There are mounting signs that the United States and Taiwan are forging an implicit military alliance directed against the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Such a move would represent a major shift in the policy that Washington has pursued for more than four decades, and it would increase the risk of an armed conflict between China and the United States. Nevertheless, support in influential circles for establishing a closer military relationship with Taipei is growing rapidly, despite the obvious dangers entailed in taking that step.
Washington once maintained a formal defense treaty with the Republic of China (ROC)—Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist rump government that fled to Taiwan following the Communist revolution on the mainland in 1949. That alliance was in effect from 1955 until 1979, when Jimmy Carter’s administration recognized the PRC as China’s legitimate government, severed formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, and terminated the defense treaty.
Congressional pressure from Taiwan’s supporters, though, compelled Carter to accept a new Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which specified the features of a supposedly informal U.S. economic and cultural relationship with the regime in Taiwan. The TRA also contained two important provisions regarding Taiwan’s security. The United States committed itself to sell weapons “of a defensive nature” to Taipei, and to regard any coercive moves by Beijing against the island as a grave “breach of the peace” in East Asia.
During the following decades, Taiwan seemed to have the status of an informal U.S. protectorate, but the relationship was substantially short of being a military alliance. Unlike the mutual defense treaty it replaced, the TRA did not explicitly obligate the United States to defend Taiwan if it came under attack. Equally significant, there was no provision for mutual defense planning or coordinated military exercises. Indeed, a series of U.S. administrations not only barred security officials from meeting with their Taiwanese counterparts, but government-to-government interactions regarding nonmilitary issues were confined to low-level personnel. The primary military connection took the form of periodic U.S. arms sales to Taipei. And even in that arena, U.S. leaders proceeded cautiously about what weapons systems were made available. Sensitive to the danger of provoking Beijing, Washington generally avoided selling cutting-edge weapons or systems that had obvious offensive capabilities.
All of these manifestations of restraint have eroded badly during the Trump years. I have written elsewhere about measures that both Congress and the executive branch have taken to increase Washington’s show of political and diplomatic support for Taipei. Some of those steps are largely symbolic—although they clearly annoy Beijing. Other actions, though, have military significance, and they are quickly reaching the point of re-establishing the defense treaty in all but name.
One key step was the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act in March 2018. That law not only authorized, but explicitly encouraged high‐level U.S. national security officials to interact with their Taiwanese counterparts, reversing a four‐decades‐old policy. The following year, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton met with David Lee, Secretary General of Taiwan’s National Security Council, to discuss regional security issues of mutual concern to Washington and Taipei. Operational military cooperation also is increasingly evident. That change first became noticeable when the United States invited two senior Taiwanese military officials to participate in a May 2018 gathering at U.S. Pacific Command.
Until the Trump administration, U.S. policy toward Taiwan sought to be a bit coy. Joseph Nye, an assistant secretary of defense during Bill Clinton’s administration, described the approach as one of “strategic ambiguity.” According to Nye, it sought to keep both PRC and Taiwanese leaders uncertain about what the U.S. reaction would be in any given situation. The theory was that such uncertainty and ambiguity would induce caution in both capitals, preventing either PRC military aggression or provocative Taiwanese moves toward formal independence.
A growing number of American policy experts, though, are now arguing for “strategic clarity” instead—eliminating any inclination in Beijing to believe that the United States would not intervene militarily if a PRC attack on the island or an attempt to compel political unification took place. Even some scholars who are renowned for their moderate views on U.S.-China relations now favor abandoning strategic ambiguity.
One crucial proposal to promote strategic clarity is the Taiwan Defense Act (TDA). A vocal proponent of the measure, Joseph Bosco, who served as the China country director for the secretary of defense in George W. Bush’s administration, states bluntly that “it will move U.S. policy just one step short of an open defense commitment to Taiwan.” Indeed it would. If signed into law, the act would obligate the U.S. government to “delay, degrade, and ultimately defeat” any attempt by the PRC to use military force against Taiwan.
Recent U.S. actions indicate that Washington is moving rapidly in that direction, even absent passage of the TDA. In mid-August, the Trump administration approved an $8 billion sale of 66 advanced F-16v fighters to Taiwan—the largest weapons sale in many years—to help Taipei’s concerted effort to strengthen its own military capabilities. In addition, Taiwan is establishing a new state-of-the art maintenance hub to keep those planes at maximum readiness. The hub will be operated jointly by Lockheed Martin and Taiwan’s Aerospace Industrial Development Corp, and American personnel almost certainly will be working at that site to support Taipei’s fleet. Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen emphasized that the time needed for maintenance “will be greatly shortened and availability will be boosted significantly, ensuring the Air Force’s combat power at the front line.”
In addition to enhancing military cooperation with Taiwan, the United States is boosting its own military presence in the region. The transit of U.S. warships through the Taiwan Strait has become noticeably more frequent, even routine. Washington has asked Taipei for permission to utilize Taiwanese air space for military planes flying from Japan or South Korea to Southeast Asia. In short, the Trump administration is treating Taiwan as an independent country and a U.S. security partner in everything short of a formal declaration to that effect.
Washington is sending an unsubtle message to Beijing that U.S. military support for Taiwan is no longer ambiguous or hesitant. It is a daring move that instead of deterring an aggressive move by the PRC, might provoke one. But the trend toward a closer U.S. security relationship with Taiwan is likely to continue regardless of whether President Trump or former vice president Joe Biden wins the November election. The various pro-Taiwan moves in Congress and elsewhere over the past three years have been characterized by strong bipartisan support. A de facto U.S.-Taiwan military alliance is fast becoming a reality.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.