Missile Accident Reminds U.S. of Dangers of Taiwan Commitment

Taiwan long has been one of the globe’s most dangerous tripwires. Other than a brief period after World War II, the island has not been ruled by the mainland for more than a century. The 23 million people living on what was once called Formosa have made a nation.

However, the People’s Republic of China views Taiwan–also known as the Republic of China (ROC)–as part of the PRC. As China has grown wealthier, it has created a military increasingly capable of defeating Taiwan.

At the same time, economic ties between the two nations have grown, yet the Taiwanese population has steadily identified more with Taiwan than the PRC. The election of Tsai Ing-wen of the traditional pro-independence Democratic Progress Party as president in January greatly discomfited Beijing.

As Chinese patience wanes, American policy based on ambiguity grows riskier. Washington’s commitment to Taiwan developed out of the World War II alliance with the ROC.

However, Washington loosened its commitment to Taipei with President Richard Nixon’s opening to China. President Jimmy Carter furthered the process when the United States shifted official recognition to the PRC.

The American military commitment has become steadily less certain. Would the United States really risk Los Angeles for Taipei, as one Chinese general famously asked?

Washington officials hope never to have to answer that question, but the recent Taiwanese missile misfire offers a dramatic reminder of the danger of guaranteeing other nations’ security. A Taiwanese vessel mistakenly shot an anti-ship missile toward China, destroying a Taiwanese fishing boat, killing the captain and injuring several other crewmen.

While nothing today suggests that the PRC is planning war, at some point Beijing might find a casus belli to be convenient. And then America would be in the middle.

Of course, American officials want to believe that the mere mention of America would be enough to thwart Chinese ambitions. However, history is full of cases when deterrence fails.

Moreover, security guarantees tend to make their recipients more irresponsible. President Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president, lost few opportunities to poke the great dragon across the strait, feeling secure with the United States seemingly on his side.

Worse, security guarantees effectively transfer the power to choose war to other states. Indeed, alliances often act as transmission belts of war.

Americans must decide just how committed they are to Taiwan’s independence, and do so now, rather than in the midst of a crisis. Such a crisis could emerge after an errant Taiwanese missile sinks a Chinese ship, followed by an ultimatum from Beijing to Taipei to begin reunification talks.

Taiwan is a good friend and the Taiwanese people are entitled to decide their own future. Unfortunately, however, the island abides in a bad neighborhood.

It is hard to imagine a greater catastrophe than war between the United States and the PRC. It would be virtually impossible to justify Washington not only threatening but actually following through on its military threats against China if the latter moved against Taiwan.

The United States needs to have a serious conversation with Taipei now, well in advance of the moment when the latter expects the American cavalry to arrive in a crisis. Moreover, Washington should consider a plan to back away militarily in seeking a Chinese commitment to an unhurried peaceful resolution to the issue. Doing so might encourage an economically embattled PRC to trim a military build-up that would be less necessary without the challenge of facing Taiwan backed by America.

As I point out for China-US Focus, “U.S. officials tend to assume that Washington’s commitments will never be challenged. But the Taiwanese mishap reminds us of the inevitable unexpected in international relations, and the terrible costs which often result.”

Is America really prepared to risk Los Angeles for Taipei? If not, Washington must decide what price it is willing to pay to assist Taiwan and then configure its foreign and military policies accordingly.