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On U.S. Defense Policy Toward Taiwan, prompted by Vivek Ramaswamy’s comments

I saw recently that Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy had answered a question about the U.S. Navy in which he drew attention to our relationship with Taiwan. Ramaswamy argued that we must defend Taiwan as long as they are the world’s leading semiconductor manufacturer (this article gives some statistics) and we are dependent on them. After the U.S. has achieved “semiconductor independence,” we would not be vulnerable if Taiwan was conquered by China, and therefore we should not defend it.

I will put aside the question of how Ramaswamy proposes to achieve semiconductor independence in four years (suffice it to say, this seems unlikely in my opinion) and focus on the foreign policy aspects of his answer. The U.S. had a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan from 1954 until 1979. Everyone has heard of Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, but it was under the Carter presidency that the United States formally gave recognition to China and moved its embassy from Taipei to Beijing. At the same time, the U.S. terminated diplomatic relations with Taiwan (since China would not accept formal relations with the U.S. under any other conditions) and instead began informal relations.

In spite of this important change, the U.S. has continued sell arms to Taiwan. Our policy toward Taiwan in the case of a Chinese attack is one of “strategic ambiguity,” which I admit is the first time I have ever heard of ambiguity being used as a conscious instrument of policy. (I have seen it used in other cases were states did not wish to be tied down.) The idea is that we are not committed to defending Taiwan against a Chinese attack, but it is possible that we will defend them. There are no U.S. troops stationed in Taiwan that would trigger an immediate state of war with China in the case of an attack (as there is, for example, in South Korea). However, there is considerable sympathy in the U.S. for Taiwanese independence, probably the more so since China is so much larger and stronger (1.4 billion people vs. 23 million; 3.7 million square miles vs. less than 14,000; $33 trillion GDP vs. $1.7 trillion).

Taiwan has been in the news a lot since the Ukraine War started, because it is in a similar situation to the Ukraine. It is next to a much larger country that does not recognize (or fully recognize, in the case of Ukraine) its independence, and it has no formal military alliances to protect it. Like Ukraine, Taiwan has questions about its democracy, although for Taiwan, these questions are mostly in the past. It was essentially a dictatorship until 1991, but now has become a fully-fledged democracy with one of the best reputations in the world. Interestingly, Taiwan also formerly had nuclear weapons, which the U.S. convinced it to give up in the 1970’s and 1980’s — like Ukraine, without any formal promise of U.S. protection in return.

Taiwan continues to exist only because it is an island. If it had a land border with China, let alone a land border anything nearly as long as that between Ukraine and Russia, it is very hard to believe that China would not have overrun it by now. Ukraine is much less powerful than Russia, but the difference in power is orders of magnitude different that between China and Taiwan. Taiwan does have modern military equipment purchased from the U.S., but its army has shrunk by more than half in the past 25 years and it is doubtful that it could withstand a Chinese attack for any length of time. (This article argues that China could have a hard time in a Taiwanese invasion. Granted that nothing is ever certain in war, and in particular China has not recent combat experience by which we can judge the quality of its army, I would bet against Taiwan. There best hope would be to hold out for several weeks until the U.S. could intervene. The U.S. navy could make it difficult for the Chinese to supply their troops, but at that point we’re talking about a potential nuclear war.)

My heart lies with the Taiwanese. My gut is that the U.S. should have an unambiguous defensive alliance with Taiwan that would rule out a Chinese attack. China, which takes a notoriously long-term view of world politics, is probably not in a hurry to conquer Taiwan. The strategic balance in China’s favour has grown consistently over the last 50 years, and there is reason to suppose it will continue to grow. Unless there are U.S. troops stationed on the island, China can afford to wait until the U.S. is responding to a crisis elsewhere to launch its attack and hope to be done with it before America can respond effectively.

Should we care? I am sympathetic to any people that wishes to be independent, and the people of Taiwanese have established that they have the capacity for self-governance and the desire to exercise it. The United States cannot, unfortunately, extend a promise of mutual defense to every free people in the world. We don’t have the resources, and it is doubtful if we would have the political will to commit to a bloody conflict even if we wanted to. Our relations with Taiwan since World War II put us in a position of obligation stronger than that with many other nations, but certainly not to where we would be obligated to defend them in a war. On the other hand, limiting our relationship to Taiwan to one of needing their semiconductors is, in my opinion, a reductive and materialist approach that does not suit us.

I would like to see a stronger U.S. relationship with Taiwan. We should work to get Taiwan admitted to the United Nations, something that has come up in the past couple of decades but which we haven’t actively supported. If Taiwan were recognized by that body, it would be more difficult for China to attack it with impunity, and it would open the door to more robust responses in the case of invasion. I don’t think that guaranteeing Taiwan’s security is the best plan, but we could at least make it clear that we support them and would respond with all possible measures short of war in case of an invasion, and with military measures if we thought it was appropriate. Also, as much as I don’t like the idea of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, I have a hard time feeling that it is fair for us to keep Taiwan from maintaining a nuclear weapons program when their main enemy is a major nuclear power — and, of course, we are the biggest nuclear power in the world. Even a small nuclear weapons program in Taiwan would be a major deterrent to Chinese aggression. I haven’t studied the matter in depth, but I think the prima facie case for letting Taiwan maintain a nuclear arsenal (at least of a moderate size) is very strong.

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