By (Clark) Aoqi Wu, March 13, 2023
Taiwan is the most likely trigger point for a military conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Beijing insists that there is only “one China” in the world, that “Taiwan has been an integral part of China’s territory since ancient times,” and that the political separation of the island from the mainland is due to the United States’ attempts to contain China (using Taiwan “as a pawn”) (Xinhua 2022). The rising economic power of China and the tilting of the military balance in the Taiwan Strait in its favor have fueled the expansionist ambitions of Chinese Communist Party leaders. However, most Taiwanese insist that the Republic of China on Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China are two separate countries on equal footing (ESC 2022a; Chen 2021).
Although denying it on the surface, Beijing realizes that that the Taiwanese have developed a political and historical identity different from that of the mainland Chinese, and that Taiwanese living under a democratic system are unlikely to accept the Chinese Communist Party’s so-called “one country, two systems” approach, after witnessing what happened to Hong Kong. As a result, it is believed that Chinese leaders are increasingly inclined to use violence to force Taiwan to join the People’s Republic. While few in official Washington would oppose continued US economic support for or arms sales to Taiwan, wide disagreement remains over whether the US should explicitly commit to defending Taiwan, and ultimately whether it should send troops directly to war in the event of a Chinese military invasion (Foreign Affairs 2022).
For the past several decades, US policy toward Beijing has fundamentally limited the range of options for policy toward Taiwan, just as Russia was the most critical factor in determining US policy toward Ukraine until the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 (Vindman 2022). Many policymakers in Washington have a deeply ingrained view of international relations, shaped by the international political landscape and historical memories of an earlier era. This way of looking at the world, which comes from a “unipolar moment,” is more or less likely to ignore the agency of one’s allies and adversaries. As Washington policymakers continue to debate Taiwan policy through the lens of US-China relations, there is little discussion about the sentiment and debates among the Taiwanese public, which would significantly affect the efficacy of any US policy.
This article seeks to shed some light on the Taiwanese sentiment toward the United States, specifically the mistrust of the United States, which has been largely overlooked in Washington’s policy debates. The intricate history of the United States and Taiwan suggests that a new and effective US policy toward Taiwan should include both credible military deterrence of China and a clear reassurance for Taiwan.
Orphan of Asia
“The orphan of Asia is crying in the wind, nobody wants to play a fair game with you; everyone wants to grab your beloved toys, my dear child, why are you crying” (Kan 2018). Taiwan’s legendary singer-songwriter Lo Ta-yu (considered the “Bob Dylan of Taiwan”), wrote the sad lyrics of the song entitled “The Orphan of Asia” in 1983. It resonated profoundly among the Taiwanese as they struggled for national identity under naked great power politics (as they still do), against the “White Terror” of the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Nationalist Party (better known as the KMT) and the military threat of “Red China”—the People’s Republic. The song was born in the context of a global geopolitical shift that began in the 1970s. Under the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party, China—once the most aggressive opponent of the United States in East Asia—surprisingly became a de facto ally of the United States against the Soviet Union and began to modernize with the help of US technology and funding. The United States’ once close ally, Taiwan, became a “sacrifice” of this new friendship (Tucker 2005). The Carter administration repealed the Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan. Fortunately for Taiwan, the Taiwan Relations Act passed under congressional pressure, guaranteeing the United States’ substantive relations with Taiwan until this day, although the relationship is defined as “unofficial” (Fact Sheet 2022).
This dramatic geopolitical shift dates to Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in July 1971, which has become a legend in diplomatic history. The Nixon administration’s primary objective at the time was to get the United States out of Vietnam by accommodating China and to restrain the aggressiveness of the Chinese Communists in Asia, thereby putting pressure on the Soviet Union by playing the “China card” (Burr 2002; Richard Nixon Foundation 2016). Similarly, Beijing’s tyrant Mao Zedong played the “American card” to balance the Soviet threat, but also tried to get the United States to reduce its support for Taiwan, which was one of the points of contention during the first meeting between Kissinger and Premier Zhou Enlai on July 9, 1971 (Document 34 1971; Yang and Xia 2010). In Kissinger’s view, Taiwan is not a strategically important asset for the United States, but more of a liability. In his communications with the Chinese Communists, Kissinger did not deny the other side’s claim that that there are no “two Chinas,” or “one China, one Taiwan,” and assured “we will do nothing to encourage or support the movement towards an independent Taiwan” (Document 34 1971; Memorandum 1972). In October 1976, Kissinger, then Secretary of State, said in a discussion at an internal State Department meeting that “[t]he ideal situation would be if Taiwan decided to rejoin Peking. If they worked out something between themselves; from our point of view this would be absolutely the ideal situation” (Memorandum 1976).
Policy makers in Washington often make bad judgments about the direction of history not because of the lack of intelligence, but because of a lack of imagination. It is unlikely that Nixon and Kissinger, who were talking to Mao and Zhou at the time, could have imagined that Taiwan, decades later, would remain independent as an economically advanced, diverse, and prosperous democracy, or that most Taiwanese would no longer consider themselves Chinese (ESC 2022b). Notably, Kissinger has never in his life visited Taiwan.
While Nixon’s trip to China was a great geopolitical success overall, it also planted seeds of mistrust in the hearts of America’s East Asian allies. In the 1970s, both South Korea and Taiwan, fearing being abandoned by the United States, began secretly developing nuclear weapons to establish an independent nuclear deterrent against China and North Korea (Burr 2019; Wilson Center Digital Archive 2022). But they were eventually forced to give up the projects under US pressure. These historical memories continue to cast a shadow over relations between the United States and its East Asian allies.
The roots of Taiwan’s mistrust of the United States
Since the Cold War, US military protection and assistance to Taiwan has successfully deterred China from attempting a military invasion of Taiwan. Few would deny that without the United States, Taiwan would not be as prosperous and successful as it is today. Even so, there is still a great deal of mistrust of the United States within the island. This mistrust is exploited by pro-China forces in Taiwan and amplified by disinformation efforts (Shan 2023). Because of a fraught and complicated history between the United States and the KMT during the leadership of dictators Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo, the KMT developed a deep mistrust of US intentions, a mistrust so great that today the KMT is willing to hedge its bets between the United States and China, rather than join the US camp (Ma 2020).
KMT senior leader Ma Ying-jeou, who served as president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) from 2008-2016, drew an analogy between Taiwan and Ukraine after the 2022 Russian invasion, saying that in the event of a Chinese invasion, the United States would not send in the troops but would only provide weapons and intelligence (Liberty Times 2022). Ma, a graduate of Harvard Law School, also said in a speech in 2018 that his South Vietnamese classmate once cautioned him to “never trust Americans” (Guo 2018). The source of KMT leaders’ mistrust of the United States is in part a legacy of historical US policy toward China and Taiwan (which naturally includes historical memories of Nixon and Kissinger). The roots can be traced back to the KMT’s defeat in the Chinese civil war and its exile to Taiwan. The KMT’s perception is that the United States had not done its best to support the KMT in the civil war, which was why the KMT lost to the Soviet-backed Chinese Communist Party, and that later the Truman administration nearly sold out Taiwan to the communists again after the KMT fled to Taiwan.
These historical memories are not delusional. Indeed, in the 1940s, the Roosevelt and Truman administrations misjudged the political situation in China, especially the nature and intentions of the Chinese Communist Party (Tsou 1963; Sheng 1997). First, at the Yalta Conference in 1945, President Roosevelt acquiesced to the Soviet advance into Manchuria to bring it into the Soviet sphere of influence, in exchange for a Soviet attack on Japan to reduce US military casualties. Moreover, US policymakers in Washington and diplomats in China at the time were misled by the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda and did not realize that Chinese communists were still subordinate to Stalin’s leadership (Bernstein 2014; Sheng 1997; Davis 2012). In contrast, Stalin ensured that the Chinese communists remained in his orbit: after the Cold War confrontation in Europe took shape, to maintain its sphere of influence in East Asia, the Soviet Union began handing over Manchuria to the Chinese communists and providing large amounts of military supplies, which set the stage for the Chinese communists’ victory in the civil war (Westad 2003; Bernstein 2014).
The Chinese Communist Party’s continued advance in the civil war and the increasingly apparent cooperation between it and the Soviet Union did not change the judgment of the “China hands” in the Truman administration, which still considered Chinese communist leaders to be nationalists rather than genuine communists and believed the Chinese would not necessarily fall into the Soviet camp. Therefore, the Truman administration did not actively provide military assistance to the KMT but prioritized avoiding direct involvement in the Chinese civil war (Lin 2016).
Just after the KMT retreated to Taiwan, Secretary of State Dean Acheson quickly issued the China White Paper in August 1949 explaining the failure of US policy toward China (Slyke 1967). In it, he placed the blame for communist control of mainland China squarely on the corruption and incompetence of the KMT and its poor military command, rather than on the lame aid from the United States. He stressed that whatever the United States did, it would hardly have changed the outcome of the Chinese civil war. Many civilian policymakers in Washington, represented by Acheson, were still under the illusion that Mao would follow the example of Tito in Yugoslavia. They pinned their hopes on the fact that nationalist sentiments in China would lead to complications in Sino-Soviet relations; they even considered rapprochement with the Chinese Communist Party to create conditions that would make Mao the Tito of Asia. To this end, Acheson even considered “acquiescing” to the use of force by the Chinese communists to “liberate” Taiwan (Memorandum 1949a; Memorandum 1949b; Lin 2016).
It was not until the signing of Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance in February 1950 that the Truman administration began to reassess its policy toward China and the importance of Taiwan. It was only the outbreak of the Korean War that completely reversed the US policy of not using force to defend Taiwan and led to a resumption of and increase in military assistance to the KMT (Memorandum 1950). The US military intervention gave the KMT regime a chance to save itself and for Taiwan to fend off communist rule. Based on its own efforts and increasing US aid, the nationalist forces started to consolidate power in Taiwan after 1950 (Lin 2016).
The humiliating experience of retreating to Taiwan and the historical memory of being “betrayed” by the Nixon and Carter administrations in the 1970s shaped the KMT’s (and many Taiwanese’s) perception of US policy and intentions. They believe that US policy toward Taiwan has always been based on realist consideration of American national interests (focusing on military and economic gains and losses rather than ideological interests or idealistic values), and that Taiwan is far less important than mainland China in Washington’s eyes. Whether the United States should treat Taiwan as a sovereign and independent nation (as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton argue) or relegates it to a mere autonomous political entity (as President Obama has expressed it) depends on what policymakers in Washington believe would maximize US freedom of action in East Asia (Baker and Switzer 2022; Blanchard 2022; Editorial 2016). Thus, the most common (and sometimes excessive) fear of the KMT is that Taiwan will be easily reduced to a pawn to be sacrificed on the Sino-US negotiating table (Su 2020).
The importance of reassuring Taiwan
In light of the US-China rivalry, in order to keep Taiwan in the US camp while also avoiding a war with China, Washington must deal with two classic propositions in international politics. The first is how to create a credible deterrentto the People’s Republic, showing that Taiwan could defeat a Chinese invasion with the help of the United States or that even if China could eventually prevail, the cost would be unreasonably high. The second imperative: Providing Taiwan with reassurance to overcome the security dilemma that hangs over the US-Taiwan alliance: As the weaker party in the alliance, Taiwan has two main fears about US intentions—that it will be abandoned to Chinese control or entrapped in a ruinous war (Snyder 1984). Therefore, Washington needs to convince Taiwan that the United States will not abandon Taiwan in the face of the China’s growing military and economic capabilities on the one hand, and it will not deliberately involve Taiwan in a deadly military conflict with China to weaken China in global competition on the other. In the US foreign policy community, most of the discussion focuses on how to deter China from attacking Taiwan; few are articulating the importance of reassuring Taiwan (Foreign Affairs 2022).
For several historical and practical reasons, mistrust of the United States remains relatively strong among the Taiwanese public. During the Obama administration, Taiwan’s main concern was abandonment, which stemmed from the “Say Goodbye to Taiwan” narrative that emerged in US policy and academic circles at the time (Mearsheimer 2014). Some scholars and policy experts called for the United States to reduce or even drop its security commitments to Taiwan to reconcile with China (Gilley 2010; KANE 2011; Glaser 2011, 2015). Their claim rests on three core arguments: Taiwan is the most likely trigger for war between the United States and China; 2) US military defense of Taiwan is increasingly costly given China’s rapid growth in military and economic power; and 3) China’s intentions are limited and US appeasement on Taiwan can be exchanged for China’s cooperation on other global issues.
Although the Obama administration did not substantially change US policy toward Taiwan, this rhetoric of abandoning Taiwan, which was being openly discussed in the policy community, has undoubtedly brought back to the minds of Taiwanese the historical memories of being betrayed by Washington during the Nixon and Carter eras (Chang, Mouritzen, & Gilley 2010; Lee, Paal, & Glaser 2011).
As the US grand strategy toward China gradually shifted from engagement to containment (in all but name) during the Trump administration, the Taiwanese are increasingly concerned about being entrapped. Rather than allaying their concerns, increased US economic and military support for Taiwan has caused some Taiwanese security experts (especially those associated with the KMT) to think that US policymakers have ulterior motives (Situation Room 2023; Zhu 2023). Especially after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, many KMT politicians believed that the real strategic intent of the United States is to “Ukraine-ize” Taiwan—that is, to provoke a military conflict in Taiwan, so China is caught in the same quagmire of war that Russia now has encountered in Ukraine (Situation Room 2023; Zhu 2023; Liu 2023).
Without sacrificing its own sons and daughters, Washington could use Taiwan as a “graveyard of empire” to consume China ’s enormous economic and military resources simply by selling weapons and providing military and economic assistance. According to this view, the US national security establishment, therefore, whether in symbolic diplomatic moves (such as then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan), stepping up arms sales, or advising on Taiwan’s defense strategy, is trying to “weaponize” Taiwan by provoking China to attack it. Such skepticism is not only popular among the KMT but has also influenced the interpretation of the war in Ukraine and US foreign policy in Taiwan in general.
The latest results (interviews conducted December 9-14, 2022) of a long-term survey—the Taiwan National Security Studies (2002-2022)—by a program at Duke University show that the majority of respondents believe that the United States would only provide weapons and not directly send in US troops to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack (TNSS 2022). In response to the question “If a Taiwanese declaration of independence were to result in an attack from mainland China, what do you think the United States would do?” a plurality chose “To provide weapons only” (44.4 percent). Other responses, followed in order, were: “To deploy troops to help Taiwan” (19.3 percent); “To provide non-military assistance only” (13 percent), and “Do nothing” (12.9 percent). The next question was “If mainland China were to deviate from the status quo by attacking Taiwan, what do you think the United States will do?” “To provide weapons only” still accounted for the largest proportion of the four answers (34.7 perecent), but more respondents thought the United States would “deploy troops to help Taiwan” (33.8 percent) in this scenario.
A previous survey, conducted in October 2020, showed more belief in direct American involvement (TNSS 2020). More than 53 percent (will do: 31.9 percent; definitely will do: 21.3 percent) of the respondents believed that the United States would deploy troops to help Taiwan even if “Taiwan declared independence and then China attacked Taiwan.” “If Taiwan maintains the status quo (does not declare independence) but Mainland China still attacks Taiwan,” 67.2 percent (will do: 32.5 percent; definitely will do: 34.7 percent) said the United States would send troops to defend Taiwan.
The recent decrease of respondents who believe that the United States would send troops to defend Taiwan in the two scenarios of cross-strait military conflict (provoked and unprovoked) suggests that the war in Ukraine has affected Taiwanese confidence in US defense reassurance. It is important to note that President Biden has broken the policy of “strategic ambiguity” four times by declaring that if China attacks Taiwan, the United States will deploy troops directly to defend Taiwan (Cooper 2022). And, in the view of most US security experts, Taiwan’s economic and geopolitical importance are much higher than Ukraine’s, therefore the United States deserves to pay more to avoid Taiwan’s control by China.
Yet Washington has done little to change people’s perceptions about direct US involvement. Ukraine is a sovereign country with formal diplomatic relations with the United States and European Union and has chosen to join the Western camp against Putin’s Russia. Even so, Washington wouldn’t send troops and is wary of escalating the war further to involve NATO. It is natural, then, for ordinary Taiwanese to wonder if the United States would really go to war with China, which is far more powerful than Russia, over Taiwan. Taiwanese are sensitive enough to know that the Taiwan’s status in the international community is not as good as Ukraine’s, that its status as a sovereign state is still in dispute, and that it is not recognized diplomatically by most countries in the world, including the United States.
How to reassure Taiwan and deter China
There is a logical solution for addressing Taiwan’s fears of abandonment and entrapment: Washington needs to clarify its security commitments to Taiwan, replacing “strategic ambiguity” with “strategic clarity,” loudly and clearly.
There is a paradox in the policy of “strategic ambiguity” that has characterized US policy toward Taiwan in past decades: As long as Taiwan can live with the status quo of an undetermined sovereign status, the United States may defend it; but if the Taiwanese want to pursue full statehood and gain international recognition, the United States may abandon its security commitment to Taiwan. This counterintuitive policy stance did work for quite some time, but it goes against the common sense of the citizens of a democracy and may sound very unconvincing for most of the American public. After all, the United States as a nation was born out of a revolution, with self-determination as a major political principle. This policy stance is also incompatible with the sovereign norms of the international community. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is considered unacceptable by most countries because such territorial conquest is a blatant violation of the international norms that have been progressively established since World War II (Fazal 2022).If the conflict in the Taiwan Strait is defined by China as a continuation of Chinese civil war—that is, Taiwan is not considered a free and independent nation—then international assistance to Taiwan would stand on shaky ground.
This paradox makes the United States’ “strategic ambiguity” unsustainable. Washington needs to replace rhetorical vacillation with a clear statement about the circumstances under which it would be willing to stand in the way of Beijing’s military conquest of Taiwan. There are a few options Washington can consider; though controversial, they address some of the questions that cannot be avoided.
First, Washington may consider sending a signal to both Beijing and Taipei by stationing troops in Taiwan. While a small deployment of troops may not be enough to deter Beijing from invading, it could go a considerable way toward reassuring Taiwanese that the United States will not abandon them (Reiter and Poast 2021). It would also mean reassuring the Taiwanese that the United States would not easily provoke China into making Taiwan a battleground, as that would mean putting the US forces deployed in Taiwan at risk.
Washington could also gradually upgrade its diplomatic treatment of Taiwan, moving toward the eventual recognition of the Republic of China (Taiwan) as a sovereign nation. One of the key takeaways from the war in Ukraine is that a coherent national identity is essential to defending the country’s independence and freedom (Grygiel 2022). Ukrainians are not Russians; Ukrainians are defending their own unique way of life and community. The same is true of the Taiwanese who face the China threat. Taiwan is unique in that it has been shaped by three successive and divergent empires through its history (the pre-modern Qing Empire, Japan with its modern colonial empire, and the United States with its post-World War II “informal empire”). A Taiwanese nationalism with a common vision among its population forged from these complex histories, in confrontation with the nationalism of China’s “Grand Unification,” is organically emerging and cannot be overlooked.
It goes without saying that the cost of a change in US policy toward Taiwan would be extremely high.
The debate about whether the United States should go to war with China over Taiwan is likely to move from a small-circle of policy experts to the general American public. In the short term, it will be difficult to reach a consensus in American public opinion. But avoiding hard choices will only make the US dilemma in the Taiwan Strait more dangerous.
History shows that the greatest danger can arise when policymakers in Washington do not prepare American society, psychologically as well as physically, for a potential conflict. Just consider the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s speech at the National Press Club on January 12, 1950, was one of the most controversial statements of US policy in the early history of the Cold War. In it, he explicitly excluded South Korea and Taiwan from the US “defense perimeter” in the Asia-Pacific region (Acheson 1950). This speech, along with intelligence obtained by the Soviet Union, went some way toward convincing Stalin that the United States would not intervene militarily on the Korean peninsula, which led him to approve the North Korean plan of attack (Shen 2013).When the war broke out, however, the Truman administration chose to intervene, surprising its enemies and thereby greatly deepening the militarization of containment, and ultimately the American public had to pay perhaps more than necessary economic and social costs of this decades-long confrontation with the Soviet Union (Jervis 1980). Washington should learn from this episode of failed deterrence. There is no pain-free solution for Washington anymore if it hopes to dissuade Beijing from taking military action against Taiwan.
The author gives special thanks to the Hoover Institution Workshop on Authoritarianism and Democratic Breakdown, the Clements Center Summer Seminar in History and Statecraft, and the Summer Workshop on the Analysis of Military Operations and Strategy (sponsored by Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies).
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Keywords: China, Cold War, Kissinger, Taiwan, US-China Relations, United States, alliance politics, deterrence, reassurance, strategic ambiguity
Topics: Special Topics