Written by Bill Sharp.
Image credit: USS Hornet 2 by Wayne Hsieh/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The Trump administration has signed into law several pieces of legislation that reduce the traditional strategic ambiguity colouring the US commitment to the defence of Taiwan. Examples are the 2017 National Security Strategy, Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Act of 2018, Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019, and the National Defense Authorization Acts of 2019 and 2020. All of these support the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 (for a fuller discussion of these pieces of legislation, see my Pac Net #44, “Wither Strategic Ambiguity,” July 30, 2019), but do not resolutely address the relationship between the total defence of Taiwan and the overarching strategy of enhancing the protection of the US and its interests in the Indo-Pacific region. The resurrection of the Formosa Resolution would fill this void by removing all remaining ambiguity.
The Taiwan Strait (TS) Crisis of 1954-55 saw China attack Jinmen (then called Quemoy). As a result, the US created the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1954-55, which was signed with the Republic of China on December 2, 1954. On 10 January 1955, one hundred Chinese planes attacked the Tachen Islands which are about 200 miles north of Taiwan, while the Island of Ichiang was overrun and occupied by China. On 11 January 1955, President Eisenhower sent the Formosa Resolution (FR) to Congress. The resolution authorised the President “to employ the Armed Forces of the United States as he deems necessary for the specific purpose of securing and protecting Formosa and the Pescadores [Penghus], against armed attack, this authority to include the securing and protection of such related positions and territories of that area now in friendly hands.” The Resolution passed overwhelmingly in both houses: 410-3 in the House of Representatives and 83-3 in the Senate. However, the Senate had not yet ratified the MDT. On August 23, 1958, China launched another attack on Jinmen. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles emphasised the significance of the MDT and FR, warning China that the US would use force if necessary. Now, as was then the case, Taiwan’s offshore islands provide a testing ground for the consistency of US Asian policy. Amid shifts in US defence policy in the wake of America’s defeat in Vietnam and an evolving rapprochement with China, the FR was repealed in 1974. Yet the security architecture of the region has since changed, and the defence and strategic reasons for formulating the FR are as applicable today as they were in 1955.
In pursuit of his place in Chinese history, and in his quest to surpass the legacy of Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping has vowed to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s control. The task has taken on added urgency as Xi has sought to strengthen his domestic position amid factional unrest, Hong Kong riots, growing debt, the faltering Belt Road Initiative, the retrenchment of foreign investors, a festering US-China trade dispute, an anemic economy, and most recently, domestic and international blowback due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Certainly, Xi would like to embarrass Taiwan because of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen’s refusal to accept the ’92 Consensus and the one country, two systems mode of governance. Her electoral rout of Nationalist Party (KMT) pro-China presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu and Han’s subsequent ouster as mayor of Kaohsiung will undoubtedly give Xi added incentive.
Similarly, Xi would like to embarrass America because of its support for Tsai, and in order to create doubt about its security commitment to Taiwan, other Asian allies, and the Indo-Pacific Security Strategy.
One way for Xi to embarrass both would be to “flip” more Taiwan allies. In fact, Paraguay and Nicaragua have recently been mentioned as possible targets. However, America has made it known that there will be consequences for those countries who break relations with Taiwan and establish them with China (see above legislation).
Nonetheless, in recent months the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Chinese Coast Guard, and Chinese militia vessels posing as fishing vessels, have increased their presence in the South China Sea (SCS). China is seeking to consolidate its control in the SCS to secure an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). China’s new aircraft carrier, the Shandong, has been training in the Bohai Gulf which has similar characteristics to the TS, which runs into the SCS. Later this summer, a Chinese amphibious assault training exercise will be held in the area where the TS meets the SCS. Accomplishing a quick fait accompli by seizing Jinmen, Madzu and Wuchiu would clearly create a propaganda victory for China, embarrassment for Taiwan and the US, and put the US security commitment to Taiwan in question. Yet on the other hand, those three island groups are often seen as a psychological link between China and Taiwan. If one or all were seized, the connection between them and Taiwan would be weakened which China would not want. Moreover, China would risk collateral damage since all three island groups have civilian populations. Conversely, Pratas Island (Dongsha) has only Taiwan coast guard personnel. More importantly, Pratas offers strategic advantages that the other islands do not.
As Gibraltar sits at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, Pratas (controlled by Taiwan and administered by the city of Kaohsiung) sits at the northern entrance to the SCS and the southern entrance to the TS. Chinese control would offer many advantages besides just embarrassing the Taiwan and US governments. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in August 2018, “more than 30% of the global maritime oil trade,” crucial to the economies of US partners South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, “passes through the SCS.” According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China Power Project, $3.37 trillion USD in international trade passed through the SCS in 2016. The TS offers an expedient route between Southeast and Northeast Asia. As such the US Navy has increased its number of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). Control by China would give Beijing undue leverage and enhance their ability to blockade or attack Taiwan. The US position in the Indo-Pacific would be threatened. Moreover, control of Pratas yields access to the Bashi Channel, gateway to the Western Pacific and the second and third island chains. On this point, Patrick M. Cronin of the Hudson Institute argues that dominating the Pacific is one of China’s goals.
As per Section 15 (2) of the TRA, protection is only possible for Taiwan proper and the Pescadores (Penghus). Other Taiwan offshore islands important to the defence of Taiwan are not covered. US Senators that understand the importance of Taiwan such as Marco Rubio and Robert Mendez, plus US House of Representative members such as Steve Chabot and Eliot Engel, need to lead a bipartisan effort to resurrect the FR. Doing so will complete the defense of Taiwan and consolidate America’s position in Asia. “It would also create a legal basis for a US commitment to defend Pratas, Jinmen, Madzu, Wuchiu, and other islands under the control of Taiwan,” said former Taiwan Minister of National Defense, Dr. Michael Tsai.
The Taiwan Defense Act just introduced into the US Senate by Senator Josh Hawley seeks to offer added protection to Taiwan and prevent a lightning fast Chinese attack on Taiwan resulting in a fait accompli. It does not recognize the strategic importance of Taiwan’s outlying islands to its defence.
Action must be taken to prevent China’s strategy of expansion through ‘salami slicing’. The fact that the US stood by and did nothing as China was taking control of Scarborough Shoal had an adverse impact on the Philippines – US relationship. Kerry Gershanek, former faculty member at the Royal Thai Military Academy, has also stated that “The lack of American resolve in addressing the Scarborough Shoal issue was a catalytic event in persuading long time American ally Thailand to lean towards China.” The result of this inaction has been that the US position in the Indo-Pacific has been undercut.
As former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, Wallace “Chip” Gregson emphasized at a recent Global Taiwan Institute panel discussion: “Taiwan is most urgently at risk…. Taiwan is like the Fulda Gap or West Berlin in an earlier era, [Taiwan is a] key terrain that must be held!”
Bill Sharp is a Visiting Scholar at National Taiwan University.