Argument

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Taiwan Doesn’t Need a Formal U.S. Security Guarantee

U.S. security cooperation is a more powerful demonstration of commitment than any declaration of intent.

By , a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Taiwanese Air Force pilots in olive green uniforms walk through a parking lot with the Taiwanese flag flying behind them.
Taiwanese Air Force pilots in olive green uniforms walk through a parking lot with the Taiwanese flag flying behind them.
Taiwanese Air Force pilots leave after President Tsai Ing-wen delivered a speech at a military base in Hsinchu, Taiwan, on April 1. SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

In September 2020, Richard Haass and David Sacks reignited a debate over providing a formal U.S. security guarantee to Taiwan, ending decades of strategic ambiguity regarding U.S. intentions. They reiterated their support for “strategic clarity”—“to make explicit to China that the United States would respond to an attack against Taiwan with … severe economic sanctions and military force”—in late 2021, two months before Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine.

Following the invasion, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued, “The time has come for the U.S. to make clear that it will defend Taiwan against any attempted Chinese invasion.” Similarly citing the Russia-Ukraine war example, Eric Edelman and Franklin Miller lobbied for “a clearly stated U.S. commitment to vigorously defend Taiwan against efforts to forcibly incorporate it into the [People’s Republic of China].”

In addition to a formal defense commitment, the authors variously recommended companion actions necessary to enhance U.S. credibility. But existing U.S. law already provides the policy direction to implement these additional actions. And it is these additional actions—not a new policy proclamation—that would deter Beijing by demonstrating U.S. resolve rather than just talking about it.

In September 2020, Richard Haass and David Sacks reignited a debate over providing a formal U.S. security guarantee to Taiwan, ending decades of strategic ambiguity regarding U.S. intentions. They reiterated their support for “strategic clarity”—“to make explicit to China that the United States would respond to an attack against Taiwan with … severe economic sanctions and military force”—in late 2021, two months before Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine.

Following the invasion, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued, “The time has come for the U.S. to make clear that it will defend Taiwan against any attempted Chinese invasion.” Similarly citing the Russia-Ukraine war example, Eric Edelman and Franklin Miller lobbied for “a clearly stated U.S. commitment to vigorously defend Taiwan against efforts to forcibly incorporate it into the [People’s Republic of China].”

In addition to a formal defense commitment, the authors variously recommended companion actions necessary to enhance U.S. credibility. But existing U.S. law already provides the policy direction to implement these additional actions. And it is these additional actions—not a new policy proclamation—that would deter Beijing by demonstrating U.S. resolve rather than just talking about it.

In practice, a U.S. security guarantee is likely to reduce rather than enhance deterrence, as the conditionalities in such a declaration, by circumscribing geographic and political limits, would invite China to exploit those very seams, challenging U.S. credibility. Furthermore, a U.S. commitment would likely stall much-needed defense reforms in Taiwan, while having no real impact on Beijing’s invasion calculus.


From an adversary’s perspective, the breadth and depth of U.S. security cooperation are perhaps the most powerful demonstration of American commitment—more so than any mere declaration of intent. As with Ukraine, the United States compelled Taiwan to give up its nuclear weapons program decades ago. Also, as with Ukraine, the United States restricts the weapons it offers to Taiwan. In hindsight, U.S. failure to provide lethal assistance to Ukraine following the 2014 Russian incursions and twice again in 2021—all intended as de-escalatory olive branches extended to Russia—had the opposite effect on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Given the imbalance of military power across the Taiwan Strait, historical U.S. resistance to offering Taiwan security assistance out of consideration for Beijing has been equally unjustified and counterproductive.

Strategic clarity, however, would not solve this problem. Current U.S. law already provides ample guidance. The Taiwan Relations Act establishes U.S. policy “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force … that would jeopardize the security” of Taiwan. On the question of security assistance, the statute requires the U.S. government to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services” as needed for its self-protection. Prioritizing the U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation relationship is simply a matter of U.S. political will and bureaucratic implementation.

Similarly, the U.S. president’s statutory obligations to respond to an attack are arguably already commensurate with, and in some ways stronger than, the U.S. mutual defense treaties with the Philippines and Japan, both of which are targets of China’s maritime military coercion. The latter documents obligate the United States to consider an attack on the counterpart to be “dangerous to its own peace and safety” and to “act to meet the common danger.” (This same language was used in the 1954 defense treaty with Taiwan, which the United States abrogated in 1980.)

The Taiwan Relations Act, by contrast, sets a lower bar to initiate action by directing the president to consult Congress on a response to “any threat [emphasis added] to the security or the social or economic system of” Taiwan. Compared with a defense pact, the president can invoke the act earlier in a crisis—possibly even today.

Haass and Sacks argue that strategic clarity should be accompanied by increased counter-China defense resources and enhanced diplomacy to signal severe economic and political costs in response to aggression. But the U.S. Defense Department has been focused on China as its top long-term priority since early 2018, and the recent implementation of U.S. and allied sanctions on Russia has instructed Beijing more than diplomacy ever could.

To build on this credibility, the United States must demonstrate willingness to sanction and restrict entities in China whenever appropriate—even at a cost to shorter-term U.S. economic interests. For their part, Edelman and Miller go further, suggesting that the United States deploy forces to Taiwan to train the Taiwanese military. Given revelations that U.S. force rotations to Taiwan already exist, though, no new policy declaration is needed to publicize or expand these programs.

Putin’s trampling of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Ukraine and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s evisceration of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong indicate both leaders respect hard power, not words on paper. It is concrete actions—increased military resources to counter China, demonstrated willingness to enact sanctions, and deployments of U.S. forces in Taiwan—that have and will impact Beijing’s perceptions of U.S. capability and resolve. Such actions can be taken without a U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan.


Conversely, a declaration of strategic clarity could instead be counterproductive. A U.S. security guarantee would necessarily come with two caveats or conditions. The first relates to geographic scope. The Taiwan Relations Act (like the mutual defense treaty that preceded it) covers the main island and the nearby Penghu islets, leaving out Taiwan’s outer islands, which include offshore islands along China’s coast and South China Sea features.

With very little warning, the Chinese military could annex one or more of these isles in a matter of hours—presenting a fait accompli before the United States could respond. And with China’s unparalleled anti-access defenses, not even the U.S. Marines would attempt to reclaim islands within China’s coastal territories. Therefore, a U.S. security guarantee cannot credibly include these outlying islands.

But even if they are not covered under a defense pact, by annexing them Beijing would diminish U.S. credibility and sow division in Taiwan, just as it has in the Philippines, a longtime U.S. treaty ally.

Ten years ago, Beijing ran such a playbook in the South China Sea, leveraging its superior maritime power. China’s armed vessels escalated a jurisdictional fishing dispute at the Philippines-controlled Scarborough Shoal, which China also claims and which is technically not covered by the U.S.-Philippines defense treaty. Washington stepped in to mediate, but Beijing reportedly reneged on an agreement for both claimants to withdraw. Following the Philippines’ withdrawal, the United States did not challenge China’s remaining vessels, effectively ceding control of the shoal to China.

In the decade following this incident, many in the Philippines, including its president, have expressed resignation to China’s regional dominance and questioned the credibility of the U.S.-Philippines defense pact. Furthermore, the Philippines government delayed key U.S. security cooperation programs that would have enhanced allied deterrence posture vis-à-vis China. Given how Beijing’s 2012 aggression undermined the U.S.-Philippines alliance in Manila, if Washington were to adopt strategic clarity for Taiwan, Beijing might be incentivized to attempt a similar gambit with Taipei by seizing one of its outlying islands.

A second condition of strategic clarity would be a “no Taiwan independence” clause, wherein a U.S. pledge “to come to Taiwan’s aid [would not be] unconditional and would not necessarily cover a crisis initiated by Taipei,” as Haass and Sacks write. But the assignment of blame for initiating a conflict is in the eye of the beholder. Such a caveat would be welcomed by Beijing, which argues that all its coercive measures are in response to provocations by Taipei and Washington. In Beijing’s view, Washington threatens China’s sovereignty by encouraging Taiwan along its steady march toward independence.

With Ukraine, Chinese officials and media adopted Russia’s narrative that the United States is to blame for having broken a purported promise to not expand NATO eastward. In this reading, Putin was forced to invade Ukraine to block NATO from reaching Russia’s doorstep. Beijing also claims that Washington is acting equally as dangerously in the Indo-Pacific—so presumably Xi will be compelled to prevent Taiwanese independence.

Considering Taipei’s assertions that Taiwan is “an independent country already,” a conditional U.S. promise to intervene would only provide fodder for China’s global propaganda organs, casting the United States as again reneging on a commitment not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. In practice, the “no independence” condition removes clarity from strategic clarity and enhances China’s propaganda narratives.


Like most Americans, many Taiwanese people naively assume that the U.S. military can save them from subjugation. In truth, however, Taiwan’s inherent capacity to resist an invasion until partners can come to its aid is likely a decisive factor in mounting a successful defense, and therefore in deterring an attack in the first place.

According to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), “Taiwan faces significant challenges from decades of underinvestment in defense.” In 2020, Taiwan spent just under 2 percent of its GDP on its military, while many other so-called front-line democracies, including South Korea, India, the Baltic states, Poland, and Israel, all spent more than 2 percent. While Taiwan’s defense budget has inched upward in recent years, a U.S. security guarantee would be counterproductive to overall military deterrence, because it would reduce pressure on the Taiwanese government to further increase defense spending, marginalizing effective capability enhancements such as additional defensive munitions and drones.

Lastly, the argument for strategic clarity is premised on the notion that China currently believes the United States will not intervene militarily to defend Taiwan. While Beijing’s propaganda denigrates Washington’s commitment to the region, there is scant evidence that China’s leaders actually believe it. The Chinese Communist Party’s internal doctrine frames the United States as China’s greatest threat, and China’s military likewise assumes U.S. intervention in its planning. In China, U.S. President Joe Biden’s invocations of a commitment to defend Taiwan are viewed as intentional signaling, not as unscripted commentary. As the USCC concluded, “The perceived lack of clarity … may be less relevant to deterrence failure than other factors … given that Chinese leaders already assume U.S. intervention.”


The instinct to provide a security guarantee to Taiwan arises from deeply held American values. But U.S. adversaries hold different values and are swayed by alternative propositions. Beijing would likely exploit a declaration of strategic clarity and seek to create divisions between Washington and Taipei.

From China’s point of view, a decision to invade Taiwan would not be tied to a U.S. security guarantee—Beijing already assumes that Washington will intervene. To enhance military deterrence, Washington must advance credible U.S., Taiwanese, and allied defense postures and capabilities. To increase economic and political deterrence, the United States must demonstrate willingness to hold China accountable and build coalitions to do the same. Given the high stakes, Washington must lead from the front without delay to effectively deter cross-strait aggression.

Ivan Kanapathy is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served on the U.S. National Security Council staff from March 2018 to July 2021.

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