DEBATE: Should the US embrace Taiwan?

As tensions rise once again between China and the US over Taiwan, the Review is pleased to offer a special feature: two contrasting perspectives about the best strategy for America on the issue commonly described as the most likely to spark a great power war in the 21st century.

An ensign on the bridge of guided-missile destroyer USS Barry during its tour of the Indo-Pacific in 2020
Image Credit: Seaman Molly Crawford/DVIDS

Embracing Taiwan

By Ethan Chiu

President Kennedy famously declared “I am a Berliner” in 1963, reaffirming the American commitment to protection of West Berlin’s freedom and democracy against its communist neighbors.

Today, it is in America’s best interests to show the people of Taiwan and other freedom-loving nations that the US is with them in their arduous struggle to protect their liberties.

Ever since the Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan and the Communists took over the Chinese mainland in 1949, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been in a state of perpetual war with Taiwan.

The original Sino-American mutual defense treaty was signed in 1954 to maintain the Nationalist government’s legitimacy as the sole government of China and uphold the San Francisco Hubs and Spokes System.

However, the US broke off relations in 1979 with the Nationalist Republic of China in Taipei to recognize Beijing instead. The hope was to help the PRC transition to a more democratic form of government.

The Taiwan Relations Act was signed that same year, allowing for unofficial bilateral ties to be established with Taiwan through the American Institute in Taiwan and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. Congress also removed the US security commitment to Taiwan.

As Taiwan lifted its martial law a decade later and became a democracy in the early 1990s, the PRC started shooting missiles into the Taiwan Strait in a desperate attempt to alter the results of the first Taiwanese elections. This would prompt the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Despite this turbulence, Taiwan is now one of the freest nations in Asia. Approximately 83% of its citizens identify as solely Taiwanese, directly countering the PRC-propagated idea that democracy is incompatible with Chinese culture.

As a result, the PRC continually threatens Taiwan with a military invasion. The PRC has recently flown dozens of sorties into Taiwanese airspace daily in an attempt to wear down and intimidate Taiwan’s population.

To harken back to President Wilson’s “moral diplomacy,” we must protect and boost economic ties with like-minded democracies such as Taiwan. In order to accomplish this, the United States should completely abandon strategic ambiguity with Taiwan in favor of strategic clarity.

By increasing sales of asymmetrical weapons systems and stationing American troops in Taiwanese military bases, the United States can bolster Taiwan’s defense capability and American deterrence.

In fact, American military transport aircraft recently landed in Taiwan carrying United States senators. United States Marines guard the American Institute in Taiwan already, yet the PRC has barely protested.

Not only will an American military base deter the PRC from attacking Taiwan for fear of accidentally killing American soldiers, but it will also allow the United States to further the goals of its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Taiwan is located in the first island chain and at the center of East Asia, between America’s South Korean and Japanese allies in the north and its Filipino, Thai, Australian, and New Zealander allies in the south. Taiwan’s mountainous terrain can also serve as protection against aerial bombardment.

Image Credit: Council on Foreign Relations

Furthermore, the United States should recognize and encourage international recognition of the democratically elected Taiwanese government. Washington must abandon its One China Policy.

The exclusion of Taiwan from international organizations such as the World Health Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, and Interpol’s I-24/7 Global Police Communications System is highly detrimental to global health, aviation safety, and transnational crime prevention.

Although Taiwan warned the WHO about a novel coronavirus strain on December 31st, 2019, the WHO dismissed Taiwan’s warning since it is not a WHO member state. The deadly COVID-19 virus was then allowed to spread unchecked until mid-January of 2020.

Within the economic sphere, the US should sign a free trade agreement with Taiwan that removes barriers to the flow of goods and services and encourage bilateral investment among like-minded democracies. As the United States’ 10th largest trading partner, a free trade agreement with Taiwan would bring both mutual national security and economic benefits.

Since Taiwan produces 63% of high-tech global semiconductor chips, the Taiwanese semiconductor industry is critical to the United States’ national defense and technological sectors. Use of Taiwanese chips range from American fighter jets such as the F-35 to personal devices like iPhones. In fact, the current shortage of semiconductors has resulted in both massive price inflation in personal electronics and interrupted automobile production worldwide.

Taiwanese companies like Quanta and Foxconn also produce the majority of the world’s electronics and computers. If Taiwan was attacked by the PRC, America’s national security and Silicon Valley would be unduly harmed, and the PRC would gain access to some of the world’s most advanced computer technologies.

Ultimately, by guaranteeing Taiwan’s national security, the US can ensure its own. Just as JFK declared “I am a Berliner” over 50 years ago, the United States must now proclaim “we are Taiwanese” resolutely.

Ethan Chiu is a guest contributor. He is a rising high school senior from Jericho, New York. A second generation Taiwanese-American, Ethan’s passions are international relations and medicine.

A helicopter deploys from the guided missile destroyer USS John Finn in the Taiwan Strait on March 10, 2021
Video Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason Waite/DVIDS

Restraint Towards Taiwan

By Benedicta Kwarteng

The debate over whether the United States should pursue a strategy of ambiguity or clarity in regards to Taiwan has yielded valid arguments from both ends. However, to protect US interests in the Taiwan Strait, a policy of strategic ambiguity is more plausible.

The US has two key goals: to deter China from initiating an attack on Taiwan and to preserve good (or at least functional) U.S.-China relations. Ensuring its intentions remain enigmatic to both Taiwan and China is the best way to achieve both of Washington’s objectives in the area.

Despite the current lack of outright conflict, even the slightest trigger by the parties in the China-Taiwan-U.S. triangular relationship could be the catalyst that escalates the situation. Any knowledgeable observer would agree that China emphatically does not want the U.S interfering in what it regards as its back yard.

The United States’ definite pledge to defend Taiwan could be the very encouragement China needs to initiate an attack. The U.S. is no longer bound by any bilateral agreement that obligates it to come to Taiwan’s defense, raising the chance Beijing misinterprets a sudden bold American stance on Taiwan.

Thus, it is more advantageous for the U.S’ intentions in the region to remain hidden to both parties. The current informal but deep US-Taiwan cooperation creates the impression that the U.S might defend Taiwan in the case of an armed conflict.

While it’s possible that more clear U.S. support for Taiwan could scare off China in the short term, America is better off without the consequences of complete deterrence. An unambiguous American commitment to the island will embolden Taiwanese pro-independence groups, causing havoc that irritates Beijing and destabilizes the region.

Since China does not know where the U.S. and allied forces stand, it would be very hesitant to plan any attack on Taiwan. In any case, if China decides to use force on Taiwan, the likeliness of a hegemonic war between the U.S and China should not be taken lightly.

Considering the odds of being pulled into an actual war due to intervention in Taiwan, a strategy of ambiguity and restraint could be safer for Taiwan’s national security and to avoid deadly regional conflict.

Most important of any American interests is the preservation of relations with Beijing.The current climate of US-China relations has grown more fickle with the Biden Administration. As Taiwan is not necessarily a priority of the United States, it would be foolish to needlessly risk good Chinese relations over it.

Many fear Taiwan will not be able to defend itself against China and thus the U.S. is their only hope. However, recent studies from Tuft University and the Project 2049 Institute suggest otherwise. Taiwan may not be able to initiate an attack on China, but the island can defend itself without American help.

For example, the element of surprise which the PLA will need to ensure that their attack on the Island is effective and efficient is impossible to leverage given the mutual access to each other’s intelligence agencies.

Taiwan will be knowledgeable of an attack an estimated over two months before the PLA subjects the island to it. The weather condition in the strait also works in favor of the Taiwanese, as it limits the period for an attack to either the month of April or October.

Given this ample time, Taiwan will be able to “move much of their command and control infrastructure into hardened mountain tunnels, move their fleet out of vulnerable ports, detain suspected agents and intelligence operatives, litter the ocean with sea mines, disperse and camouflage army units across the country, put the economy on a war footing, and distribute weapons to Taiwan’s 2.5 million reservists.”

Regardless of how China threatens Taiwan, the U.S does not need to further complicate its relationship with China as it becomes more grounded as a world power. Moreover, the U.S. being in good standing with China will prove beneficial to the national interest of Taiwan if it comes to annexation. It would give the U.S. room to engage in diplomatic negotiations with China to ensure the peaceful reunification of Taiwan and the mainland.

“Chinese commanders fear they may be forced into the armed contest with an enemy that is better trained, better motivated, and better prepared for the rigors of warfare than troops the PLA could throw against them.”

–Tanner Greer, Foreign Policy

      

Overall, while a policy of restraint may not be favorable, it could be the only way to pursue U.S. interests and avoid potential war in the Taiwan Strait. Rather than viewing strategic ambiguity as a failure of America’s alliance and power, it is necessary to recognize the success of this policy over the past decades.

Simply put, the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applies to foreign policy, too. Peace and stability in the region can be attributed to the long-term U.S. approach of ambiguity and restraint on Taiwan.

Benedicta Kwarteng is a writer for the Review. She is majoring in International Relations and Political Science at the University of Hartford.

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