I first visited Taiwan in 1974. It was one of numerous trips I made to the tiny tobacco-leaf-shaped country 100 miles off the coast of mainland China during my career as a Chicago Tribune foreign correspondent.
In the mid-1970s, Taiwan was a nervous place. It was caught in a diplomatic twilight zone between the United States and the communist Peoples’ Republic of China.
What would the United States do if China attacked Taiwan?
Would the U.S. come to Taiwan’s defense?
That diplomatic vagueness changed in 1979 with the “Taiwan Relations Act.” With that act, Washington explicitly recognized the island as a part of China. It essentially declared Taiwan a “non-country” by supporting the “one China, two systems” policy.
Since then, a calculated ambiguity has dominated U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
In essence, that ambiguity says Washington won’t support the island’s independence so long as China refrains from seizing it by force.
So, despite President Biden’s recent gaffes in which he declared twice that the U.S. would defend Taiwan should China attack, he was wrong. Both times, the White House had to walk back Biden’s erroneous comments, admitting that no such formal obligation exists.
The fact is, the United States has no mutual defense treaty with Taiwan.
“The president has no legal authority to repel a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and deter an all-out war,” noted Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a Navy veteran and vice-chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
So, to answer the question contained in the title of this post, the answer is “No! “America will not fight to defend Taiwan!”
The Taiwanese government knows this and the Communist dictatorship of Xi Jinping also knows it.
The question on everybody’s mind now is what will China do next? For the past few weeks, Beijing has watched the Russian army invade Ukraine, albeit none too successfully. There is little doubt that should China decide to do so, it could overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses and take the island nation of 24 million in a matter of a couple of weeks, if not days.
But that would make China just as much of a pariah nation as Russia is since its ruthless brutalization of the Ukrainian people.
It would pit China against the rest of Asia, including nations such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, and India, just to name a few—a prospect that would severely damage its economy and isolate it at a time when it is attempting to displace the United States as the world’s leading economy.
It was natural for the world to wonder about Taiwan’s future in light of Vladimir Putin’s all-out war against Ukraine. But Ukraine and Taiwan are like comparing apples and mangoes. The same can be said for Russia and China. The political and economic calculus is substantially different.
Under strongman Xi, China is already dealing with a global backlash because of its predatory trade practices that include technology thievery and cyber-espionage. Then, there is the gruesome ethnic cleansing of its Uyghur minority, not to mention its smothering of dissent and democracy in Hong Kong.
Unlike Russia, China sees itself as a major player on the global diplomatic and economic stage. Putin, on the other hand, couldn’t care less what the world thinks of him as he attempts to reassemble the fragmented pieces of the old Soviet Union.
In terms of economic might, China has a GDP of $13.6 trillion—second in the world after the U.S.
Russia meanwhile ranks 11th with a GDP of $1.7 trillion and now that is at risk of declining since the global economic sanctions against Russia were imposed.
The sad fact is this: If China wants Taiwan it can take it whenever it wants with total military impunity from the rest of the world.
But if Taiwan is forcibly adsorbed by mainland China, the economic sanctions, the inevitable dissolution of China’s access to international markets, the decline of its expanding manufacturing sector, and the falloff of its valuable tourism market, which accounts for almost 12 percent of its GDP, would be devastating.
A demoralizing recession would surely follow and Xi’s days as “dictator for life” would most certainly be numbered.
Dictators can rule via oppression and fear only as long as the populace sees some benefit in their subjugation.
I firmly suspect Vladimir Putin is about to discover that fact.