Taiwan’s ruling party has a new leader, and the change bodes ill for peace in the Indo-Pacific. Vice President Lai Ching-te, a staunch proponent of the island’s independence, took over chairmanship of the Democratic Progressive Party last week from President Tsai Ing-wen. She stepped down as party leader after the party suffered losses in recent local elections. China will now almost certainly seek to meddle in Taiwan’s 2024 election in an attempt to keep Mr. Lai from winning the presidency. If he does win, Beijing could move quickly to invade.
The U.S. is unprepared for such a crisis. President Biden broke decades of American precedent by stating twice in 2022 that the U.S. would intervene to defend Taiwan if China attacked. Usually Washington has preferred to keep the U.S. security guarantee somewhat vague. On the other hand, no American president has explicitly refused to defend Taiwan, either.
The root of U.S. reluctance to commit formally to the island republic’s defense is the complex diplomatic arrangement that governs Taiwan’s functional sovereignty. The Shanghai Communiqué of 1972, still the foundational document for Sino-American relations, allowed Washington and Beijing to disagree over Taiwan’s status as leaders in the U.S. and China got to know each other. While Beijing’s interpretation of the communiqué argues that the U.S. accepted the People’s Republic of China’s claim to Taiwan, the agreement’s text simply recognizes that, in legal terms, Taiwan and China are both part of “one China.” It thereby endorses the de jure fiction of Chinese control of Taipei while maintaining de facto Taiwanese independence.
Mr. Biden’s remarks caused a stir because a formal U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan would fundamentally violate the Chinese interpretation of the Shanghai Communiqué. American credibility is now on the line, which in theory should strengthen deterrence. China will be significantly less likely to move on Taiwan if doing so means it will have to fight the U.S. as well as the Taiwanese.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.