On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and immediately dragged the U.S. and China into the bloody conflict. It was the culmination of not a single event, but a series of missteps.
In 1949, the U.S. had withdrawn its forces from Korea and key U.S. officials made public statements that caught the attention of Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing. President Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and General Douglas MacArthur delineated U.S. strategic interests in Asia—and excluded South Korea and Taiwan from the security perimeter.
Communist leaders saw a U.S. green light to unify one or both countries. The only question was who would move first—but that was answered when Josef Stalin helped Kim il-Sung, preempting Mao Zedong.
North Korea’s aggression demolished the State Department’s sanguine assurances and alerted Truman to the danger of Communist expansion in Asia. The president mobilized a hasty United Nations defense and war ensued. He also deployed the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait to prevent conflict there.
After the Korean War ended in stalemate, President Eisenhower signed Mutual Defense Treaties with both South Korea and Taiwan in 1954 and the U.S. military presence kept the peace for the next decade-and-a-half.
But strategic clarity and deterrence on the Taiwan front began to erode in 1972 with President Nixon’s historic opening to China. In the Shanghai Communique, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger finessed the Taiwan status question, saying the U.S. did not challenge the view that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.” Kissinger called it his “ambiguous formula,” and Nixon called it “brilliant.” Chou En-lai, Kissinger’s negotiating partner, liked it, too.
Washington also stated its “interest in a peaceful settlement” but did not say it would oppose the use of force by either side. And the U.S. withdrew the Seventh Fleet, the primary obstacle to a Chinese attack on Taiwan. Kissinger’s book On China suggests a tacit understanding that Washington would acquiesce in a takeover of Taiwan after a decent interval.
According to Kissinger’s memoir, Mao assured Nixon that China was willing to wait to conquer Taiwan: “We can do without them for the time being, and let it come after 100 years.” On another occasion he said China could wait 100 years, or 10 years, or 5, he wasn’t quite sure.
In 1979, President Carter completed Nixon’s mission and switched recognition from the nationalist dictatorship on Taiwan to the Communist dictatorship in China, while maintaining the agnostic “one China policy” on who should rule Taiwan. He also terminated the 25-year-old U.S. defense treaty with Taiwan.
A furious Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act committing the U.S. to provide Taiwan with self-defense articles and declared cross-Strait peace to be a U.S. national security interest. But it did not explicitly commit Washington to defend Taiwan as the Defense Treaty had.
In July 1995, Beijing fired missiles across the strait to protest a U.S. visit by Taiwan’s appointed president and announced its intention to resume the “exercises” as Taiwan’s first presidential election approached. Just to be sure of U.S. intentions, and to avoid North Korea’s disastrous mistake in 1950, PLA officials in December directly asked how the U.S. would respond if China attacked Taiwan.
Assistant Secretary of State Nye, equally anxious not to repeat Washington’s 1950 mistake, answered: “We don’t know and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.” So, he avoided giving Beijing a green light—but he also failed to give a red light with an unequivocal commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Instead, he gave an amber light—proceed with caution.
Defense Secretary Perry adopted Nye’s “strategic ambiguity” formulation and it has been Washington’s official mantra ever since.
A week after Nye’s statement, President Clinton ordered the Nimitz carrier group to pass through the Strait, the first such transit in 23 years. China vehemently protested and Washington explained it was merely a weather diversion, not a warning or commitment to Taiwan’s defense.
So, to protest Taiwan’s presidential election in March 1996, China tested the U.S. and again fired missiles across the strait. This time Clinton dispatched two carriers but Beijing threatened a “sea of fire” if they entered the Strait. They didn’t and the crisis dissipated.
A senior U.S. official later said “it was our own Cuban missile crisis . . . we had stared into the abyss.”
We don't know whether we deterred more serious Chinese aggression against Taiwan on that occasion. But China now knew what it had to do to succeed in such an attack: create “circumstances” to deter or delay U.S. intervention. It has since built a formidable arsenal of “anti-access” weapons, including advanced submarines and the world’s first ship-killing ballistic missiles.
In 2001, President George W. Bush seemed to restore the clear U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security that prevailed from 1950 to 1979 when he said he would do “whatever it took” to defend now-democratic Taiwan. But shocked China experts within and outside the administration soon walked that back and restored the venerable ambiguity policy.
After September 11, the Bush and Obama administrations convinced themselves that China is a reliable partner on anti-terrorism, counter-proliferation, and North Korea. Taiwan is seen increasingly as an irritant to good Sino-U.S. relations.
Mao’s successors have significantly shortened the fuse on Taiwan’s unification deadline. The 2006 Anti-Secession Law said China could attack if Taipei simply took too long to surrender, and in a 2007 Asia Society interview, Kissinger warned that China “would not wait forever.”
To prevent another Asian war by miscalculation, Washington must state clearly, decisively, and publicly that it will defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression or coercion.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense as China country desk officer from 2005 to 2006 and previously taught graduate seminars on China-U.S. relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.