Washington has strategic, economic, and normative reasons for safeguarding the island from Chinese coercion.
Amidst talk of U.S.-China competition, Taiwan too often devolves into a policy football, a subset object at the prey of larger geopolitical forces. Calls to make an explicit security guarantee for Taiwan, maintain the status quo, or even abandon the island cannot exist apart from U.S.-China competition. While reducing a vibrant island of 23 million to a policy point may be an invariable fact of statecraft, Taiwan is not simply an entry onto the balance of power ledger. Nor are simple Cold War analogies able to frame American interests in Taiwan vis-a-vis China in light of U.S.-China trade and modern competition.
Below we seek to rectify this simplification by analyzing what exact interest the U.S. has in Taiwan and how such interest should compute in U.S.-China statecraft, especially over the next critical decade. We conclude that Taiwan’s geopolitical position and economy, while important, are not critical to American interests in East Asia. However, Taiwan’s status as a vibrant, autonomous democracy is critical and an American interest.
Although the 1980 Taiwan Relations Act aimed to cushion Washington’s derecognition of the Republic of China in 1979, Taiwan has struggled to maintain relationships with other states, a challenge exacerbated by China’s growing power. The resulting absurdity leaves 23 million Taiwanese able to trade, travel, and negotiate – even to compete at the Olympics under the name “Chinese Taipei” – without enjoying the privileges of statehood. Taiwan is effectively a permanent, island-bound diaspora. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) treats Taiwan as a province – mainland maps depict Taiwan as such – whose inevitable return is strictly a domestic issue. The PRC foreign minister says Taiwan’s return is part of the “arc of history” and describes any declaration of U.S. support for Taiwanese independence a “red line.” PRC President Xi Jinping states reunification with Taiwan is critical to China’s national “rejuvenation.”
Beijing increasingly sees itself safer in a world fundamentally different from order(s) built by the West. Even within a softening of trade and travel policies, however, Beijing has long “sought to isolate Taipei internationally,” using diplomatic and economic means, including large-scale investment/infrastructure packages, to entice small states to abandon Taipei for Beijing as it has done in recent years with El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Panama. Beijing even coerced global airlines to display Taiwan as part of the mainland. The result of U.S. derecognition in 1979 and the modern PRC dissuasion campaign is that Taiwan has diplomatic relations with only 15 of the 193 United Nations states – and just one in all of Africa.
For its part, Taiwan’s population increasingly supports decreasing cultural ties with the mainland. Surveys conducted in 2019 revealed that most Islanders consider themselves Taiwanese, as opposed to Chinese, though the split runs starkly along age and party lines. However, Taiwan’s embrace of self-identification has not been met by commensurate increases in its defenses. Taiwan’s army remains ill-prepared to defend the island, though its air force and navy are better equipped, due to the fact that conscription ended in 2012 and recruitment has lagged since. It is troubling that Taiwanese identity has risen concurrently with decreasing defense readiness, even as PRC coercion grows. However, an American security guarantee could create a moral hazard by underwriting Taiwanese declarations or, even worse, reducing Taiwan’s military preparedness still further.