The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

US, Taiwan, and the Myth of an Obligation to Defend

November 25, 2005

Why, oh why do people continue to assert that the US is required in any way to defend Taiwan in the case of an attack by mainland China? The latest example of this fallacy comes from an AFP report from Monday. The article recounts Chinese President Hu Jintao’s restatement of China’s position on Taiwanese independence. At the end of the article we come across this statement:

Despite switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, the United States remains Taiwan’s biggest arms supplier and is bound by US law to help the island defend itself against any attack.

This is wrong. Plain and simple. Why people in the media, as well as some politicians, continue to speak as if the US had a legal obligation to defend the island is beyond me. The language in the Taiwan Relations Act, the document from which individuals claim they draw on for such assertions, does not require direct military assistance. In fact, this isssue is left vague. Given the likelihood that China and Taiwan are likely to stumble into a crisis at any moment I think it pays to clarify exactly what we are obligated to do versus what it is we are likely to do (for reasons that have nothing to do with any legal obligation).

The lone document which outlines the security and diplomatic relationship between the US and Taiwan is of course the Taiwan Relations Act of 19791. As you may know, Congress passed the TRA in 1979 after President Carter officially switched recognition of China away from Taiwan to the mainland. The act covered a number of dimensions of the ‘new’ relationship between the US and the island including matters of defense. Lets look at the relevant passages:

Sec. 3301(b). Policy.
It is the policy of the United States-

  • (1) to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, as well as the people on the China mainland and all other peoples of the Western Pacific area;
  • (2) to declare that peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern;
  • (3) to make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means;
  • (4) to 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;
  • (5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
  • (6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.
  • There is absolutely nothing in the above section which commits the US to physically defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. What the section does include is an obligation to provide Taiwan with arms for defense which we have done as Taiwan’s main source of arms. The rest of the language is vague as to US obligations. For example, subsection b(2) simply notes that we have an interest in peace and stability in the area–how that is to be accomplished is not specified. Subsection b(3) asserts that our diplomatic recognition of mainland China is contingent upon a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. Subsections b(4) and (6) are the closest thing to a committment to defend, but still fall short. B(4) states that attempts to determine the future of the Taiwan issue by other than peaceful means would constitute a grace threat to US interests. Certainly this clause has been interpreted as implying that the US reserves the right to use force if necessary, however the language does not commit the US in any way to do so. Subsection B(6) maintains that the US must “maintain the capacity…to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” Again, strong language that implies the US would resist Chinese force, but no commitment–at least, no legally-binding one.

    Section 3302 specifies how the United States is to implement the policy laid out in the previous section. Here is the text:

    Sec.3302. Implementation of United States policy with regard to Taiwan.

  • (a) Defense articles and services
    In furtherance of the policy set forth in section 3301 of this title, 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.
  • (b) Determination of Taiwan’s defense needs
    The President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan, in accordance with procedures established by law. Such determination of Taiwan’s defense needs shall include review by United States military authorities in connection with recommendations to the President and the Congress.
  • (c) United States response to threats to Taiwan or dangers to United States interests
    The President is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.
  • Looking at subsection (a) we see a reiteration of the US pledge to provide arms to Taiwan (“defense articles”). We also see the ambigous term “defense services”. One could interpret this as actually military assistance, however the language is sufficiently vague to allow for various interpretations–hardly a binging obligation. The rest of the section essentially states that the President in consultation with Congress will determine what Taiwan’s defensive needs are–language that allows for the US position to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. We have seen this flexibility in action, specifically in 1996 when the US deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups to the straights in reaction to Chinese military exercises used to threaten the island.

    Now, looking at the TRA we can see that there is a lack of formal obligation to defense the island. Does that mean we wouldn’t if the Chinese staged an assualt (either an invasion or an exercise of coercive diplomacy)? I would argue no. But that isn’t because we have an obligation to defend, but because many US policymakers have come to see our position on Taiwan as a barometer by which enemies and allies judge US resolve. Over the last 50 years2 we have coupled our stance on Taiwan to measures of our resolve. Whether other states actually view Taiwan as such a symbol is disputable. However, it seems pretty clear that we have come to this conclusion. For that reason, it is plausable to argue that we would, in fact, intervene if Taiwan were attacked. However, that is quite different than claiming we have some kind of treaty obligation to defense. It simply does not exist.

    1The full-text of the Act can be found here

    2For an excellent recounting of the evolution of the relationship between the US, China, and Taiwan see Rein in at the Brink of the Precipice: American Policy Toward Taiwan and US-PRC Relations

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    Petti is Associate Director of Insights and Analytics at Alexion . Previously, he served as Lead Data Scientist in the Decision Sciences group at Maritz Motivation and a Global Data Strategist and Subject Matter Expert for Gallup.