When Do Americans Give Up?

by Caroline Sutton

Commanding General US Central Command Kenneth F. McKenzie tours an evacuation control center at Hamid Karzai International Airport, August 17, 2021.

As Air Force planes flew out of Kabul leaving the Afghans that the US had promised to resettle behind, American allies from Oslo to Abu Dhabi took notice. Would the United States stand up and fight with them if they were attacked, and if not, what should they do to assure their own security? 

Nowhere is the American security guarantee more coveted than Taiwan—a democratic, self-governing country off the Chinese mainland, which the Chinese Communist Party has vowed to “reunify” with the mainland. The United States has promised to defend Taiwan from any unprovoked attack by the People’s Republic but has deliberately kept the precise assurance vague to prevent Taiwan officially declaring independence, an act that the CCP has said would result in war. The security guarantee has given the United States considerable sway over Taiwanese foreign policy, and the threat of its withdrawal even caused the Taiwanese government to abandon its nuclear weapons program

With no world government that can force the United States to keep its commitments to Taiwan, the Taiwanese government has to consider what it expects America to do in a crisis and respond accordingly. Will it keep its promises and come to its allies’ aid, or will it cut and run?

This makes America’s conduct in Afghanistan important. Taiwan is looking to how America has behaved with its other allies to see if it can be trusted. 

Finding a way to communicate America’s resolve to defend Taiwan in the face of America’s actions in Afghanistan will be one of the most vexing political communications problems the United States has faced in decades. With that in mind, how has the United States assured Taiwan in the past, and how does Taiwan act when it becomes nervous?

Why did the US make security promises to Taiwan in the first place?

Today, Taiwan is valuable to the United States for three reasons. First and foremost, safeguarding the island is vital to controlling the South China Sea and the shortest transit routes from the Indian Ocean to South Korea and Japan. Second, its trade relationship with the US as America’s ninth largest trading partner and a high-tech exporter make Taiwan an important country for the American economy. Last, an independent Taiwan is a threat to the CCP’s legitimacy, as it provides an alternative path to “rejuvenation” outside of an authoritarian regime. But shortly after nationalist forces retreated to the island after losing the Chinese Civil War to the Communists, Washington failed to see Taiwan’s strategic value

American leaders initially doubted that the Communists would use military force, and in January of 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson outlined America’s security perimeter in the region without mentioning South Korea or Taiwan. Communist leaders interpreted the speech to mean that the US would not defend these countries, and Pyongyang invaded South Korea in June of 1950. It was only in this aggressive environment where the US organized a UN Security Council resolution to authorize a multilateral use of force to defend South Korea. At the same time, President Truman deployed the Seventh Fleet to deter mainland China from attacking Taiwan. Taiwan has been under American protection ever since. 

 US Air Force Lockheed F-104A-20-LO Starfighter (s/n 56-0791) of the 83rd Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Taoyuan Air Base, Taiwan, September 15, 1958. National Museum of the US Air Force

In 1954, the US and the Republic of China—as Taiwan is formally known—signed a mutual defense treaty that obligated the US to intervene should Taiwan be attacked. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter terminated this treaty in order to establish stronger relations with the People’s Republic of China and splinter their relations with the Soviet Union. It was replaced by the Taiwan Relations Act, which is ambiguous regarding the United States’ responsibility to defend Taiwan. Many Taiwanese remember that American security assistance is dependent on the country’s larger strategic priorities.  

Why do security assurances toward Taiwan matter?

In 2021, there is no formal security treaty between Taiwan and the US like exists between, for example, the United States and Japan. Therefore, American public opinion on Taiwan and the US government’s willingness to be involved in conflicts abroad are even more important in Taiwan than they are with other allies. 

US soldiers stand security at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, August 15, 2021

If American actions in Afghanistan signal to the Taiwanese that the US would not be willing to enter into war with mainland China in order to preserve the island nation, then they will look to other means to assure their safety. Throughout the late 20th century Taiwan attempted to arm itself with a nuclear weapon and only gave up their nuclear weapons program due to American pressure. Taiwan is considered a “latent nuclear power,” meaning that it possesses most or all of the technologies and expertise to develop a nuclear weapon. Right now, China has been content to threaten the island but has not actually marshalled the forces needed for an attack, confident that as its military and economic might grows, it will be eventually able to retake the island. A Taiwanese nuclear weapon would foreclose this possibility. As a result, China will have every incentive to attack before the Taiwanese complete the development of their bomb. The only way to avoid war in this scenario is for the United States to pledge to defend Taiwan, making the cost of attacking the island prohibitive for the CCP and Taiwan’s desire to acquire a nuclear weapon moot. The question is, will the Taiwanese trust the Americans? 

From a historical view, the Taiwanese might judge they have little to worry about. Each time Taiwan has faced a threat of open conflict, such as during the Korean War and the first, second, and third Taiwan Strait Crises, the United States has come to its aid—even when there was a threat of escalation to nuclear warfare. However, the memory of an end to the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty still lingers.

Small chips and big stakes

America’s folly in Afghanistan arrived at a poor time to assure Taiwan of its strategic importance to the US. In June, the US Senate passed a bill that would award $52 billion to fund the research and manufacturing of semiconductors. Semiconductors are valuable chips found in smartphones, computers, and electronic weapons. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. dominates global semiconductor production, and its importance to the global economy has incentivized both China and the US to ensure the island remains peaceful. If the US will soon have the capacity to produce chips domestically, then Taiwan’s strategic importance will lower and its leaders may believe the US will be less likely to defend Taiwan. 

Clearly, Taiwan is a much more valuable geostrategic asset for the US than Afghanistan was. It is more likely than not that the US would defend Taiwan if mainland China launched an attack. But because there is no formal defense treaty between the US and Taiwan, American willingness to fight is a huge factor in Taiwan’s security. The US must reassure Taiwan after a disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, or risk coming closer to war in the Asia-Pacific. 

Caroline Sutton writes on on political communication, technology, and public diplomacy. She currently resides in Wilmington, North Carolina and is a graduate of the MSc Program in Politics and Communication at the London School of Economics.

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