Going too Far: Bush’s Pledge to Defend Taiwan

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When he pledged to do whatever wasnecessary--even use U.S. military forces--tohelp Taiwan defend itself, President GeorgeW. Bush seemingly replaced Washington'slong-standing policy of "strategic ambiguity"with a policy of strategic clarity.Although the president and his adviserssubsequently retreated from his initialrhetorical stance, both China and Taiwanare likely to believe that Bush's originalstatement accurately reflects U.S. policy.That creates an extremely dangerous situationfor the United States.

Proponents of a U.S. security commitmentto Taiwan casually assume thatBeijing would never challenge it. But that isan assumption based almost entirely onAmerica's experience deterring Sovietaggression against major U.S. allies duringthe Cold War. Proponents ignore otherexamples of the failure of deterrencethroughout history.

In addition to the balance of militaryforces, three factors are especially importantin determining whether deterrence islikely to succeed or fail: the importance ofthe interests at stake to the guarantorpower, the importance of those interests tothe challenging power, and the inclinationof the challenging power to gamble. Allthree factors work against the United Statesin the case of Taiwan.

President Bush was right to approve arobust package of arms sales to Taiwan. Butthat should be the extent of America's riskexposure. A security commitment createsthe prospect of either a humiliating U.S.retreat during a crisis or a catastrophic warwith a nuclear-armed China. Moreover, thelikelihood of a challenge by the People'sRepublic of China to the U.S. commitmentwill grow ever stronger as China's militarycapabilities increase in the coming years.

Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the coeditor of China's Future: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat?