Vital Signs

Out on a Limb: America’s Pledge to Defend Taiwan

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...

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