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Last Wednesday marked the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act – the U.S. law shaping de facto diplomatic relations between Washington and Taipei. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen celebrated the occasion by doing what most of her predecessors have often found themselves having to do: exhorting the U.S. to prove that it still “considers the security of Taiwan vital to the defense of democracy.” This comes amid Taipei’s latest push for a tangible demonstration of U.S. commitment to Taiwanese security, this time by approving the sale of more than 60 F-16 fighter jets to the self-ruled island, which China considers a renegade province.

Taiwan hasn’t lacked for attention under the Trump administration. Two months before Donald Trump even took office, he took an infamous phone call from the Taiwanese leader, violating decades of protocol and antagonizing Beijing, but effectively acknowledging that the game of diplomatic make-believe around the issue of Taiwan had become rather silly. In early 2018, the U.S. Congress passed legislation allowing the resumption of high-level official visits between Washington and Taipei that became taboo after 1979. In March, a U.S. warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait for the fifth time in six months.

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Yet, with the balance of power between Taiwan and China shifting dramatically in the latter’s favor, and with Beijing repeatedly declaring its intent to reunify (by force, if necessary), Taipei’s perpetual unease is understandable. After all, Washington designed the Taiwan Relations Act to give itself ample flexibility to reinterpret the law if changes in the broader strategic environment necessitated it. Forty years later, in other words, Taiwan’s fate is still tied firmly to a superpower an ocean away that Taipei suspects could someday conclude that it has bigger fish to fry. But that day won’t arrive anytime soon.

A Diplomatic Dilemma

The Taiwan Relations Act was an inelegant but effective fix to a diplomatic dilemma that started with President Richard Nixon’s landmark trip to China in 1972. At the time, the strategic interests of Beijing and Washington were converging. The U.S. wanted China to stop meddling in Vietnam and, more important, to cooperate against the Soviets. China, which had fought a major battle with the Soviets along the Siberian border a decade earlier and feared additional attacks, was inclined to coordinate with Washington against the Soviets.

But Washington struggled to appease both China and Taiwan, and so the normalization process with Beijing dragged on for another seven years as the U.S. tried to come up with a way to let both sides save face and preserve the cross-strait status quo. Since China was too weak to retake Taiwan by force – and since Beijing was demanding few substantive changes to U.S.-Taiwanese defense or trade ties – Washington was happy to endorse the “one China” policy and shift diplomatic recognition to Beijing. It was easy enough to close its embassy in Taiwan and reopen it as the American Institute in Taiwan, a nongovernmental organization that happened to be manned by U.S. diplomats (and, since 2005, U.S. military personnel). Somewhat more problematic, Washington also had to formally pull out of the 1954 Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which meant that it needed a mechanism to maintain military ties with a government in Taipei it no longer recognized as legitimate. The solution, introduced in Congress less than two months after U.S. diplomatic ties shifted to the mainland, was the Taiwan Relations Act.

The act includes two key passages. Both are notably vague in keeping with the U.S. principle of “strategic ambiguity,” which allows the U.S. to avoid military entanglements not of its choosing. (Formal U.S. mutual defense treaties are likewise imbued with this principle.)

The first passage describes how the U.S. would respond to an attack on Taiwan: “[The U.S. will] consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” This isn’t exactly an ironclad commitment. Every U.S. administration since President Jimmy Carter has sought to augment this clause with various clarifications and promises intended to reassure Taipei, but its ambiguity continues to make Taiwan uneasy.

For the U.S., however, balance and flexibility have remained the priorities. President Ronald Reagan, for example, gave Taipei his “Six Assurances,” promising, among other things, to continue arming Taipei without asking first for permission from Beijing. But he also committed in the “Third Communique” with Beijing to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan. The Clinton administration, focused firmly on boosting economic ties with Beijing, reinterpreted the act to allow for further international isolation of Taiwan, and then sent a carrier group into the Taiwan Strait in 1996, humiliating Beijing, in response to a series of Chinese drills simulating an invasion.

The second key passage in the act is intended, in part, to avoid ever having to decide whether to come to Taiwan’s rescue in the first place: “The United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” Since 1979, the U.S. has sold Taiwan more than $25 billion in arms. Still, what’s sufficient for Taiwanese self-defense is open to interpretation. What Taipei thinks Taiwan needs and what Washington thinks Taiwan needs have, at times, differed widely. Ultimately, it’s up to Congress and the White House to make that determination. And the U.S. inevitably has myriad factors to look at when considering an arms sale to the self-ruled island. The U.S. is wary, for example, of giving Taipei cutting-edge technology because of Taiwan’s extreme vulnerability to Chinese espionage. More broadly, the U.S. is constantly either at odds with Beijing or in need of Chinese cooperation on one issue or another. Reagan’s assurances notwithstanding, the timing and scope of arms sales to Taiwan will inevitably be seen as something of a U.S. bargaining chip with Beijing – especially in an environment where a Chinese invasion appears a pipe dream.

Island Bliss

Taiwan has geography on its side, and it’s a technological powerhouse in its own right. So it doesn’t need the full weight of U.S. power on its side to keep China at bay. (Early on, in fact, the U.S. was worried about giving Taiwan too much, lest Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang try to restart the Chinese civil war.) A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be exceedingly difficult. It doesn’t matter how many troops, arms and supplies the Chinese army can amass on the shores of Fujian province across the Taiwan Strait. To invade Taiwan, China would need the bulk of its forces to get into boats and make an eight-hour voyage into the teeth of Taiwanese firepower coming from well-entrenched, well-supplied onshore positions. They would be funneled into just a handful of acceptable landing zones and met by as many as 2.5 million well-armed troops and thousands of armored fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery. China’s army is almost entirely bereft of experience with amphibious operations in a modern combat environment. Amphibious war requires extraordinarily complex coordination between air, land and sea forces, especially with logistics. An enormous number of things must go right for China to succeed, and the political risks of failure would be sky high.

Still, for Beijing, reunification is a matter of when, not if. Politically, Taiwan is a perpetual scar on the Communist Party’s narratives about the communist victory in the Chinese civil war, and the party routinely nurtures grievances about foreign meddling in Taipei to curry nationalist support for its right to rule. Strategically, so long as the U.S. can pair its superior naval and aerial capabilities with bases and allied support along what’s known as the first island chain – Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia – it poses a threat to block sea lanes that are critical to China’s export-dependent economy. And more than any other island in this chain, Taiwan could be used by a foreign power to threaten the Chinese mainland itself. Retaking Taiwan would blow a hole in the U.S. containment strategy – and put China in a more enviable position to threaten Japan’s southwestern islands.

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Thus, the possibility that the U.S. (along with allies like Japan) may, in fact, intervene on Taiwan’s behalf is, more than anything else, preserving the status quo. And Taiwan does have some reason to question the continued willingness of the U.S. to do so. While China may still be incapable of mounting an invasion with an acceptable chance of success, much less going toe-to-toe with the U.S. in open waters, it is developing the capabilities to make it increasingly costly for the U.S. to go to battle closer to the mainland. Unlike other U.S. allies like the Philippines and Japan, Taiwan is located well within range of China’s growing “fortress fleet” of onshore anti-ship missiles, air power and swarming maritime forces.

But the fact remains: Control of the Pacific is important enough to the U.S. that Taiwan can neither be left to its own devices nor bargained away. Strategic ambiguity cuts both ways; the U.S. doesn’t have to convince Beijing that it will intervene, just that it might and that it can. And for the time being, at least, the U.S. can defend Taiwan without putting its surface ships at risk, much less bringing its own amphibious forces into the fray. U.S. missiles and air power could pick off amphibious forces like sitting ducks and impose severe retaliatory costs on the mainland, while the vastly superior U.S. (and Japanese) submarine fleets thwart a Chinese blockade.

Ultimately, to take Taiwan, China has to think it’s ready to take the entire Western Pacific. China does not think it will be ready for this for decades to come. Until then, it’ll be stuck fruitlessly trying to coerce Taipei back into the fold via economic and political coercion. Thus, Taipei is largely in the same situation it was in 1979: anxious, isolated and comfortably secure.

Phillip Orchard
Phillip Orchard is an analyst at Geopolitical Futures. Prior to joining the company, Mr. Orchard spent nearly six years at Stratfor, working as an editor and writing about East Asian geopolitics. He’s spent more than six years abroad, primarily in Southeast Asia and Latin America, where he’s had formative, immersive experiences with the problems arising from mass political upheaval, civil conflict and human migration. Mr. Orchard holds a master’s degree in Security, Law and Diplomacy from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, where he focused on energy and national security, Chinese foreign policy, intelligence analysis, and institutional pathologies. He also earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He speaks Spanish and some Thai and Lao.