President Joe Biden propelled Taiwan back into the headlines last week when, speaking in Tokyo, he publicly declared his intention to help defend it from a Chinese attack.
In the decade since Xi Jinping rose to power as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, reports and analyses have been dominated by the prospect of the assertive Chinese leader taking his country to war with Taiwan, and how the West in general and the United States, in particular, might respond. Less is said about why America would want to do so.
The U.S.-Taiwan relationship is a contemporary one, differing in fundamental ways before and after World War II. For half a century until 1945, the island was a Japanese colony known to Americans as Formosa.
In summer 1944, as the Allies advanced across the Pacific, Formosa became a legitimate military target and was considered for an amphibious assault. But General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt to scrap Operation Causeway because of its operational challenges, history books show.
After the war, in 1949, Mao Zedong’s communist forces overran the mainland and declared the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing, while Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army retreated to Taiwan, where the Republic of China (ROC) government and its capital, Taipei, remain today.
For the first three decades of the Cold War, the United States and the ROC on Taiwan maintained diplomatic relations; they even signed a mutual defense pact to deter the PRC’s advance across the Taiwan Strait.
Taipei’s fortunes would change in the 1970s, first with the loss of the “China” seat at the United Nations in 1971, despite strong American lobbying and efforts to find a middle ground; then with the loss of Washington as an ally altogether in 1979, as President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger led a rapprochement with Beijing to counter the Soviet Union.
For 43 years, the United States has only recognized one China—seated in Beijing—and has maintained officially unofficial relations with Taipei, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), a piece of legislation supported by then-Senator Biden in 1979 and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.
The United States doesn’t formally recognize Taiwan as a country, nor does it accept Beijing’s claim that the island is part of China. Officially, Washington takes no position on sovereignty over Taiwan, and its long-held, though seldom articulated, position is that Taiwan’s postwar status, having been “renounced” by Japan, remains undetermined.
The TRA is known as the principal instrument through which the United States conducts legal arms sales to Taiwan, an ongoing commitment to the island’s self-defense against China, to ensure its future is determined by peaceful means “consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan,” according to Washington.
The law also requires that the United States maintain its own “capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of Taiwan,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken emphasized in the Biden administration’s China policy speech last week.
Its provisions don’t include a concrete guarantee that the United States will come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of a cross-strait conflict in the future, although many believe American forces would be involved to some degree.
To be sure, there are few disputed territories in the world that have achieved Taiwan’s modern-day status. Its economy is among the 25 largest in the world; the EU is its largest foreign investor; and despite having no formal relations with its strongest international backer, U.S.-Taiwan ties are probably the closest they’ve ever been. Last year, Taiwan moved up one place to become America’s eighth-largest trading partner.
Amid rising tensions across the Taiwan Strait and frictions between Beijing and Washington, military analysts are quick to point out the geostrategic importance of Taiwan to the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia.
Taiwan sits in the center of the first island chain, which China views as a central part of U.S. strategy to contain Chinese military projection. To the south of the island is the Bashi Channel, part of the Luzon Strait, one of the few international waterways through which China’s naval forces can safely thread the island chain and reach the expansive Western Pacific—and directly threaten U.S. territories including Guam, Hawaii and the continental United States.
Since the Cold War, military planners in the United States have understood the geostrategic significance of a Western-leaning or at least neutral Taiwan. A failure to deter China from taking Taiwan by force could also have unpredictable consequences for U.S. credibility in Asia, officials said. Others, however, see Taiwan’s importance to the American government and its people through the lens of shared values.
“One thing is very important on top of these geopolitical or strategic calculations: Taiwan is a vibrant democracy,” said Professor Yeh-chung Lu, chair of the Department of Diplomacy at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Especially to the U.S. general public, Taiwan sounds more like an asset than a liability, because we all belong to this international democratic community.”
Taiwan, among the top suppliers of semiconductors to the United States, has also become part of Biden’s band of “techno-democracies,” Lu says—a multilateral and ideological alliance to counter China’s digital authoritarianism.
Lu believes the American public’s strong support for Taiwan also comes from the different ways Taipei and Beijing have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In this China is self-defeating because of Chinese government policy toward its own people,” he told Newsweek. “I’m not saying Taiwan is always a role model, but on many fronts, Taiwan is doing better than China in terms of transparency, etc.”
Taiwan wasn’t always a democracy. It was ruled as a one-party state until, thanks in part to American encouragement, the government accepted democratic reforms in the 1980s. The Taiwanese public voted in the first direct presidential election in 1996 which brought about the first transition of power four years later.
In 2022, Taiwan is a different story, Lu said. “The fact is the PRC never ruled Taiwan for one day, so for the general in Taiwan, we are not very familiar with the CCP, and I believe the supermajority in Taiwan wouldn’t like to be ruled by the CCP.”
Craig Singleton, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said: “Today’s geopolitical environment centers around perceived competition between democracies and autocracies for global influence, a sentiment that stands at the very core of the United States’ bilateral relationship with Taiwan.”
“Trade and security-related matters often dominate the conversation surrounding U.S.-Taiwan relations, but that is not why Taiwan matters to the United States. It matters because the island nation’s very existence demonstrates that democracy and democratic values can thrive a mere 100 nautical miles from mainland China, amongst a population that is primarily Mandarin-speaking,” he argues.
“Put differently, the U.S. government and the American people understand that what China fears most is not Taiwan per se, it is Taiwan’s democracy. So, when Americans see China ratcheting up pressure against the island nation and Beijing issuing threats to reunify by force, they do not just see a threat to liberty, they see themselves.”
President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan would seem to agree. She wrote in Foreign Affairs last October: “Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, authoritarian regimes are more convinced than ever that their model of governance is better adapted than democracy to the requirements of the twenty-first century. This has fueled a contest of ideologies, and Taiwan lies at the intersection of contending systems.
“Vibrantly democratic and Western, yet influenced by a Chinese civilization and shaped by Asian traditions, Taiwan, by virtue of both its very existence and its continued prosperity, represents at once an affront to the narrative and an impediment to the regional ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party.”