For many Asia-watchers, one of the biggest surprises of Donald Trump’s last two years and eight months in high office has been that he hasn’t sold Taiwan out in return for China’s help on North Korea, a trade deal, or just because it would make Xi Jinping (習近平) happy. In fact, the opposite has occurred. The Trump White House has arguably done more to help ensure Taiwan’s continued freedom and independence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) than any administration in well over 40 years.
Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan cut deals with Beijing at the expense of Taipei. The result was the three US-PRC communiques. To their credit, George W. Bush and Barack Obama avoided the pitfall of signing a fourth communique. However, both presidents were responsible for arms sales freezes and sought to curry favor with China by keeping Taiwan at a distance.
There were concerns that President Trump might follow in his predecessors’ footsteps, or worse. He has a track record of being openly critical of democratic allies and skeptical of burdensome defense commitments. He’s prone to ignore Congress, the intelligence community, and even his own foreign policy advisors. He’s famous for his unpredictable and ruthless dealmaking, and he has demonstrated a high degree of tolerance for dictators like Chairman Xi. Indeed, at one point, Trump reportedly challenged his advisors to tell him why the US should defend Taiwan.
It is not clear what the president’s advisors told him. What is clear is that Trump subsequently signed the landmark Taiwan Travel Act, sent Marines to guard the AIT (the de facto American Embassy in Taipei), and personally approved a historic sale of new F-16 jet fighters to the island. By all accounts, US-Taiwan relations have never been better than they are now, and they are likely to get better still in the years ahead. This has all happened despite a massive Chinese influence and intimidation campaign.
So, why does the United States government, even in one of its most idiosyncratic leadership moments, continue to consider Taiwan’s future worth fighting for?
At this point, we can only guess what President Trump really thinks about Taiwan. He has yet to address the public on this issue. But if actions speak louder than words (and tweets), then he must see tremendous value in this island democracy.
What follows are six reasons why any American president should think defending Taiwan is in the best interest of the United States.
First, American lives are at stake. There are 79,000 US citizens living in Taiwan (plus 72,000 in China and 85,000 in Hong Kong). Chinese war plans for Taiwan are highly aggressive. They emphasize deception and rapid escalation. As a result, large numbers of American civilians could find themselves unable to evacuate the cross-Strait area in the event of a conflict. Keeping them safe would require US military intervention.
Second, US economic well-being depends on it. According to the Census Bureau’s July 2019 data, Taiwan is currently America’s 10th largest trading partner (ahead of Italy, Vietnam, and Brazil). Taiwan punches above its weight in many spheres of activity. Trade is no exception. This high tech island is critical to the supply chains that power the US economy. Keeping US technology companies like Apple, IBM, and Google in business means keeping Taiwan from being blockaded, bombed, and overrun.
Third, it’s about the homeland. Chinese officials have repeatedly threatened to launch nuclear attacks on major US cities in the event of a war over Taiwan. Obviously, these threats are not credible. Chinese leaders are not suicidal. If anything they are hyper-rational hedonists, who know perfectly well what the US Strategic Command could do to them. Their radical threats nonetheless underscore why it is important China is denied access to places where it could more easily strike US territory. Taiwan helps keep the Chinese military boxed in.
Fourth, American allies are counting on it. The US has collective defense arrangements with over 50 nations, including Taiwan’s maritime neighbors Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines. If Taiwan were to fall into hostile hands, it would unglue the entire strategic framework upon which they rely for security. Panic, nuclear proliferation, and further conflict would be the most likely outcomes. US territories like Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands would also be in direct danger of Chinese invasion.
Fifth, it’s the law. The Taiwan Relations Act (US Law 96-8) states that “It is the policy of the United States 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.” This is Congress’s way of saying that, by law, the US government must be ever ready to defend Taiwan.
Sixth, Taiwan is a fellow democracy and, therefore, its survival has intrinsic value. This may seem like the “squishiest” reason of all, but in many ways it is the most compelling to decision makers. American presidents get their legitimacy and power from the will of the people, expressed through the institutions, norms, and processes of an enlightened liberal democracy. Any attack on a fellow democracy would be an attack on the very system that has allowed them to flourish.
Of course, these six reasons don’t guarantee that the US will defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. There are no US military units garrisoned in Taiwan to serve as a strategic tripwire. Nor is there a US-Taiwan mutual defense treaty, or some other ironclad security commitment to ensure Beijing knows what will happen if it crosses Washington’s red line. While the Taiwan Relations Act serves as a rough substitute for a treaty, it’s not the same thing.
Taiwan remains isolated and vulnerable. The risk of a major crisis is very real. And it’s growing. The more powerful Communist China becomes, the more likely Beijing will embrace a policy of violent expansionism.
Yet when the chips are down, the US can be expected to do what’s in its own best interest. That’s why it will defend Taiwan.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (中共攻台大解密).
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