Most Americans likely do not realize the U.S. defense treaty with Japan does not just entail a commitment to help defend the heavily populated Japanese home islands. Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden all have affirmed that the treaty also covers a chain of remote, uninhabited rocks that are closer to China than they are to the rest of Japan. Those islets, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China, are the subject of a longstanding, bitter territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing – a dispute that has been heating up noticeably in recent months.
Washington has entangled itself in a dangerous situation with little apparent thought to the possible consequences. US leaders also have undertaken that expanded obligation without seeking approval from either Congress or the American people.
America’s risk exposure is not as formal but it’s just as real with respect to Washington’s implied obligation to defend Taiwan. Even during the Cold War, US administrations were coy about whether the mutual defense treaty with Taipei also included defending Quemoy (Kinmen) and Matsu, two tiny islands just a few miles off the Chinese coast. When Washington severed official relations with Taipei in 1979 and established diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the extent of the US security obligation became even hazier. The Taiwan Relations Act entails an implied commitment to come to Taiwan’s defense if the PRC attacks the island, but any collateral obligation regarding outlying, Taiwanese-claimed islands is unclear.
That uncertainty creates an increasingly perilous situation. The PRC is steadily ratcheting up pressure on Taiwan’s pro-independence government to eschew that ambition and instead agree to talks on eventual political unification. Not only has Beijing sought to further isolate Taipei diplomatically and exclude Taiwan from international organizations, the pace of menacing PRC military operations in and around the Taiwan Strait has escalated dramatically.
Even if the prospect of US military intervention deters Beijing from attacking Taiwan itself, the continuation of such restraint with respect to Kinmen and Matsu is far less certain. The level of uncertainty is especially great regarding even more distant islands that Taiwan claims in the South China Sea. Taiwan administers two sets of islands there, the largest of which is Taiping (Itu Alba) in the Spratly chain. Taipei also controls Pratas Island (along with some atolls) in another chain, the Paracels, farther north.
PRC military pressure against any of those holdings would create a nasty dilemma for Washington. Would the United States be willing to assist Taipei in trying to defend those territories knowing that such involvement would risk a dangerous military clash with the PRC?
Although there is no hard evidence that Beijing intends to take such a gamble, there have been worrisome signs for months that PRC officials may be flirting with that option. Two separate times during the last week of January, PRC fighters and bombers in sizable numbers (13 in one case and 15 in another) penetrated Taiwan’s declared air defense identification zone. Both times, the incursion took place in the extreme southwest portion of the zone. On multiple occasions in recent weeks. PRC military aircraft not only have violated Taiwan’s proclaimed air defense identification zone, those and those planes ostentatiously flew between Taiwan itself and Pratas, 275 miles to the southwest. Pratas, which occupies a very strategic location, is closer to Hong Kong than to Taiwan. It would be a daunting logistical undertaking for US and Taiwanese forces to defend that territory if it came under attack. Protecting Taiping, which is 730 miles farther away, would be even more challenging.
The provocative flights are not the first incidents in which China’s military moves could be construed as testing whether Taiwan and the United States are both capable and willing to incur the risks of trying to sustain Taipei’s its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Last summer, the PRC conducted a very large-scale naval and air power exercise near the Spratly chain. Beijing’s patience with Taiwan’s continued refusal even to discuss political unification has been growing thin for several years – especially since the electoral victories of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in 2016 and 2020. Seizing uninhabited or very lightly inhabited islands in the South China Sea would convey an emphatic message that Taiwan must reverse its steady drift toward formal independence.
Just as the United States could become embroiled in a dangerous armed conflict if the PRC made a military move against the Senkakus, the republic could find itself in a dire situation if Beijing takes action against Taiwanese territorial holdings. Yet the stakes involved seem extremely meager for US leaders to incur such terrible risks on behalf of the American people. It’s not at all clear that those officials have thought through the potential horrific consequences in undertaking those obligations. A full congressional and public debate on both the Senkaku and Taiwanese islands situations is imperative now, before the bullets and guided missiles start flying.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.