I’m going to wade into a minefield today. Bear with me. You may see me get blown up.
It’s an eternally pertinent question, one on which East Asian stability may depend. Chinese ask it of me all the time. Taiwan’s leader, Chen Shui-bian, revived the question this week in Anchorage, of all places, a venue that holds meaning. Chen couldn’t win permission from Washington to refuel his plane in sunny California, where he likes to stop, getting the tundra instead, as he headed to Central America. Metaphorically speaking, Alaska is symbolic of his status in Washington.
He didn’t always get the frosty treatment. If Taiwanese believe that the Pentagon would come to their defense at any sign of threat, they have reason. In April 2001 President Bush said his government would do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan against Chinese attack.
In fact, there’s a bit of law involved. It’s called the Taiwan Relations Act, and it states responsibilities that Washington has on Taiwan. I’ll parse that law in a sec.
Back in Anchorage, a reporter asked Chen about U.S. protection guarantees. I’ve boldfaced the key part of the transcript if you want to skim past:
Question: If, as you say, the military balance has shifted towards China, in China's favor, this makes it all the more important for Taiwan to know what America might do. Are you confident that the United States will defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from China?
Answer: According to the Taiwan Relations Act, which is part of the U.S.' domestic legislation, the U.S. is obligated to help Taiwan defend itself in the event of war with China. Furthermore, the U.S. and Japan have signed a security treaty. Japan also has related legislation regarding situations in its surrounding area. And such situations include security in the Taiwan Strait. So we think that as long as Taiwan is not the one inciting a military conflict, both the U.S. and Japan will make their concern known--especially the U.S. because of its obligation, as stipulated in the Taiwan Relations Act, to come to Taiwan's aid in the event of a conflict.
Of course, we cannot rely on others to fight for us. We ourselves need to be prepared for a surprise attack from China. Therefore, it is vital that Taiwan can sustain itself militarily before the U.S. comes to our aid. So, whether and how long we can last out are crucial considerations. We will not place the responsibility for defending our own country on the U.S. That is why we deem it imperative that we strengthen our defense capabilities. By engaging in military reform and modernization, we aim to achieve this goal.
In so saying, however, I must point out that we do not intend to engage in an arms race with China. What we want to achieve is our strategic goal of “effective deterrence and resolute defense” for Taiwan. That is why we think it is important that we make enough effort in beefing up our defense capabilities and ensuring that our exercises, routine trainings, and drills are carried out properly and thoroughly. The enemy's fighter jets could attack us at any time, and our readiness is of the essence.
We do not seek to engage in war. But we must be prepared for war if we wish to prevent it and work towards achieving lasting peace.
Question: Do you know exactly, though, what the United States would do if you came under attack?
Answer: It is entirely up to the US government to decide on their course of action. But let me give you an example from the 1996 Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis. Between the second half of 1995 and March 1996, the month of our first-ever direct presidential election, China test-fired two waves of missiles, with one missile landing just 55 kilometers off the coast of Taiwan. In response to China's maneuvers, the U.S. government sent two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait.
Chen is a lawyer and his answer is quite skillful. But he gives the impression that he believes the U.S. military is obligated to defend Taiwan if it is attacked.
In reality, any attack is likely to be a decapitating blow. China has nearly 1,000 short-range missiles pointed at Taiwan. A strike would likely be designed to win a war within 24 hours before the U.S. Seventh Fleet could arrive from its base in Japan. The Taiwanese stock market would collapse. China likely would block telecommunications.
So let’s see what the Taiwan Relations Act actually says. It does not obligate the United States to defend Taiwan, nor is it a security treaty. In the area of defense, it says Washington is:
1) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character;
2) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan;
3) The President is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.
While President Bush said he’d do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan, the reality is that the only binding legal obligations are for Washington to sell weapons to Taiwan, maintain its own capacity to come to Taiwan’s aid, and thirdly for the president to tell Congress when Taiwan is under threat and set a route of action.
They might decide to issue diplomatic protests or take actions short of sending in the Marines. Who knows? That’s why the policy is said to have “strategic ambiguity.”
Some Taiwanese think that Washington has done too little in the face of China’s military buildup across the Taiwan Strait. They say the White House helped let the military balance become lopsided, thus making the U.S. military umbrella even more vital. Moreover, they say the White House must defend a fellow democracy under attack.
But then there are “facts on the ground,” as people in the Middle East like to say. With the U.S. military stretched to capacity, fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is there a stomach for a new conflict? How many parents of U.S. military personnel would be eager to see their sons and daughters die for Taiwan if there were a sense that its leader hadn’t done his utmost to avoid a confrontation with China?
I personally think that even a limited war with China, a nuclear power, in defense of Taiwan would be a hard sell to the U.S. public.