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Does the United States Have a Moral Obligation to Protect Taiwan?

Hong Kong woke me up.

For years, political forecasters have warned us that China is ready to strike at peace and freedom in Asia; we just hadn’t seen it yet. I believed them, and I agreed it was coming, but this fast? Over the last year we have witnessed a city internationally recognized for freedom and prosperity fall into the greedy and despotic hand of the Chinese Communist Party. This event has raised countless questions among those interested in the region; for me, the most pressing one is, “What should we do if they try to take Taiwan?”

As China has slowly swallowed up Hong Kong’s freedoms, the United States sat back from a comfortable position and has done little more than offer commentary. We continue to “advocate for protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong, following the imposition of the national security law”–but we have no duty or reason to involve ourselves beyond that. Taiwan is a whole new ball game and one that could become very dangerous because the US has put itself somewhere in between China and the island “nation” of Taiwan.

After the Chinese Civil War and the ensuing communist victory, the defeated nationalist government fled to the island of Taiwan. The United States recognized this government as the legitimate government of all China until 1979, when the Carter administration established formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, the US government was not willing to go so far as to cut ties with the governing authorities of Taiwan. We stated that the PRC was the “sole legal Government of China,” which meant we no longer viewed Taiwan as a separate sovereign entity. Still, we did not recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan. In practice, we do not recognize the government of Taiwan but we do continue unofficial relations. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

In short, we are satisfied with convenient ambiguity. We prefer to recognize the PRC because it is the only authority with de facto control over China. However, we support the notion of democracy in Taiwan and would rather it not go the way of Hong Kong. Does this mean we have a moral duty to protect freedom in Taiwan? No, we don’t.

The ethical side of this debate centers on our nation’s obligation to uphold its commitments. This precept can be traced all the way back to the Washington administration. In his immensely famous Farewell Address, directly after giving his advice to avoid permanent alliances, President Washington clarified: “[L]et me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy. I repeat it, therefore, let those engagements be observed in their genuine sense.” Many American share this moral sentiment.

Thus, if we intend to remain ethical as a nation, the question becomes about what commitments we’ve actually made to Taiwan. Our most substantial promise comes in the form of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).  Passed in 1979, the TRA laid out our intentions with Taiwan in the wake of our recognition of the PRC. Our military-related promises to Taiwan were twofold: “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The first obligation is straightforward: we will continue to sell or gift defensive weapons to Taiwan. That requires no direct involvement by the U.S. military in the case of Chinese aggression. The second is slightly less straightforward: we will maintain the capacity to defend Taiwan, if we so choose. Strictly speaking, however, we have made no commitment to acting. Our lawmakers wanted to leave both options open, and so they remain open today.

There is an argument that can be made for the defense of Taiwan, a practical one that is tied to an address made by President Eisenhower in Minneapolis in 1953. The President laid out his reasons for maintaining international involvement after World War II; his argument, in short, was that freedom is best protected in unity and not by each nation independently. Eisenhower highlighted the fact that the War ushered in a new age in which isolation could no longer guarantee us safety and prosperity. If we were serious about protecting our autonomy, our only option was to stay in the center of the world stage. In a general sense, he was undoubtedly right. A 1920s-style approach to international politics would be a detriment to our security.

Following that notion, there are some, in Congress and elsewhere, who believe the United States would improve its international strength and credibility through protecting Taiwan. Perhaps they’re right—but there are valid arguments on either side. We can look to American history and precedent, rather than moral arguments, to deliberate on how the US ought to engage in Taiwan.