While America’s attention remains focused on the North Korea crisis, another dangerous East Asia confrontation has re-emerged.  The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is taking new steps to intimidate Taiwan and force the island’s leaders to move toward political reunification with the mainland.  The latest measures aim to make it clear to Taiwanese officials and the general population that any hopes they might have to perpetuate Taiwan’s de facto independence, much less achieve formal, internationally recognized independence, are doomed.

Evidence of the PRC’s increasing impatience and belligerence exists on multiple fronts.  Over the past two years, the Chinese government has resumed its efforts to cajole or bribe the small number of nations that still maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei to switch ties to Beijing.  Warnings that China will use force if necessary to prevent any “separatist” initiatives by Taiwan have become more insistent, if not downright strident.  Finally, there has been a sharp increase in the number and scope of provocative PRC military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and other nearby waters.

The mounting tensions between Taipei and Beijing should be attracting more notice in the United States, since such developments are more than a matter of academic concern.  The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress adopted when Jimmy Carter’s administration formally recognized the PRC and downgraded Washington’s relations with Taipei to informal economic and cultural ties, contains two important security provisions.  First, the United States pledged to regard any PRC effort to coerce Taiwan as a grave threat to the peace of East Asia.  Second, Washington promised to sell “defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

Those commitments are not the same as a U.S. treaty obligation to use military force to defend the island, but they are far from trivial.  If an armed conflict erupted between the PRC and Taiwan, it is almost certain that the United States would be entangled in the fighting.

Beijing’s recent military maneuvers are especially unsettling.  The PRC conducted 16 military drills in areas around Taiwan in 2017, compared with just 8 in 2016 and even fewer during the years between 2008 and 2016.  In July 2017, China’s lone aircraft carrier and escort vessels ostentatiously sailed through the Taiwan Strait on their way to Hong Kong.  In that same month, numerous Chinese fighter planes, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft flew near Taiwan as part of a military exercise.

That trend has continued unabated.  Chinese military aircraft engaged in maneuvers near Taiwan’s northern coast in December 2017, and Beijing’s naval and air-power exercises culminated in January 2018, when a flotilla, again including China’s aircraft carrier, traveled through the Taiwan Strait.  PRC leaders emphasized the significance of those activities.  A senior Chinese official, Liu Junchuan, boasted that “the contrast in power across the Taiwan Strait will become wider and wider, and we will have a full, overwhelming strategic advantage over Taiwan.”

Such rhetoric, combined with the accelerating pace of PRC military operations, is ominous.  Taiwanese leaders clearly are uneasy about the surge in Beijing’s saber-rattling statements and menacing military moves.  Officials in Taipei asserted that the burgeoning military activity posed an “enormous threat” to Taiwan’s security.  The Chinese government responded by telling the Taiwanese that they needed to get used to air-force and naval units encircling the island, because those activities were going to continue regardless of Taipei’s wishes.

Taiwanese leaders also are jittery about Beijing’s January 4 announcement of new commercial aviation corridors that seemed to impinge on the island’s airspace.  Not only did the unilateral establishment of such corridors “disrespect” Taiwan, the officials claimed, but they suspected that the Chinese might try to use them for military purposes.  Taiwan’s defense ministry warned that its forces would “intercept, warn and repel if necessary any planes that cross into Taiwanese airspace” and pose a threat to the island’s security. 

Granted, tensions between Beijing and Taiwan have flared before.  Following the 1949 Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, PRC leaders expected to rout Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces from the last territories Chiang’s Republic of China (ROC) controlled: Taiwan and a few small islands off the Chinese coast.  The United States thwarted that ambition by deploying the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait.  On two occasions during the 1950’s, China launched massive shelling operations against the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, and there were several clashes between PRC and U.S. military aircraft.  Those incidents nearly led to full-scale war.

Tensions did not cease with the end of the Cold War.  In 1995 and 1996, China conducted missile tests and other military maneuvers in the Strait in a clumsy effort to shape the outcome of the island’s first free presidential elections.  The effort failed, and voters chose Lee Teng-hui, who—even though he was a member of Chiang’s old political vehicle, the cautious Kuomintang party (KMT)—harbored thinly disguised pro-independence sentiments.  Washington underscored its displeasure with Beijing’s bullying behavior by sending an aircraft carrier battle group through the Strait at the height of the crisis.

The relationship between Beijing and Taipei grew even worse when Taiwan’s voters chose Chen Shui-bian of the openly pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as Lee’s successor.  Chen repeatedly pushed the envelope on independence, often to the annoyance and worry of Taiwan’s U.S. protector.  China’s warnings became ever more pointed and shrill.  Most notably, the PRC passed a crucial Anti-Secession Law in March 2005, emphasizing that China would use force, if necessary, to prevent any move by Taiwan toward formal independence.

One consistent feature in all of these incidents is that Chinese officials are hypersensitive about any Taiwanese moves to emphasize the island’s separate political existence.  That is true even though Taiwan has never been under the PRC’s control.  Beijing’s leaders actually found it easier to tolerate Chiang’s increasingly absurd claims that the ROC was the legitimate government of all China than to put up with the actions that Lee and Chen took to solidify Taiwan’s separate political identity.  At least Chiang accepted the proposition that there was only one China and Taiwan was part of that nation.  It was not at all apparent that Lee and Chen did so.  In fact, there was considerable evidence to the contrary.

Bilateral tensions receded in 2008 when Taiwanese voters returned power to the KMT and selected the conciliatory Ma Ying-jeou as president.  Ma worked assiduously to increase economic and cultural links with the mainland.  Indeed, more than 20 economic agreements were signed during his eight years in office.  Bilateral trade ties soared, and Chinese tourists came to the island for the first time, facilitated by the establishment of commercial airline routes.  Beijing eased its drive to entice Taiwan’s remaining allies into breaking diplomatic ties with Taipei, and PRC leaders even allowed Taiwan to participate in some marginal international bodies—as long as she did not do so under the label of Taiwan or the entity’s official name, the Republic of China.

U.S. officials welcomed that détente, while Chinese leaders exuded confidence that the web of economic ties would cause pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan to recede and eventually lead to Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland.  Instead, there was a backlash.  Taiwanese sentiment for reunification was—and remains—exceedingly low.  Indeed, most of the island’s inhabitants now embrace a separate Taiwanese identity and do not see themselves as “Chinese” at all.  Worries that extensive economic relations with the PRC were undermining Taiwan’s autonomy, combined with mounting public anger at the KMT’s pervasive corruption, led to the so-called Sunflower Movement, which culminated in large, angry street demonstrations against Ma’s government in 2014 and 2015.

Elections in January 2016 produced a landslide victory for the DPP.  Not only did the party’s nominee, Tsai Ing-wen, capture the presidency, but for the first time in history the DPP won control of the national legislature, the Legislative Yuan.  Chinese leaders were both shocked and furious that their strategy to use the proliferation of economic ties to neutralize support for independence among Taiwanese had failed spectacularly.

Since that election, cross-strait relations have deteriorated inexorably.  Beijing’s hostility toward the new DPP government was apparent from the outset.  Zhang Zhijun, the head of the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office, put it bluntly to a visiting Taiwanese business delegation in May 2016, just weeks after Tsai took office: “There is no future in Taiwan independence, and this cannot become an option for Taiwan’s future.  This is the conclusion of history.”  Noting that “some people say you must pay attention to broad public opinion in Taiwan,” Zhang rejected such reasoning.  Instead, he warned that “Taiwan society ought to understand and attach great importance to the feelings of the 1.37 billion residents of the mainland.”

Tsai ignored such admonitions and took a number of actions that incensed Beijing.  She launched a dialogue regarding mutual security concerns with China’s regional arch-adversary, Japan.  In early June 2016, Taiwan’s parliament for the first time held a commemorative ceremony marking the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.  That ceremony was an ostentatious thumb in the eye of the Beijing authorities.  Then there was the December 2016 telephone call that Tsai initiated with President-elect Donald Trump.  Chinese leaders regarded her action as a blatant attempt to induce the new U.S. leader to treat Taiwan as a fully independent country.

Beijing promptly renewed its efforts to win away Taiwan’s handful of remaining allies—a campaign that it had de-emphasized when Ma was President.  In late December 2016, São Tomé broke relations with Taipei, and in June 2017, Panama did so as well.  Other nations in Taiwan’s dwindling roster of political allies are now on Beijing’s target list.  The strategy is clearly to increase Taipei’s diplomatic isolation.  Beijing faces a daunting obstacle to its isolation strategy, though.  As a crucial producer of high-tech goods, Taiwan maintains robust economic ties with most major countries in the world.  There is no sign that situation is going to change anytime soon.  Such a frustrating reality is one reason why Beijing is emphasizing the military option for bringing Taiwan under control.

There are unsubtle indications coming from semiofficial PRC sources that Taiwan’s current ambivalent political status cannot continue much longer.  Indeed, trial balloons in the state-controlled Chinese press suggest that the deadline for meaningful progress toward reunification could be as early as 2020 or 2021.  The Taiwanese government appears to be operating on the assumption that such a looming deadline might be real.  It is not an irrational assumption, given the PRC’s flagrant displays of military power in 2017 and early 2018.

U.S. leaders need to rescind Washington’s implicit defense commitment to Taiwan.  It poses too great a risk and no longer serves America’s best interests.

Many Americans are understandably reluctant to take such a step.  Taiwan is not an irrelevant asset to the United States.  The island is a valuable economic partner and a vibrant capitalist democracy.  The United States would be loath to see it swallowed up by a repressive, one-party state.  Taiwan also has strategic importance.  Without controlling Taiwan, it is difficult (although not impossible) for China to project her military power out into the Pacific.  Since U.S. leaders regard China as an emerging peer competitor, if not an outright adversary, they want to impede that ability.

For all of those reasons, American policymakers, and most of the American public, would like to see the status quo of a de facto independent Taiwan continue indefinitely.  Indeed, a vocal minority would like to see stronger U.S. backing to support that objective.  In early February, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Taiwan Travel Act, which would permit senior Taiwanese and U.S. officials to meet and hold discussions.  That measure would constitute a major change in the policies Washington has maintained since passage of the TRA.  President Trump’s newly selected National Security Advisor John Bolton has gone even further, suggesting that the Trump administration move U.S. troops currently stationed on Okinawa to new bases in Taiwan to emphasize America’s continuing determination to shield the island from PRC aggression.

Such proposed changes are recklessly provocative.  Even perpetuating the existing policies is unwise.  The level of risk to the United States of maintaining the Taiwan commitment has become excessive.  It was one thing to shield the island when Beijing had little ability to repel a U.S. military intervention, and knowing that, prudent Chinese leaders were unlikely to launch an attack on Taiwan.  Thus, it was relatively low risk for the United States to sail an aircraft carrier battle group through the Taiwan Strait in 1996 as a display of military strength and resolve.

The military balance has changed significantly since then, however.  Beijing has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in military modernization efforts, especially to develop antiship missiles and other “access denial” systems.  A 2015 RAND Corporation study concluded, “At a minimum, the U.S. military would have to mount a substantial effort—certainly much more so than in 1996—if it hoped to prevail, and losses to U.S. forces would likely be heavy.”  Cato Institute research fellow Eric Gomez expresses an emerging consensus in the U.S. defense policy community that, in terms of military superiority in the Taiwan Strait, “America’s lead is shrinking, victory is less certain, and the damage inflicted on the U.S. military would be substantial” in the event of an armed showdown.  Today, a U.S. intervention to save Taiwan would still likely succeed, but it would be far more perilous and come at a much greater cost in treasure and blood.  In another few years, even the prospects for success will be far more uncertain.

The United States must reassess the TRA and separate the obligations that it contains.  Washington should continue to sell arms to Taiwan, despite Beijing’s predictable, chronic protests.  Such sales, along with Taipei’s increasingly robust domestic defense industry, would give the Taiwanese the option of continuing to resist the PRC’s demands for steps toward reunification, if they wished to incur the attendant risk.  However, U.S. leaders should make it clear that Taiwan is on its own, and alter the TRA’s language to remove any implied defense commitment.  As fond as we might be of a vibrant, democratic Taiwan, risking a catastrophic war with China is far too great a price to pay to preserve the island’s de facto independence.