Taiwan, Treaties, and Credibility

Politico published a fear-mongering report earlier today about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan happening in the next few years, and the report couldn’t even get basic facts about U.S.-Taiwan relations right:

Such an invasion would be an explosive event that could throw the whole region into chaos and potentially culminate in a shooting war between China and the United States, which is treaty-bound to help Taiwan defend itself against Beijing [bold mine-DL].

The U.S. has not been obligated to defend Taiwan for more than 40 years. President Carter annulled the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty that the U.S. had with the Republic of China (Taipei) in 1979 as part of the normalization with Beijing. While Congress pushed through the Taiwan Relations Act in response to Carter’s action, the TRA doesn’t require the U.S. to come to Taiwan’s defense. Carter’s decision to annul the treaty was extremely controversial, but it was not reversed. Ever since then, the U.S. is not legally obligated to respond to an attack on Taiwan with direct military involvement. It is sloppy and misleading to state the opposite as if it were fact.

The error about U.S. obligations reflects the larger problem with the article. The article cites Biden administration officials making fairly wild claims about a possible impending Chinese invasion with almost nothing to back it up. There is a lot of speculation about the significance of certain dates, but absolutely nothing concrete that would suggest that China intends to force the issue anytime soon.

Carter’s decision to annul the treaty with Taiwan was an interesting case where the U.S. deliberately walked away from a longstanding formal alliance and…nothing bad happened. We are always hearing about how fragile U.S. credibility is and how important it is to reassure allies of our commitment to them, and we also hear that maintaining U.S. credibility is essential in discouraging would-be aggressors, but the Taiwan example shows that all these claims are overblown. The U.S. just decided to cancel a ratified defense treaty with another country and throw its diplomatic recognition to their historic foe, and there was no breakdown in U.S. credibility anywhere else. No other allies lost confidence in U.S. promises, and no adversaries doubted U.S. alliance commitments, either. Carter’s decision did not invite Chinese aggression against Taiwan then or later.

In addition to misinforming readers about U.S. treaty commitments, the report includes irresponsible editorializing like this:

The new Biden team must signal its willingness to go to the mat for Taiwan and help ensure the island can defend itself, but without further spooking Beijing.

The Biden administration doesn’t have to signal anything of the kind. In fact, the more explicitly that the U.S. signals its willingness to “go to the mat” for Taiwan, the more likely it is to stoke tensions and trigger the unwanted crisis. It is one thing to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself, but it is quite another to insist that the U.S. is on the hook to fight China over this. The U.S. has more than enough security commitments already without having news sites inventing more of them.

Update: Politico “clarified” its error, but it did so by implying that the TRA commits the U.S. to defend Taiwan. That is still incorrect, but it seems that Politico isn’t interested in getting it right.