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Good to Know: The U.S. commitment to Taiwan

U.S.-Taiwan relations are complicated. Here's an explainer.

- January 10, 2024

If you are confused about what kind of commitment the United States has to Taiwan, you’re not alone. It is complicated – so complicated that it’s hard to reduce to a few paragraphs. Indeed, former diplomat and Brookings scholar Richard Bush’s “primer” on the One China Policy clocks in at 30 pages. Given that many see Taiwan as the most likely flashpoint of a great power war, each and every subtlety matters, especially with a presidential election in Taiwan in January 2024. 

With that cautionary note, the short answer is that the United States has an obligation to provide Taiwan with resources to enable the island to defend itself. But the U.S. does not have a defense pact; that is, it does not have an obligation to come to Taiwan’s aid militarily if China were to attack Taiwan. The U.S. and Taiwan are therefore not formal “allies.”

As to whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid voluntarily, the U.S. maintains a policy, known as “strategic ambiguity,” of not specifying what actions across the strait would cause it to intervene.

Here’s the background

The Chinese civil war pitted the incumbent Nationalists (Kuomintang or KMT) against the insurgent Communists (CCP) from 1927 to 1949. When the Communists emerged victorious in the mainland and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the KMT fled to Taiwan, moving the government of the Republic of China to the island. Both sides insisted that other countries could only have diplomatic relations with the mainland or with Taiwan, but not both. 

Throughout this period, the United States maintained a One China Policy that legally only recognized Taiwan. But in January 1950, President Harry Truman, who was skeptical of the KMT’s leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, declared that the United States would not get involved in a civil conflict in China and would provide only economic aid to Taiwan, not military assistance. Yet following the conclusion of the Korean War, the United States and Taiwan signed a defense treaty in 1954 that secured the protection of the Republic of China for the next quarter century. So it is true that at one time, the U.S. had a formal commitment.

The 1970s thaw in U.S.-China relations

Following Pres. Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing in 1972, relations between the U.S. and China grew warmer. In 1979, the U.S. flipped diplomatic recognition of China to the PRC government, while maintaining unofficial relations with the Republic of China through the nongovernmental American Institute in Taiwan. The U.S. recognition of Beijing ended the formal U.S. commitment to come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an attack.

But the U.S. continued to support Taiwan’s security, if less directly. In 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act – where, among other things, the U.S. pledged to “make available” resources “to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capacity” – i.e., to provide arms to Taiwan. The United States invokes a litany of documents when navigating these sticky issues: the three communiques (U.S.-China documents from 1972, 1978, and 1972), the Taiwan Relations Act, and the six assurances (U.S.-Taiwan in 1982). 

U.S. policy on Taiwan since 1979

The PRC and ROC governments are divided on a number of fronts, including their forms of government since Taiwan is now a democracy. The United States sidesteps the issue by saying it does not have a position on how these divisions might be addressed, beyond stating that it should be a “peaceful resolution” between Beijing and Taipei. 

What the United States does say, on the other hand, is that it opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side – i.e., Chinese coercive reunification or a declaration of independence by Taiwan

The U.S. has long maintained its tradition of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan – which means the U.S. does not specify the conditions where it would intervene in a conflict across the Taiwan strait. However, Pres. Joe Biden has repeatedly insisted that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense because of U.S. commitments, but these commitments would be understood as ties of common interests and partnership rather than a formal alliance obligation. Biden’s statements can be read as moving away from strategic ambiguity, but it remains the official U.S. stance. 

Further reading

Last updated: January 9, 2024

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