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Reluctant Warriors: U.S. Allies Should Restrain Washington Regarding Taiwan

Jul 21, 2023

Throughout the Trump and Biden administrations, U.S. policy regarding Taiwan relations has become increasingly hardline. President Biden has even erroneously stated on several occasions that the United States has a legal obligation to defend Taiwan akin to its commitments under NATO or the bilateral security treaties with Japan and South Korea. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has reacted angrily to Washington’s increasingly blatant support for Taiwan’s de facto independence. A dramatic increase in the PRC’s military exercises near the island is just one manifestation of growing tensions. 

U.S. leaders have pressured its allies in East Asia to back Washington’s confrontational policies toward the PRC on the Taiwan issue. In terms of rhetorical support, the Biden administration has scored some significant successes. However, there is now growing evidence that U.S. allies are very uneasy about the escalating risks. Countries that the United States appears to be counting on to provide tangible military backing in the event of an armed clash between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan are noticeably reluctant to go that far. 

Eunomia analyst Daniel Larison concludes that “even the most reliable treaty allies, including Japan and Australia, would be reluctant to join what would be a very costly U.S. war effort.” And “in the absence of allied support, the already daunting challenge of defending Taiwan would become even more difficult.” The uneasiness is evident even in Japan, the country that the United States would need the most in any military showdown in the PRC. 

A July 15, 2023, Wall Street Journal article notes that “The U.S. is seeking more clarity from Japan as the two sides try to develop a combined operational plan for a Taiwan conflict.” A Pentagon spokesman stated that “the U.S. and Japan share a commitment to peace in the Taiwan Strait,” and that “the U.S. welcomes Japan’s interest in expanding its roles, missions, and capabilities. This will enhance deterrence.”  However, the Journal also highlights the limits of probable Japanese support for Taiwan. “’If you ask the question of whether you are willing to risk your life to defend Taiwan, I think 90% of Japanese people would say ‘no’ at this point,’” concluded Satoru Mori, a professor of politics at Keio University in Tokyo. 

Larison provides even more evidence to support a pessimistic conclusion. “As an analysis for Voice of America noted last year, Japanese involvement in a Taiwan conflict is ‘far from certain and not popularly supported within Japan.’ According to a poll this spring conducted for The Asahi Shimbun, just 11 percent of Japanese respondents said that their armed forces should join the U.S. in the fighting, and 27 percent said that their forces should not work with the U.S. military at all.”

Military support from other East Asian allies seems even more uncertain. The Philippines government has explicitly ruled out letting the United States use bases on its territory to support a war over Taiwan.  South Korea has been noticeably quiet and noncommittal about its posture if an armed conflict erupted over Taiwan. Even Australia, an especially reliable, longstanding ally, has explicitly declined to give the United States a firm commitment of support in the event of a Taiwan war. That hesitation is significant, since Canberra joined the U.S. militarily even in Washington’s ill-advised ventures in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

If the East Asian powers do not want to risk the United States dragging them into a disastrous war with the PRC to defend Taiwan, they must become more proactive in restraining Washington. That task will not be easy, given the rising influence of Taiwan’s hawkish advocates in the United States. Indeed, a powerful, bipartisan narrative is becoming entrenched that America has both a strategic and moral imperative to back a vibrant democracy against the threats posed by an aggressive, one-party state. 

Pro-Taiwan hawks are making it a high priority to secure allied support for a U.S.  showdown with the PRC over Taiwan. A typical recent example is an article by Hal Brands, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He proclaims that the goal should be to “secure an explicit agreement that three crucial regional powers — Australia, Japan, and the U.S. — will all be in it together if war comes.” Brands’ ostensible purpose is to strengthen deterrence by making it clear to Beijing that the PRC would be fighting three major adversaries if it attacks Taiwan. Interestingly, Brands does not emphasize drawing South Korea into such an arrangement. Rather than deterrence, though, his more likely goal is to trap Canberra and Tokyo into a commitment they can’t escape if war broke out. 

The East Asian allies must not only recognize such snares, but they must also push back hard against the concerted campaign. Ambivalence on the Taiwan issue will not benefit those countries or regional peace. It is essential for allied governments to explicitly inform Washington that if it continues to escalate its support for Taiwan, the United States will have to fight any resulting war with the PRC on its own. There is no doubt that U.S. leaders would respond angrily to such a stance. There might even be threats to withdraw the U.S. security commitments to recalcitrant allies. Nevertheless, America’s East Asian partners need to save Washington from its mounting folly to prevent a potentially catastrophic impact on their own countries. This is no time for them to be coy.

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