Washington’s implicit commitment, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, to defend Taiwan from attack is becoming more perilous by the year.  Given Beijing’s increasingly insistent demands that Taiwanese leaders cease their efforts to spurn reunification with the mainland, there is a very real possibility that the United States will someday be called upon to honor that commitment.  What most Americans do not understand is that we would be virtually alone in coming to the aid of the beleaguered island if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) attacks.  Washington’s friends and allies in East Asia would likely leave America in the lurch.

That danger became apparent in late August during a visit by Australia’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, to Beijing.  Downer told his Chinese hosts that they should not assume that Australia would assist the United States if a military conflict broke out in the Taiwan Strait.  Australia’s alliance with the United States, Downer stressed, only covered attacks on the United States or his country; it most assuredly did not cover contingencies involving Taiwan.  His statement came as an unpleasant surprise to U.S. officials, who had assumed that the alliance with Australia was a general security partnership that could be invoked to deal with any threat in the region.

Downer’s comment is not the only recent instance in which East Asian countries have tried to distance their policies from Washington’s on the Taiwan issue.  Just days later, Singapore warned Taiwan to avoid actions that might provoke Beijing and create a military crisis in the Taiwan Strait.  As had Australia, Singapore stressed that she would not come to Taiwan’s aid if the island’s increasingly assertive efforts to consolidate her de facto independence from China led to armed conflict.

Those comments reflect the growing concern throughout East Asia that tensions over the Taiwan issue are beginning to reach alarming levels.  Such concern is warranted.

When National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice traveled to Beijing in July, she got an earful from Jiang Zemin about China’s views regarding Taiwan.  Although Jiang was no longer president of the PRC, his statements still carries considerable weight.  Jiang stressed that China was committed to the “one country, two systems” formula for Taiwan’s status and that Beijing would “never” tolerate an independent Taiwan.  He went on to denounce the Bush administration for its policy of selling sophisticated arms to Taiwan—most recently, submarines, a missile-defense system, and radar that can penetrate deeply into PRC territory and facilitate strikes by Taiwanese aircraft.

The substance of such comments was not new, but the tone was unusually firm.  Moreover, Jiang’s statements are simply the latest in a series of developments that suggest that Beijing’s patience on the Taiwan issue is running out.

Long gone is the cavalier attitude of PRC leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1980’s that the Taiwan issue could remain unresolved for decades without unduly upsetting Beijing.  As Taiwan has democratized and accelerated her quest for international recognition, Beijing has become noticeably less sanguine.

A Chinese government white paper issued in 2000 emphasized that the Taiwanese authorities could not expect to stall negotiations for reunification indefinitely.  For the first time, Beijing indicated that it might consider such delaying tactics sufficient grounds for resorting to military force.

Since then, the PRC has increased her confrontational posture.  Just before the inauguration of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for a second term in May 2004, the PRC agency in charge of policy toward Taiwan issued a lengthy and revealing statement.  On the one hand, it offered a number of prospective benefits to Taiwan if the regime there accepted the principle of one China.  On the other hand, the statement made it clear that the consequences to Taiwan would be dire if the island continued her separatist ways.  There was also a distinct implication that the issue must be settled in years, not decades.

And Beijing is backing up its language with substantive military measures.  The PRC has expanded deployment of missiles on her side of the Taiwan strait; she now has more than 500 missiles arrayed against Taiwan.  In late July, the Chinese government announced that its soldiers would practice for the first time a D-Day-style invasion, conducting mock air, sea, and ground operations on Dongshan, a densely populated island off the mainland coast.  Perhaps most ominous, there are reports that the PRC has begun a program to build a large number of amphibious landing craft.

As the PRC grows stronger economically and militarily, it is logical that the determination to regain the “lost province” would also grow.  Moreover, Chinese leaders suspect (with good reason) that time is not on their side.  Younger Taiwanese, in particular, regard the mainland as an alien place and have little enthusiasm for reunification.  Beijing fears that the prospect of regaining Taiwan may be lost forever if action is not taken relatively soon.

Trends on both Taiwan and the mainland thus create a very real prospect of war.  They also put the United States in an extremely delicate and dangerous situation, because the nations of East Asia have repeatedly signaled that they will remain neutral in any U.S.-China dust-up over Taiwan.

The statements by Australia and Singapore are the latest evidence of that neutrality.  It is clear that both countries were sending Taiwan a blunt message, but they were also sending one to the United States: Do not count on your friends and allies in the region to help you fulfill your commitment to defend Taiwan.  Given the statements and conduct of the East Asian countries regarding Taiwan over the past decade, that should not come as a surprise to Washington.

Virtually all of the East Asian governments made a concerted effort to distance their policies from that of the United States when the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft carriers to the western Pacific to demonstrate concern about rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait in 1996.  South Korea and the Philippines both stressed that their “mutual” defense treaties with the United States did not cover contingencies in the strait.  Such countries as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Australia contented themselves with the banal response of urging restraint on all sides, conspicuously declining to endorse Washington’s moves.  Indeed, they echoed Beijing’s position that Taiwan is a renegade province.  Even Japan, the principal U.S. ally in the region, merely expressed “understanding” of the naval deployment.

The reluctance of America’s professed friends and allies in East Asia to take a hard-line policy toward China extends beyond the Taiwan issue.  That point became clear in April 2001, when a Chinese jet collided with a U.S. spy plane that was conducting surveillance from international airspace.  The collision forced the U.S. plane to land on China’s Hainan Island.  PRC authorities kept the plane and held the crew for nearly two weeks—until Washington conveyed a carefully worded expression of regret for the incident.

During this period of acute tension, what was the response of America’s East Asian allies?  Vocal support for the U.S. position was notably absent.  Even Washington’s treaty allies in the region—Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines—declined to say that a U.S. apology to Beijing was unwarranted.  Only Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew unequivocally supported the U.S. position.

Japan’s ambiguous stance epitomized the reaction of America’s East Asian partners.  Kauzuhiko Koshikawa, a spokesman for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, stated: “We strongly hope this case will be settled in an appropriate and acceptable manner.”  Beijing could take as much comfort as Washington from this comment.

The responses of the various East Asian countries in both episodes underscore an important point.  China’s neighbors have no incentive to antagonize that rising power by backing the United States in disputes that do not seem vital to—or even relevant to—their interests.  We can expect neutrality in most, if not all, future confrontations between the United States and the PRC.  Beijing has cultivated the tendency toward neutrality through astute diplomacy that has lessened Beijing’s abrasive image among its neighbors while quietly underscoring the PRC’s economic importance to the economies of those nations.  For example, China this year will likely supplant the United States as Japan’s largest trading partner.

China’s growing economic significance to the region reveals a subtle but potentially lethal defect in Washington’s overall East Asia security policy.  Because that policy developed during the Cold War, Washington could operate with the confidence that there would not be a tension between the economic interests of its security clients and their security relationships with the United States.

The situation is now more ambiguous.  A chilly relationship (to say nothing of an armed skirmish) between the United States and the PRC would put the other East Asian countries in an extremely difficult position.  Most of them have extensive investments in China and maintain lucrative trade with that country.  A Japanese scholar’s explanation for his country’s unwillingness to endorse publicly the U.S. deployment of the Seventh Fleet in 1996 was most revealing.  He did not cite the danger that a military collision between the United States and China might lead to Chinese attacks on Japanese territory because of U.S. bases there (although that is a very real danger).  Rather, he emphasized concerns that an endorsement of U.S. policy might jeopardize Japanese investments in China.

The changing economic and political environment in East Asia raises serious questions about the wisdom of Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan—especially given Beijing’s growing impatience over the reunification issue.  Not only could the United States find herself entangled in a perilous military confrontation with China over Taiwan, she might have to wage the ensuing struggle virtually alone.  Taiwan would undoubtedly contribute to her own defense, but the reaction in various East Asian capitals to Beijing’s menacing behavior in recent years suggests that assistance from Washington’s other “friends” would be problematic at best.  Washington had better take that factor into account when it calculates the prospective costs and benefits of its security pledge to Taiwan.