To advance democracy, defend Taiwan and Ukraine
President Biden this week is scheduled to host a virtual Summit for Democracy with 110 democratic or democratically leaning countries and two dozen nongovernmental organizations, human rights activists and political dissidents challenging authoritarian regimes.
The summit is intended to highlight an underlying theme of the administration’s foreign policy and national security approach — that the world is essentially divided between the forces of freedom, human rights and democracy on one side, and anti-democratic regimes, human rights abusers and violators of the rule of law on the other.
The Biden initiative builds on policies advanced by the Trump administration in national strategy documents and in speeches and actions by former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others identifying China and Russia as preeminent threats to the international order and democratic governance.
Among the summit participants are Taiwan and Ukraine, which happen to be primary targets of coercion and aggression by China and Russia, respectively — and not just because of their geostrategic locations in the East and the West. The two young democracies are on the autocrats’ “enemies lists” precisely because they proudly stand on the front lines of the world’s existential moral struggle.
Neither the U.S. administration, nor any of its predecessors in either party, has been willing to declare that we will directly intervene to defend Taiwan and/or Ukraine from the aggression of their large and powerful neighbors. America has no mutual security treaty with either, having terminated the pact with Taiwan in 1979 and never having executed one with Ukraine, either bilaterally or as part of NATO.
But both the Trump and Biden administrations have expressed support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the two states as major U.S. foreign policy objectives. They have backed up those commitments with a range of tangible actions including expanded arms sales, diplomatic measures, and increasingly stern warnings to China on Taiwan and to Russia on Ukraine.
The guiding framework for U.S.-Taiwan relations is the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which provides that any acts of aggression or coercion against Taiwan would be a matter “of grave concern” and commits the United States to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.” Those provisions, by themselves, do not obligate Washington to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.
But two other TRA provisions do lay the basis for a more proactive and confrontational U.S. posture. One requires that America “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” endangering Taiwan. Mandating preparation for U.S. military intervention strongly implies anticipatory congressional authorization for such action. The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA) now languishing in Congress would make it explicit.
Other TRA language provides even more sweeping potential for a powerful but non-kinetic response to Chinese aggression against Taiwan: “The United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” This is known in U.S. contract law as a “condition subsequent,” which, if not honored, can invalidate the original agreement.
Since at least 1995, China has conducted threatening military exercises by sea and air around Taiwan. In 2005, Beijing enacted the Anti-Secession Law, which explicitly calls for using “non-peaceful” means against Taiwan if it refuses to accede to China’s unification demands. Under a normal reading of U.S. contract law, those actions clearly abrogate stated U.S. expectations and would justify severing diplomatic relations with China.
Short of such drastic action, the Biden administration should put Beijing on public notice that any use of force against any part of Taiwan’s territory would precipitate not only a military response, but also immediate official recognition of the Taipei government as the sole legitimate authority over Taiwan, and that Washington would encourage other nations to do the same.
With regard to Ukraine, the situation has several parallels to that of Taiwan. The Ukraine Freedom Support Act, signed into law by President Obama after Russia invaded in 2014, pledges to “further assist the Government of Ukraine in restoring its sovereignty and territorial integrity to deter … Russia … from further destabilizing and invading Ukraine … in coordination with allies and partners … [through] economic sanctions, diplomacy, assistance for the people of Ukraine, and the provision of military capabilities.”
As Russia has escalated its rhetoric and preparations for an attack on Ukraine, Washington has increased the level of its concerns and the gravity of its warnings to Moscow.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited “significant national security interests of the United States and of NATO member states” if Russia were to attack Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned of “severe consequences,” saying, “We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past.”
That same week, Blinken said Washington is “resolutely committed to Taiwan” and warned of “terrible consequences” for China if it “precipitated a crisis.”
Moscow has suggested it is using the invasion threat to extract a Western promise to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Manufacturing a crisis, then demanding unjustified concessions from a morally exhausted West, is a tried-and-true technique of communist regimes and other aggressive dictators.
Western officials indicate they are not falling for the ruse. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Moscow would not be able to veto a potential NATO decision to admit Ukraine. The White House agreed, saying, “NATO decides who joins NATO, not Russia,” and added that U.S. security assistance to Ukraine remains under consideration.
With strong warnings to China and Russia over the past week, the Biden administration has set a propitious tone for the Democracy Summit. If participants — especially Taiwan and Ukraine — can be assured there will be vigorous follow-up action to defend democracy if Beijing and Moscow do not come to their geopolitical senses, Biden will have put America back to its rightful place as leader of the Free World.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.