Recently a Republican college student asked President Joe Biden during a town hall on CNN if he could “vow to protect Taiwan” from China. “Yes,” Biden responded.
Anderson Cooper, who hosted the town hall, followed up with Biden, asking, “Are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?”
“Yes,” Biden said, “we have a commitment to do that.”
There are several problems with this. First, the U.S. does not, in fact, have a commitment to do that. Second, the policy we do have is deliberately ambiguous, requiring that the U.S., China, and Taiwan pretend that certain aspects of reality do not exist. Third, the lifespan of this delicate situation may be drawing to a close, yet the most sensible way of resolving it will always be opposed by America, since it would crack the foundations of the worldwide U.S. empire.
In other words, the whole morass is one of the most insoluble in international relations, which is saying something. It’s also a situation that is genuinely frightening, since it could lead to a large war between China and the U.S., both armed with nuclear weapons.
Taiwan is an island about 100 miles off the coast of China. It’s small, barely larger than Maryland, and just 0.4 percent of China’s size. Its population of 23.5 million is only one-sixtieth of China’s 1.4 billion. So it’s just a small speck in China’s enormous shadow.
Ten thousand years ago, the island that’s now Taiwan was connected to the larger Asian landmass, until sea levels rose and cut it off. About 6,000 years ago, it was settled by someone, probably farmers from the mainland. During the 1600s, both the Dutch and the Spanish attempted to colonize the island, with little success. In 1683, China’s Qing dynasty formally annexed it.
But in 1895, the Qing dynasty was forced to cede Taiwan to Japan after China was defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War. Japan happily engaged in settler colonialism similar to the European genre, encouraging industrialization while carrying out staggering massacres of the island’s Indigenous population. When Imperial Japan announced the hilariously named Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1940, Taiwan was a key part of it.
After the end of World War II and Japan’s total defeat, it was understandable for Chinese leaders and the Chinese population in general to believe that Taiwan was part of China and should be returned to it. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had explicitly declared in 1943 that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa [an alternate name for Taiwan], and the Pescadores shall be restored.”
There was a problem, however: Who was actually in charge of China? Who would get Taiwan back? The Qing dynasty had been overthrown in 1912 by a revolution that established the Republic of China. But within 15 years, an intermittent civil war had broken out between Republic of China forces and Chinese communists. After the two sides put things on hold during World War II, the communists won in 1949, took control of the mainland, and established the People’s Republic of China, or PRC. At that point, in a decision that has reverberated to this day, the ROC forces fled to Taiwan and seized control.
This is where the U.S. comes in. There were intense recriminations from the American right that the weak-kneed secret communists of the Truman administration had “lost China,” suggesting that China had somehow previously belonged to the U.S. The links between the U.S. right and ROC were both political and emotional. For instance, the CIA’s chief of station in Guatemala in 1954, who ran the coup overthrowing the democratically elected government, was close friends with the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, the dictatorial leader of the ROC. The CIA officer’s ancestral home, a former plantation on Maryland’s eastern shore, was decorated with Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s sketches.
The conservatives of that time are the direct ancestors of the neoconservatives of the past several decades. Both sets used high-flown hyperbole — about our love for democracy and the moral need to free suffering foreigners — in the service of hard-right objectives. The U.S. left often cites a 1948 State Department planning document as a sign of American perfidy — look at these insiders opposing people who care about human rights! — when in fact it was written by famed diplomat George Kennan in opposition to the bogus human rights rhetoric of the U.S. right:
We should cease to talk about vague and — for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
Specifically, the document advises that “our objectives for the immediate coming period should be … to liquidate as rapidly as possible our unsound commitments in China and to recover, vis-à-vis that country, a position of detachment and freedom of action.” In other words, realists like Kennan believed that we should not commit ourselves to supporting the ROC forces.
This stalemate on all sides has largely endured since then, with shifting feats of imagination by everyone involved. Chiang Kai-shek pretended for years that he was the true leader of China and was going to marshal forces to take back the mainland. The PRC continues to pretend that Taiwan is part of China — although by this point it clearly is its own nation — while also being willing to continue the status quo as long as Taiwan does not formally declare independence.
Since 1978, we have pretended that Taiwan is not a sovereign nation while also not recognizing China’s claims of sovereignty over the island.
The United Nations, under strong pressure from the U.S., pretended until 1971 that the ROC was the legitimate government of all of China and hence controlled China’s vote on the U.N. Security Council. (That year, the U.N. General Assembly passed the famous Resolution 2758, which recognized the PRC as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations.”)
The United States pretended until 1978 that the ROC was actually China, when we switched and recognized the PRC as the “sole legal government of China.” Since then, we have pretended that Taiwan is not a sovereign nation while also not recognizing China’s claims of sovereignty over the island. While the U.S. abrogated a defense treaty between Taiwan and the U.S. in 1980, Biden is not the first president since then to pretend that maybe one still sort of exists. In 2001, when President George W. Bush was asked whether the U.S. had an obligation to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack, he responded “yes, we do” and that America would do “whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself.”
Biden’s and Bush’s factotums had to walk their statements quickly back, emphasizing that U.S. policy had not changed. This policy, codified in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, simply states that the U.S. will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means [to be] of grave concern to the United States” — which could mean everything or nothing.
The danger now is that political factions in all three countries see an opportunity to force a resolution to this 72-year-old kludge. In the U.S., the successors to the conservatives of the ’50s — found in both the Republican and Democratic parties — are eager for a confrontation with China as part of a new Cold War. As part of this effort, they hope to encourage the sections of the Taiwanese political spectrum that want to formally declare independence, even as Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has pragmatically taken the position that Taiwan is already independent and hence has no need to formally say that it is. For its part, the Chinese government would find any Taiwanese declaration of independence totally unacceptable — “Taiwan independence means war,” China’s defense minister has declared — and much of China’s establishment might push for an invasion of Taiwan, suspecting that the country’s rising power could defeat the corroding power of the U.S.
Whether a Chinese attack on Taiwan will ever come to pass, and what would happen if it did, is anyone’s guess. But the situation is genuinely ominous, especially since there has never been a direct confrontation between the U.S. and another nuclear-armed power. Moreover, Americans seem more enthusiastic about such a war, with a recent poll finding that 52 percent of respondents supported the use of American troops if China invades Taiwan. This number has been slowly rising since the 1980s, when it was 19 percent, and has spiked recently for the first time to a majority.
It’s difficult to know what a legitimate solution to this problem would be. All sides are right to some understandable degree, and all sides are also wrong. The best of the terrible options for the world here is probably for the U.S. to make clear that Taiwan is now a grown-up country and responsible for defending itself.
But this would have its own enormous downside. After decades of autocratic rule by Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan is now a real democracy. It has every reason to fear both an invasion by China and the likely aftermath, especially after seeing what has happened in Hong Kong after its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
So without U.S. military protection, Taiwan would probably build nuclear weapons, something it has the wealth and technology to do quickly and has explored in the past. It is also not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Bizarrely, it ratified the treaty in 1970 when it was China in the eyes of the world, but now that China is China and Taiwan is generally not considered a sovereign state, it couldn’t sign even if it wanted to.
The U.S. would never accede to this, however. Part of being an empire is defending your vassals so they don’t create the means to defend themselves. If Taiwan wanders off on its own, maybe South Korea and Japan would get anxious and do so next, and before long we wouldn’t be running the world.
So after the world’s avoidance of reality for decades, reality is reasserting itself. In the end reality always wins, but this is a situation in which no one can say what that means.
Correction: November 8, 2021
This article has been corrected to clarify that the island that’s now Taiwan was connected 10,000 years ago to the larger Asian landmass, rather than China, which did not then exist.