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Taiwan’s peril and America’s commitment

Biden’s “gaffe” shows good instinct in offering Taipei a security guarantee


Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen Associated Press/Photo by Chiang Ying-ying (file)

Taiwan’s peril and America’s commitment
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President Joe Biden recently generated headlines around the world and heartburn among his staff when he declared at a Tokyo news conference that the United States would respond with force if China attacked Taiwan. This was the third time in his presidency that Biden had made such a comment—only to be walked back each time by his tremulous staff and a sheepish Biden himself, who changed his course to insist that the official U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan’s defense hasn’t changed.

Why the kerfuffle about an island 8,000 miles away from the United States and just half the size of West Virginia? It is a peculiar feature of geopolitics that Taiwan may well be the fulcrum in which the global competition between the United States and China is decided. Taiwan is in many ways not unlike Israel: a small but vibrant democracy in a hostile neighborhood isolated from much of the international community yet strongly supported by the United States.

That U.S. backing is not unconditional, however. For decades U.S. policy would neither confirm nor deny that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense in case of an invasion by China. Behind this “strategic ambiguity” was the principle of “dual deterrence” aimed at both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The United States sought to deter mainland China from attacking Taiwan—and to deter Taiwan from declaring independence from China. As part of the murky settlement the United States and China reached in 1979 when Washington switched official recognition from Taipei to Beijing, Taiwan’s status was left in a diplomatic netherworld somewhere between an autonomous nation and a Chinese province.

Thus the hand-wringing over Biden’s comments. Our president, hardly unfamiliar with gaffes, seemed to be flippantly jettisoning four decades of official policy and destabilizing an already fraught region. No wonder the White House moved so quickly to “clarify” that he did not mean what he had said.

But President Biden got it right the first time. Despite his careless manner, his instinct is correct. The United States should jettison “strategic ambiguity” and make an explicit security guarantee to Taiwan. Several leading conservative national security experts have been urging as much in recent years. Just last week, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., did so in an important speech at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

It is a peculiar feature of geopolitics that Taiwan may well be the fulcrum in which the global competition between the United States and China is decided.

The policy should change because circumstances have changed. China has abandoned its previous restraint, broken its agreements for peaceful negotiations, and now poses a growing menace to Taiwan, including regular threats to invade and increasing military pressure on the island. Beijing’s recent strangling of Hong Kong’s democracy, in violation of its treaty commitments, should disabuse us of any illusions about its intentions toward Taiwan. In Taipei, President Tsai Ing-wen has shown resolve and craftiness in rallying her country against China’s aggression. But Taiwan cannot hold out alone.

Why should Americans care? Taiwan’s diminutive acreage belies its outsize importance. It sits athwart the shipping routes of the South China Sea, through which some one-third of global maritime trade passes. These shipping lanes are vital arteries in the world economy. Taiwan is home to the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturing company, TSMC, on which the United States depends for microchips for most of our computers and smartphones (likely including, as I have written elsewhere, the device on which you are reading this article).

Gen. Douglas MacArthur long ago called Taiwan an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Sitting just 100 miles from the coast of China, it continues to hold strategic value for the forward deployment of forces to deter Beijing. As a mature democracy of Mandarin-speaking, ethnic Chinese citizens, Taiwan’s very existence refutes the Chinese Communist Party’s odious claim that Chinese people are incapable of self-government.

Christians, in particular, should appreciate that Taiwan has served as a safe haven for theological training, pastoral support, and evangelism in mainland China, where the church suffers severe restrictions and rampant persecution. The late Jonathan Chao, for example, based his ministry in Taiwan for decades while laboring faithfully to equip Chinese pastors and cultivate the reformed faith across the strait in his native China.

Taiwan now faces its gravest peril in seven decades. The current and former commanders of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command have warned that Beijing may try to conquer Taiwan sometime in the next five years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might even accelerate this timetable, as Chinese dictator Xi Jinping sees the West preoccupied and Taiwan vulnerable.

The best way to avoid war, deter China, and protect Taiwan is for the United States to issue an official security guarantee to the island. Our allies Japan and Australia and other nations would likely join us. China needs to know that an attack on Taiwan would mean a fight with the free nations of the Indo-Pacific—indeed, a fight with the free world.


William Inboden

William Inboden is professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House, and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.


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