In the event that China uses force against Taiwan, will the United States come to Taiwan’s defense? It’s a perennial question at think tank events in Washington, DC—and presumably in the halls of Taiwan’s presidential palace and Zhongnanhai—and it was asked again earlier this month at an Atlantic Council webinar in which I participated. Randy Schriver, former assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs, put his answer plainly: “I think it’s unthinkable that the US would do nothing.” Schriver stopped short of endorsing a large-scale US intervention, but there are reasons to believe such an intervention would be forthcoming. Most crucially, defending Taiwan accords with the three major foreign policy philosophies most prevalent among leaders, politicians, and policymakers on both sides of the political aisle.
The Role of Sentiment
The “soft” aspects of US-Taiwan relations will play some role in how Washington responds to a crisis. Although the US-Republic of China (ROC) mutual defense treaty is no longer operative, the alliance was a central feature of American strategy in Asia for 25 years. ROC Air Force pilots flew secret missions on behalf of the Americans and South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Later, Taiwanese Air Force pilots and maintainers deployed to North Yemen for a decade, starting in 1979, in support of American and Saudi foreign policy objectives. Institutional memories of those efforts persist in the American national security apparatus.
People-to-people ties are important as well. According to the de facto US embassy in the country, the American Institute in Taiwan, “there are now 153 sister cities between the United States and Taiwan” and “Taiwan is the United States’ seventh largest source of international students.” Familial and business ties (Taiwan is a top US trade partner) likewise contribute to a bilateral web of interpersonal relationships.
In the event of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, many Americans may feel they have a personal stake in its outcome—because they have family or friends there, because they have fond memories of studying abroad there, or because they remember Taiwan as a dependable Cold War ally. But while vocal supporters of intervention might be able to affect decisions in Washington, that is largely because they would be pushing on an open door.
US Foreign Policy Philosophies and the Intervention Question
Despite the lack of a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan—indeed, despite the intentional ambiguity Washington has adopted regarding its commitment to defend Taiwan—intervention on behalf of the island nation seems likely in the event China decides to use force. This is because intervention would appeal to three of the more prominent strands of American foreign policy thinking. Importantly, adherents of all three strands can be found among both Democrats and Republicans.
First, an American defense of Taiwan would appeal to those that see the preservation and proliferation of liberal polities as a key US interest. A world that is safe for the United States is a world that is safe for democracy, so the thinking goes, and a world that is safe for democracy is one populated by democracies. A contraction in the number of democracies worldwide, then, is disadvantageous to US interests.
Chinese annexation of Taiwan would eliminate an important democratic partner for the United States—one engaged in its own human rights and democracy promotion efforts. Taiwan’s absorption would likewise neutralize a source of hope and inspiration for would-be liberal reformers in Hong Kong and in China proper, perhaps pushing ultimate Chinese liberalization—what some would consider the grand strategic prize in Asia—even further out of sight. China’s successful unification with Taiwan in the absence of US intervention, moreover, might lead other authoritarian powers to more confidently cast ravenous eyes on their own democratic neighbors.
If the survival and proliferation of democracies is, indeed, a key US interest, ensuring Taiwan’s continued existence as a de facto free and independent state is a central purpose of US foreign policy.
Second, there would likely be support for defending Taiwan among leaders, lawmakers, and policymakers subscribing to the view that preservation of the existing liberal international order is necessary to ensure a world conducive to US interests. As Mira Rapp-Hooper et al. noted in a 2019 policy brief for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the 2015 US-Japan Joint Vision Statement includes a clear and concise explanation of that order: “Together we have helped to build a strong rules-based international order, based on a commitment to rules, norms, and institutions that are the foundation of global affairs and our way of life.” This broad definition accords with those used by American allies, as Rapp-Hooper et al. describe:
The purpose of a regional order (according to the allies) is to “effectively promote peace, security, stability, and economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.” Other key characteristics include “respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity,” “adherence to international law and their shared commitment to upholding freedom of navigation and overflight,” and a commitment to having “disputes […] resolved peacefully and free of coercion.” Such an order means, as former US president Barack Obama put it, “large countries, small countries, all have to abide by what [are] considered just and fair” rules, essentially the opposite of a regional order based primarily on power.
Although the application of international law to Chinese use of force against Taiwan would not be straightforward, given the nation’s complicated standing under said law, the norm regarding peaceful resolution of disputes would be demolished. China, having annexed Taiwan absent meaningful US resistance, would be in a far better position to rewrite the rules of the regional order to its liking. America’s alliance system in the Indo-Pacific—a central pillar of the regional order—could be severely weakened, with allies questioning American reliability.
The precise nature of a post-annexation regional order is difficult to predict, but today’s presiding order might well be torn asunder. Those who believe such an eventuality would seriously harm US interests are likely to support taking steps to prevent it—in this case, by intervening on Taiwan’s behalf in a cross-Strait crisis.
Third, a decision to defend Taiwan would likely receive support from those believing that the United States cannot abide an Asia dominated by a hostile hegemon with open access to the Pacific Ocean. Adherents to this line of thinking do not see Taiwan’s democracy as a primary reason for its importance to the United States, nor are they overly concerned with the contours of global order.
Elbridge Colby, principal at The Marathon Initiative, gave voice to this view at this year’s Global Taiwan Institute Annual Symposium:
If you listen to the arguments for why I, for one, think that it’s worth defending Taiwan, they are essentially strategic. They are Taiwan’s military value and Taiwan’s value to our credibility […]. [T]he United States is likely to defend Taiwan, in essence, whether all Taiwanese want it to be defended or not […] because it’s actually in our interests.
In annexing Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would further aggrandize its own power and, for the first time, have open access to the Pacific Ocean, allowing it to more easily threaten US territories in the Pacific, Hawaii, and the continental United States. American national security professionals have, understandably, been uncomfortable with such a state of affairs since 1941. For realist-minded strategists, ensuring that Taiwan remains the “cork” in the first island chain—ensuring the integrity of the forward defense perimeter—would likely necessitate US armed intervention in a war over Taiwan’s fate.
At the Atlantic Council event noted above, I warned that, despite likely support among the national security community for intervention on behalf of Taiwan, publican opinion might significantly restrain Washington’s ability to so act. Senior American leaders do not talk to the American people about Taiwan’s importance or about the US-Taiwan relationship. Americans do not see news reports about their president hosting his Taiwanese counterpart at the White House or visiting Taipei, because such meetings do not happen. With inexpensive “Made in Taiwan” products far less ubiquitous than they once were, Taiwan occupies less space in the American public imagination (Taiwan has moved up the value chain, but its inputs to high-tech goods are less obvious to consumers).
There has, however, been some recent good news in this regard. This past summer, the Center for Strategic and International Studies polled the American public and American “thought leaders” on US defense commitments in the Asia-Pacific. Bonnie Glaser and Matthew Funaiole wrote up their results for The Diplomat:
The results show that Americans are, in fact, prepared to take a substantial risk to defend Taiwan. With a mean score of 6.69 out of 10, respondents from among the US public gave stronger backing for defending Taiwan than Australia (6.38) and comparable to Japan (6.88), South Korea (6.92), as well as an unnamed ally or partner in the South China Sea (6.97).
This high level of support—despite the esoteric “One-China Policy,” strategic ambiguity, and lack of an effort from Washington to further educate the public on these issues—is reassuring. Expressing surprise at these findings, Glaser and Funaiole posit that “Taiwan’s precarious position as a small, vibrant democracy on the doorstep of China is more visible than ever,” thanks in large part to Chinese belligerence. Furthermore, they suggest that Taiwan’s exemplary response to COVID-19 has won it international plaudits with potential attendant effects on public opinion.
There are three additional, complementary explanations as well. First, not only did Taiwan handle COVID-19 well at home, but it has also donated millions of masks to the United States during the last half-year. Americans may be taking note. Second, Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), has appeared with greater frequency on American cable news programs since the beginning of 2020, ensuring that Taiwan is taking its message to American living rooms in a way it has never done before. Third, China’s expulsion of numerous western journalists this year has led a growing number of international correspondents to set up shop in Taiwan. That, perhaps, has led to more and better coverage of Taiwan and of cross-Strait relations in America’s major newspapers, raising awareness of Taiwan in the United States.
The task now is for American leaders, including those in the most senior ranks of government, to reinforce this support. Laying the groundwork among the public for intervention now will ensure Washington will need to spend less time doing so once a crisis is in the offing. Robust public support for defending Taiwan, meanwhile, will contribute to deterring China from acting precipitously, making such a crisis less likely to come about.
The main point: Defending Taiwan accords with the three major foreign policy philosophies most prevalent among leaders, politicians, and policymakers in both the Republican and Democratic parties.