In an interview on US public television on Dec. 10, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said the greatest obstacle in US-China relations was Taiwan, emphasizing that according to the Taiwan Relations Act, America is not obliged to defend Taiwan. A fortnight later his words were being dissected in the Taiwanese media, taken as proof that relations between Taiwan and the US were at an all-time low. Some people were even saying they were non-existent.
Some of the Taiwanese media, and a number of politicians, were even proclaiming that the weapons-procurement plan should be halted in protest. These people are not in full possession of the facts. US policy regarding the Taiwan Strait opposes moves toward independence or the use of force, and it also, rather selfishly, seeks to define the nature of the "status quo." This is the hard truth of the matter, and regardless of how things develop, it will be the hard and fast principle for the short term.
This so-called "landmine" issue has been contorted in the press and by politicians in Taiwan, who've said that it brands Taiwan a troublemaker.
In fact, it is quite apparent that Taiwan plays such a role in US-China relations. Ever since 1950, exchanges between the US and China, both official and unofficial, have revolved around the issue of Taiwan. Taiwan is, for China, a matter of "core interests," and the US has not been able to get past these core interests with either the Mutual Defense Treaty or the Taiwan Relations Act. This is why the Taiwan issue is brought up in every summit meeting between the leaders of these two countries. If the US had more room for compromise with Taiwan, as in the case of independence for Xinjiang, then it would not constitute such a potential "landmine."
The question of the US' obligation to defend Taiwan has been discussed countless times before. According to the Taiwan Relations Act, the US can define the nature of its obligations to defend Taiwan. The US has said on many occasions that it does not welcome any changes in the status quo by either party, and therefore if a conflict arises due to a declaration of independence on Taiwan's part, then the US naturally has no obligation to come to its defense.
Armitage is correct when he says that Congress has the right to decide whether to commit to major conflict in the Taiwan Strait: According to the War Powers Resolution, the US president can only use the armed forces for 48 hours before he has to seek the approval of Congress.
There is nothing particularly new or untoward in what Armitage has said here, he is merely spelling out US policy in everyday language, a policy which took shape in the 1950s and has remained the same ever since. To see his words as an indication of a worsening of US-Taiwan relations does not tally with the facts. In fact, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) has just signed a 99-year lease for a new site, and has decided to increase its staff in Taiwan to "improve administrative efficiency." This is a good indication of the increasing importance of the Taiwan issue in the eyes of the US.
Whilst Armitage's words are no cause for concern, AIT's increased activity in Taiwan is no reason for complacency, either. US policy regarding Taiwan has remained consistent ever since US President George W. Bush took office: that of not wanting either a declaration of independence or the use of force.