John J. Tkacik, Jr. On Taiwan: ‘Pacts Americana’: America’s Indo-Pacific Security ‘Lattice’ and Taiwan

John J. Tkacik, Jr. On Taiwan: ‘Pacts Americana’: America’s Indo-Pacific Security ‘Lattice’ and Taiwan
John J. Tkacik, Jr. On Taiwan: ‘Pacts Americana’: America’s Indo-Pacific Security ‘Lattice’ and Taiwan

Last month marked a redesign of the security architecture in the Western Pacific. The US significantly tightened its regional network of bilateral treaties with allies Japan, the Republic of the Philippines (RP), Australia and the United Kingdom. That network is called a “lattice” in Washington. But it is a “lattice” woven of 70-year-old security treaties no longer capable of confronting “gray-zone” threats from nation-states that are themselves both aggressors and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

By contrast, the 45-year-old Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), if one reads it literally, expresses a broader, “rock solid,” American security commitment than the old “ironclad” bilateral security commitments in America’s 1950s treaties.

Let me review the current US security network, now called a “lattice” in Washington to distinguish it from the old “hub-and-spoke” of bilateral pacts. The United States has mutual defense treaties with Japan, the Philippines, Australia and South Korea, all thus far managed separately via the central “hub” of the American capital.

Over the past decade, each partner has confronted its own security challenges from China. Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) attacks on Philippine Navy vessels in the South China Sea occur biweekly. Japan, for three consecutive days just last week, encountered CCG harassment in the “Senkaku Islands” (尖閣諸島 or 釣魚台). Australia and the ROK, too, have reoriented their alliances with the US to cope with Chinese threats. Both Manila and Tokyo ask, repeatedly, for Washington’s reassurance that their respective bilateral treaties cover territories challenged by Beijing.

The Biden Administration — and every previous administration — has provided such assurances.

But there is a rub. The old treaties require that the parties come under “armed attack,” and that they “report” the aggression to the UN Security Council.

China is a permanent member of the Council, yet it illegally lays claim to the entire 1.3 million square miles (3.37 square kilometers) of the South China Sea including a quarter-million square miles of the RP’s exclusive economic zone. Three times in the past two months, CCG ships in Philippine waters of the South China Sea used pressurized seawater to attack small cargo boats resupplying the RP garrison at “Second Thomas Shoal.”

But were those confrontations “armed attacks?”

Filipino mariners have been injured in each of the Chinese attacks. The four Filipino navy seamen who happened to be in the wheelhouse of the small supply vessel Unaizah May 4, on March 5 might well have thought “if this isn’t an armed attack, I don’t know what is!”

Philippine Navy Vice Admiral Carlos was an observer on the Unaizah May 4. He, too, was bloodied by flying glass in a blast of Chinese water cannonade. He, too, clearly felt the treaty definition of “armed attack” left something to be desired

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, preparing for a meeting in Washington with President Joe Biden, said it “was not the time nor reason to invoke the treaty,” but viewed the incident “with great alarm.”

In Washington, Philippine foreign secretary Enrique Manalo said on April 14, “we do underscore the need to continue further clarificatory discussions on the [Mutual Defense Treaty]as we think this would also help in deterring further escalation by China.”

As United States diplomats prepared their China strategies through March and April, they were determined to approach Beijing on behalf of their allies from a position of strength. If Beijing wanted brinkmanship, Washington needed a credible security “lattice” to compete.

By late April, the Americans had assembled one they hoped would persuade Beijing toward restraint.

The Biden administration backed-up Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s April 24-26 meetings with China’s “State Chairman” Xi Jinping (習近平) and foreign affairs czar Wang Yi (王毅) with a 2024 edition of the annual “Balikatan” exercise, this year involving major and unprecedented joint US-Philippine-Japanese military maneuvers in the South China Sea and the Bashi Strait. “Balikatan 2024” also included Australian and French naval forces in a “joint sail” demonstration which sank a mock “enemy ship” — the decommissioned BRP Lake Caliraya, which happened to be the only Philippine ship built in China.

Not only that. By the time Secretary Blinken arrived in Beijing, the US Army had, for the first time in four decades, deployed in East Asia ground-based intermediate-range Tomahawk missiles capable of hitting targets south China. Where? In Luzon!

There was more. President Biden hosted Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for an unprecedented tripartite summit at the White House.

The Japanese prime minister on April 11 delivered an address to a joint session of Congress and declared that “China’s current external stance and military actions present an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge, not only to the peace and security of Japan but to the peace and stability of the international community at large.” Alluding to China’s designs on Taiwan, Kishida cautioned that “Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow,” a remark that drew a standing ovation.

China’s incipient hegemony has thus revived the long dormant American “lattice” of security pacts with key Western Pacific allies, Japan, the RP and Australia. Even Great Britain got into the act with proposals that Japan join in advanced military technology ventures.

But the “lattice” of American security treaties in the Western Pacific has at least two problems.

First, the treaties rest on the presumption that treaty parties will come under “armed attack.” As Manila and Tokyo have seen, “armed attack” is just above the threshold of China’s “gray zone” tactics. China’s coast guard holds to water cannons, ramming, and swarms of fishing boats to harass adversaries.

Second, every mutual defense / security treaty to which the United States is a party requires such “armed attack … shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations [UNSC] … Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

Today, reporting to the UNSC where China is a permanent member is a fruitless exercise.

Now consider the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). In 1979, the US Senate was dissatisfied by the Carter administration’s lack of security commitments after derecognizing Taipei.

Senator Frank Church (D-ID) redrafted the TRA’s security clauses with Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY). Javits described the redraft as “functionally equivalent to a security treaty.”

As a result, the US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) clause specifying that military action would be triggered narrowly by “armed attack … directed from without” was replaced in the TRA with a clause triggered by “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes.”

The MDT’s clause that an “armed attack” “shall be immediately reported to the Security Council of the United Nations” was dropped for obvious reasons. Instead, the TRA says: “the President is directed to inform the Congress promptly,” not merely of an external armed attack, but of “of any threat” to Taiwan’s “security or social or economic system…”

As with the MDT, the TRA states that “the President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.”

What “appropriate action?” The TRA enunciates a unilateral US policy “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan” and “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.”

Ten days ago, President Biden signed a US$8 billion military aid package for Taiwan, the first since 1978. And there mentioned is a large American military presence in Taiwan preparing combat communications, weapons training and all the multilateral familiarization functions that huge theater-wide combat exercises like “Balikatan 2024” need.

Beijing’s grand strategy seems to rest on employing “gray zone” aggression to intimidate America’s allies “in detail” because their separate bilateral pacts are premised both on “armed attack” and UN consideration, before China moves against Taiwan where TRA commitments are tripped by “ any resort to force or coercion” and eschew the UN. As such, the provisions of the TRA provide a new conceptual framework for the United States to manage a multilateral, cooperative security “lattice” with partners in the Indo-Pacific.

John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

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The article is in Dutch

Tags: John Tkacik Taiwan Pacts Americana Americas IndoPacific Security Lattice Taiwan


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