A Guarantee Isn’t Worth The Risk

Bonnie S. Glaser

In their recent article (“American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous,” September 2), Richard Haass and David Sacks correctly note that China’s coercive tactics and military buildup are eroding deterrence in the Taiwan Strait. But their proposed solution—a U.S. security guarantee for Taipei—would not solve that problem and might even provoke a Chinese attack. To reduce the chances of war, the United States needs to signal credibly that Beijing would pay a high price for invading Taiwan. Washington cannot, however, make its willingness to defend Taiwan unconditional. Rather, the United States should reserve the latitude to judge whether Taipei’s policies are consistent with U.S. interests—and with the region’s peace and security.

If the United States extends an unqualified security commitment to Taiwan today, without the ability to make its threats credible, China could respond by mounting an attack. Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken a tough approach to sovereignty disputes throughout his tenure: in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the disputed border with India, he has doubled down in defiance of foreign criticism. The United States might try to head off this reaction by assuring China that it still adheres to its “one China” policy and does not support Taiwan’s independence. But such blandishments would fall on deaf ears, especially if they come from U.S. President Donald Trump, who has little credibility in Beijing. Rather, Xi would likely calculate that failing to take decisive action would open him to domestic criticism and jeopardize his bid to be China’s leader for life. The authors advise U.S. leaders against signing a treaty with Taipei on the grounds that doing so would “force Xi’s hand,” but they don’t explain why an ironclad security guarantee wouldn’t have the same consequence.

That consequence hardly seems worth risking when there is little evidence that China is poised to invade Taiwan. Xi has said that “reunification” of the island with mainland China is “inevitable,” but he has given no indication that he is willing to jeopardize other Chinese interests in order to urgently achieve this goal. Haass and Sacks cite “speculation” that Beijing will force reunification with Taiwan as soon as 2021—but the United States should base a major shift in policy on hard facts, not rumors.

Nor should the United States be shortsighted about the potential intentions of future Taiwanese leaders. Haass and Sacks are confident that the island’s authorities have judged that pursuing independence is contrary to their interests. Current President Tsai Ing-wen has indeed taken a cautious stance toward Beijing and coordinated her approach closely with Washington. But her successors may not do the same. A clear statement of U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan regardless of the circumstances could embolden pro-independence constituencies in Taiwan to promote their cause. The United States should not give Taipei a green light to bend to these forces or to advance policies contrary to U.S. objectives.

U.S. treaty allies have a strong stake in preserving peace in the Taiwan Strait. Japan in particular has a vital interest in averting a Chinese takeover of Taiwan, because the island is located in the middle of the first island chain stretching from Japan to the Philippines and the South China Sea. A Chinese occupation would threaten Japanese sea-lanes. Japan and other U.S. allies in Asia, however, would likely see a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan against all threats not as evidence that the United States is a reliable partner but as a potential provocation of China. Moreover, such a commitment accompanied by a request that regional allies assist the United States during a Taiwan contingency, as Haass and Sacks propose, would likely lead those allies to fear being dragged into a conflict.

A U.S. security guarantee for Taipei would not solve the problem and might provoke a Chinese attack.

The Taiwan Relations Act requires the U.S. president and Congress to determine “appropriate action” in response to “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.” Therefore, Beijing cannot rule out the possibility of U.S. intervention in the event of an invasion. Still, the United States does need to shore up its ability to deter Chinese aggression in the Taiwan Strait. On this point, Haass and Sacks are spot-on. China has developed “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities that complicate the United States’ ability to defend Taiwan. If the United States is to credibly head off a Chinese invasion, it must find effective ways to counter these capabilities. Taiwan must also do its part to ensure that its military can survive an attack and slow down an enemy force to buy time for the U.S. military to arrive.

The United States should revise its publicly declared policy in a manner that strengthens deterrence, but not by issuing a statement of “strategic clarity,” as Haass and Sacks recommend. U.S. policymakers could issue a warning that any Chinese use of force against Taiwan would be viewed as a threat to peace and stability and a grave threat to the United States. Such a statement would signal U.S. resolve without the downsides of a clear security guarantee. If Beijing looks set to move against Taiwan, the U.S. president could forestall a crisis by privately issuing clear warnings to China’s leader about the consequences of such an action.

Ambiguity has preserved cross-strait stability for decades and can continue to prevent war. To keep the peace, the United States must restore deterrence, not further weaken it.

BONNIE S. GLASER is Senior Adviser for Asia and Director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


A Guarantee Won’t Solve the Problem

Michael J. Mazarr

Richard Haass and David Sacks have done a great service by promoting debate on an increasingly vexing issue—the United States’ commitment to Taiwan. They are right to worry that, as China’s thirst to resolve the Taiwan issue intensifies, the United States’ halfhearted commitment to the island will become increasingly perilous: too weak to deter Chinese aggression but strong enough to drag the United States into a war.

But Haass and Sacks’s solution—an unequivocal U.S. commitment to the defense of Taiwan—has more emotional than strategic appeal. To begin with, Taiwan does not yet face an imminent threat. Little evidence—beyond belligerent statements and provocative exercises—suggests that China is on the verge of invading Taiwan. As Taylor Fravel recently argued, “China does not appear (yet) to have altered its view about the importance of maintaining a relatively benign security environment.” The United States should not pay the huge costs of a security guarantee if the menace remains mostly hypothetical. Were China ever to move toward invasion, the United States could issue more pointed threats.

Even if an invasion were imminent, however, a security pledge might not be effective. In the late 1930s, many Japanese officials admitted that they would lose a long war against the United States. Despite that grim assessment, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, because it concluded that it had no other option. History is full of such occasions, when nations—fueled by a toxic brew of paranoia, desperation, and wishful thinking—felt so compelled to act that they were effectively undeterrable. If Beijing ever decides to take the risk of invading Taiwan, it will likely have arrived at just such an urgent imperative to act. A tougher policy is unlikely to work when it is needed most.

Worse, if China believes that the United States is about to make a security pledge to Taiwan, that prospect could itself become the impetus for China to take rash action. Once the United States makes such a pledge, the situation becomes even more dicey, as U.S. officials will likely worry about the guarantee’s credibility and agitate to deploy military forces to Taiwan as a signal of resolve. Beijing is unlikely to tolerate such action. Rather than forestalling war, the proposed policy could easily set a chain of events in motion that would make conflict inevitable.

U.S. Navy vessels in the Philippine Sea, November 2018
U.S. Navy vessels in the Philippine Sea, November 2018
Kaila V. Peters / U.S. Navy / Reuters

An unqualified security commitment might also be counterproductive for the United States’ relationships with other countries in the region. Haass and Sacks rightly note that many Indo-Pacific nations worry about U.S. reliability. But those countries also want to avoid taking sides between the United States and China. An ironclad security pledge would undercut multilateral collaboration by reminding other states that to engage in a closer security partnership with the United States means possibly getting dragged into a war over Taiwan.

As for Taipei, Haass and Sacks claim that “deterring Taiwan from declaring independence is no longer a primary concern,” in part because few Taiwanese support it. But the sense of independent identity in Taiwan appears to be growing. Moreover, an absolute security guarantee could encourage Taiwanese authorities to treat Beijing with contempt, figuring that the United States has the island’s back. Having made such a promise, the United States will not be able to backtrack without demolishing its credibility—leaving few means of influencing Taipei’s behavior in a crisis.

If all these risks are not enough to make a Taiwan security guarantee unattractive, Washington should consider the cost. The United States is already strengthening its regional posture, but an unqualified promise would demand a much larger investment if it is to be substantially more credible than U.S. deterrence is already. Prevailing military trends do not favor the kind of long-range power projection that such a posture in Taiwan would require. Given the many domestic problems confronting the United States, devoting scarce dollars to defending Taiwan is arguably not the best way to make the country safer, more prosperous, or more competitive with China.

The United States should find ways to deter Chinese aggression that don’t involve making an unambiguous and costly military commitment to Taiwan. Short of such a guarantee, Washington can still make much more explicit that invading Taiwan will entail economic, political, and military consequences for China. Options include intense and targeted economic sanctions, conditional plans to deploy new U.S. forces in neighboring countries, limits on academic and professional exchanges with Chinese partners, and expelling Chinese diplomats from international organizations. Although a detailed plan to undermine China’s strategic position would not deter an attack on its own, it would at least force Beijing to acknowledge and consider the potential costs of its actions.

At the same time, the United States could help Taiwan deliver on its 2017 defense strategy, which shifts the island’s focus away from major combat systems, such as tanks and aircraft, and toward potentially more effective asymmetric defenses, such as smart mines, antiship missiles, drones, and information warfare. A bold commitment from Taipei to make itself a more costly target—supported by an increase in Taiwanese defense spending, continued U.S. arms transfers, and perhaps even some joint weapons development programs—would enhance deterrence as much as any new U.S. promises.

No U.S. approach to Taiwan will offer a perfect guarantee of peace. But the United States has many options short of the provocative, costly, and diplomatically risky step of an unconditional security pledge.

MICHAEL J. MAZARR is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation.


A Guarantee is Legally Dubious

Michael J. Glennon

In the 1972 agreement known as the Shanghai Communiqué, the United States promised that it would not challenge China’s position that there is “but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” In a separate agreement signed in 1979, the United States agreed that the Chinese authorities based in Beijing were the country’s sole legal government. Taken together, these twin declarations—popularly known as the “one China policy”—cleared the way for the modern relationship between the United States and China. On the legal status of Taiwan, the United States took the same position then as now: no position.

Richard Haass and David Sacks’ proposed security guarantee in their recent article would forsake that purposefully ambiguous policy in favor of a dangerously provocative unilateral commitment. Not only would such a move abandon a policy that has functioned effectively for 40 years, but it would also violate the U.S. Constitution and the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

The UN Charter would permit using force to assist Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack only if such action could be characterized as collective self-defense: if a state is subject to an armed attack, other states may lawfully use force in its defense. But the collective self-defense rationale presupposes an external attack, not the use of force by a state within its own territory. U.S. military assistance to Taiwan premised on collective self-defense could align with the charter only if the United States regarded Taiwan as a sovereign, independent state. The one-China policy explicitly precludes this view.  

On the legal status of Taiwan, the United States took the same position then as now: no position.

A U.S. president might assert the authority to jettison that policy in favor of a security assurance to Taiwan, but such a move would violate the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to declare war and the Senate the power to approve treaties. For the president alone to make a formal security guarantee would manifestly encroach on those powers. Long-standing U.S. custom and practice dictate that a commitment of such magnitude—dedicating U.S. soldiers to the unconditional defense of a foreign country—cannot be made solely by the chief executive. The president cannot promise what is not the president’s to give.

Nonetheless, Haass and Sacks would have the president make a sweeping promise of an absolute and automatic response to “any” Chinese use of force against Taiwan, however limited in scope and whatever the circumstances. Such a pledge would be extraordinary. As the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said in its report on what would become the TRA, the law that currently defines U.S.-Taiwanese relations, “an ‘absolute’ security guarantee for Taiwan would go further than any current mutual security treaty to which the United States is a party.” The report went on to note that it is “questionable whether, as a matter of constitutional law, an absolute security guarantee can be made—either by treaty or by statute.”

Haass and Sacks suggest, however, that the provisions of the TRA show that such a move would not violate the one-China policy. To the contrary, section three of the TRA expressly forbids the kind of action that Haass and Sacks recommend. It states that “the President and the Congress,” not the president alone, “shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States” in response to any threat to the security of Taiwan. The TRA, moreover, does not contravene the one-China policy but honors it. As the committee emphasized in its report, legislators drafted the TRA specifically to allow U.S. relations with Taiwan to continue “on an unofficial basis” and to “reassure Taiwan without being inconsistent with recognition of the PRC.”

China is undoubtedly more threatening to the United States and Taiwan today than it was in 1979. As its power has grown, China has exhibited an abysmal disregard for international humanitarian norms. In a dark future, the United States might need to take military action to defend its security interests in Taiwan. But formally and explicitly saying so would inflame an already volatile U.S.-Chinese relationship—with potentially unimaginable consequences. As an esteemed former State Department legal adviser used to say, success in diplomacy is like success in marriage: not every truth need be articulated. 

MICHAEL J. GLENNON is Professor of International Law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and served as Legal Counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the drafting of the Taiwan Relations Act.


Haass and Sacks Reply

In our piece “American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous,” which appeared in Foreign Affairs on September 2, we argued the United States ought to adopt a policy of strategic clarity, making explicit that it would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Given an increasingly assertive China with significant and growing military capabilities, and mounting doubts as to U.S. reliability, we concluded that strategic clarity is more likely than ambiguity to maintain deterrence in the Taiwan Strait. Importantly, strategic clarity does not change the ends of U.S. policy, only the means. We advocate that the United States continue to uphold its one-China policy, reiterate that it does not support Taiwan independence, and eschew symbolic moves to upgrade Taiwan’s status. The purpose of strategic clarity is to avoid a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. We are glad to see that our article has triggered a long overdue and much-needed debate.

There is the contention that strategic clarity would be inconsistent with the U.S. one-China policy. This argument is simply incorrect. The United States never accepted the Chinese position that “there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” The United States merely acknowledged the Chinese position, taking note of it but not endorsing it. The bottom line is that the United States has refrained from taking a position on sovereignty over Taiwan and does not subscribe to the position that Taiwan is a part of the People’s Republic of China.

There is nothing in any of the three U.S.-Chinese joint communiqués that would preclude a policy of strategic clarity. What we propose does not touch on questions of Taiwan’s legal status or diplomatic recognition, China’s core concerns that were addressed in the communiqués. Indeed, we made clear that a policy of strategic clarity would be introduced together with an endorsement of the U.S. one-China policy, a declaration that the United States does not support Taiwan independence, and a refusal to establish formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Strategic clarity only adds weight to the long-standing U.S. position that any resolution of cross-strait differences must occur peacefully and with the consent of the people involved.

The purpose of strategic clarity is to avoid a conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

Some argue that the president does not have the power to pledge that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force. Nowhere do we argue that should the United States have to come to Taiwan’s defense, the president should do so without seeking Congress’s approval. Indeed, if deterrence fails and the president acts to commit U.S. soldiers, he should go through Congress to seek authorization. Given that time would be of the essence in a crisis, he could do so beforehand so the authority to act was clear. Congress has consistently sought executive leadership on Taiwan and would likely welcome a policy of strategic clarity.

Others object to our article on strategic grounds, asserting that our proposal would force the very confrontation that we are trying to avoid. In doing so, they create Chinese redlines that have not surfaced and may not exist. The 2005 Anti-Secession Law is China’s legal framework for military action against Taiwan, and it does not state that China would use military force if the United States made a pledge to Taiwan. There is even a relevant historical precedent. In April 2001, Washington received signals that China was questioning whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense. President George W. Bush disabused China of these notions, stating the United States would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.” President Bush’s statement did not spark a war but instead bolstered deterrence.

Respondents have suggested that a policy of strategic clarity might make Taiwan less cautious and more likely to trigger a confrontation with Beijing. Diplomacy can manage this hypothetical risk. President Tsai Ing-wen, who has nearly four years left in her term, has shown no inclination to test China’s redlines. Her successors might be less prudent, but a policy of strategic clarity would be paired with a public reiteration that the United States does not support Taiwan independence. The United States would continue to echo this statement privately with Taiwan’s leaders. Should Taiwan make provocative moves, the United States would make clear that it does not enjoy a blank check. All U.S. strategic partners understand that with their benefits come obligations, and Taiwan would be no exception.

Some critics argue that a policy shift is unneeded because a Chinese attack on Taiwan is not imminent. This may be true, but we do not believe the possibility can be dismissed. Strategic surprise is a staple of history.  Now is the time to act to reduce the chance of such a surprise or to prepare for it should it occur. Waiting until a Chinese attack on Taiwan is imminent or underway would do nothing to strengthen deterrence and would result in a situation in which the United States would be left with only terrible choices.

What is more, U.S. allies already believe that the United States is committed to coming to Taiwan’s defense. We are not proposing that the United States take on a new obligation but are instead arguing that U.S. policymakers should recognize this obligation exists and resource it accordingly. Maintaining a policy of strategic ambiguity leaves the United States vulnerable: its allies expect it to come to Taiwan’s defense, but U.S. planners do not see a firm commitment and therefore do not prioritize contingency planning, and China is unsure of the United States’ commitment and therefore less likely to be deterred.

Whether one subscribes to our position or not, the United States must commit resources to bolstering deterrence in the Taiwan Strait. It should shift more American air and naval assets to Asia and work with Taiwan to increase its warfighting capabilities. The United States should also consider how it might respond to coercive Chinese “gray zone” activities short of military action. Last but far from least, any and all such steps should be paired with a renewed U.S.-Chinese dialogue, in which each side could privately communicate what it deems to be unacceptable in the Taiwan Strait or in any contingency in Asia. The stakes are too great for any party to miscalculate.

RICHARD HAASS is President of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The World: A Brief Introduction.

DAVID SACKS is a Research Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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