than four decades of relative peace. The American military, the American alliance system, American diplomacy, American trade, and American finance all combined to ensure that, generally speaking, nobody had an interest in breaking the long peace in Asia—and that those who did have such an interest knew it would be unwise to do so.
All gained from this period of peace. People across the region, including Americans, grew more prosperous. Poverty declined. Life expectancy rose. Quality of life improved. The People’s Republic of China, perhaps more than any other country in the region, benefited from a benign external environment, embarking on “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.”
The maintenance of this peace has been all the more impressive given the prevalence of dangerous flashpoints in the region. Managing tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula has, of course, consumed much American attention and resources over the past few decades. Other flashpoints, however, have received far less public consideration, despite their importance to US interests.
Tonight, I would like to talk to you about one of those potential flashpoints: the Taiwan Strait. Although its history is complicated, the nature of the conflict existing in the Strait is simple: the People’s Republic of China seeks to annex Taiwan and extend communist rule over Taiwan’s freedom-loving people. The people of Taiwan, which have thrown off the yoke of one-party rule once before, understandably wish to avoid that cruel fate.
If you don’t already know, you may find it surprising to learn that the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, arguably Asia’s most vibrant democracy. This state of affairs is a vestige of the Cold War, but we have not let it keep us from maintaining a full-spectrum relationship with Taiwan. The United States does nearly USD $100 billion of trade with Taiwan every year—it is consistently one of our top ten trading partners. We share truly robust people-to-people ties. We provide military training and sell arms so that Taiwan can adequately defend itself.
The defense of Taiwan has been a major concern of the United States for decades. That’s why my administration has agreed to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter jets and Abrams tanks, why Taiwan’s fighter pilots train with American pilots in Arizona, and why Taiwan’s aspiring military leaders attend our service academies.
And Taiwan has been a good friend to the United States in turn. Soldiers from Taiwan fought alongside American counterparts during the war in Vietnam, and the island has served as a safe landing spot for American aircraft in distress. More recently, Taiwan has donated millions of face masks to the United States as we have grappled with COVID-19.
Today, this all-weather friend faces a growing threat to its freedom. A country of only 24 million people, Taiwan stares down a country of 1.3 billion sitting across just 100 miles of water. That country, China, has the world’s largest military—a military that has been laser-focused on preparing to invade Taiwan, to attack American forces that might seek to halt its aggression, and to crush any resistance to CCP rule on the island.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has made clear that he is intent on devouring Taiwan, that he is not willing to put off indefinitely what he calls “unification.” Facing the lingering effects of the coronavirus and what may be a prolonged economic slowdown, Chairman Xi may well be tempted to deliver Taiwan to the Chinese people in a cynical ploy to cement his own legitimacy.
We need only look to China’s behavior in recent months to see that it prefers coercion and aggression to persuasion and cooperation. Indeed, its malign impulses have been on display for all to see. It has launched incursions into undisputed Indian territory, raising the risk of war. It has been acting aggressively towards civilian and military vessels in the South China Sea, and even sank a Vietnamese fishing boat several weeks ago. It has imposed economic punishment on Australia in retaliation for Canberra’s call for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Beijing has ramped up the pressure on Japan in their bilateral dispute over islands in the East China Sea. It has violated its legally binding treaty with the United Kingdom regarding Hong Kong’s autonomy.
And it has been acting provocatively in the waters and skies near Taiwan as well. Taiwan’s leaders are now openly worrying that Chinese pressure is about to get much worse, and that Chinese military action might come sooner rather than later. These are perilous times, indeed, for one of America’s closest friends in Asia.
But why should Americans care? Americans have long recognized that a world in which authoritarians can subjugate free peoples at will is not a world conducive to America’s own national security and prosperity. Americans know that when despots are given an inch, they take mile after mile after mile—until they are stopped. Americans know from their own history that when an undemocratic country on the far side of the Pacific Ocean comes to dominate its region, it not only threatens American interests—but it also gains the wherewithal to threaten the American homeland.
If China were to ever successfully annex Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army—as the Chinese military is known—would gain a launch pad from which it could more easily threaten American allies like Japan and the Philippines. More troublingly, the People’s Liberation Army would find it far easier to threaten the United States itself. Americans have judged this an intolerable state of affairs since the early years of the Cold War. It remains intolerable today.
Just as intolerable would be the fate of Taiwan’s people in the event China succeeded in subduing Taiwan—a fate one shudders to consider. Much like Americans, the people of Taiwan love their freedom. And much like Americans, the people of Taiwan have sacrificed much to secure their freedom.
Another thing that Americans and the people of Taiwan have in common? Both stand by their friends in times of need. Make no mistake: should the need arise, America will stand with Taiwan.
Before I close tonight, I want to speak directly to Chairman Xi Jinping and his fellow leaders in China: should you opt to use force against Taiwan, the United States will mobilize its diplomatic, economic, and military resources to come to Taiwan’s defense. Full stop. You may try to stamp out freedom’s torch on your doorstep, but you will fail. The United States will make sure of it.
My fellow Americans, we live in dangerous times. We seek a cooperative and fruitful relationship with China, but the cause of freedom cannot be the price we pay for such a relationship. The People’s Republic of China seeks to exert its will on the world. We can no longer afford ambiguity regarding our commitment to Taiwan’s defense. That ambiguity only serves to convince Beijing that it might be able to get away with a move on Taiwan. It cannot and it will not.
Asia’s long peace is a singular American achievement. It is a peace we must seek to sustain, and it is in this light that we make this commitment to Taiwan today.
God bless you and God bless the United States of America.
The main point: A declaratory statement committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan would contribute to continuing peace in Asia.