Forget Montenegro, what about Taiwan?

It has long been assumed the US would have no choice but to intervene militarily if Taiwan was attacked, presumably by mainland forces. But with US President Donald Trump questioning whether America would come to the aid of a Nato country, that assumption seems in doubt

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 7:40pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 10:59pm

In light of Donald Trump’s comments on “aggressive” Montenegro, it would be interesting if someone were to ask him about Taiwan.

In a bizarre interview, the US president was asked on Fox News whether an American should have to send his own son to defend the tiny Balkan country. TV host Tucker Carlson asked: “So, let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked. Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?”

He was referring to Montenegro’s new membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), which requires collective defence in the event of any one member being attacked. The subtext of Carlson’s question was that America should not have to commit to the defence of an insignificant country in nowhere land.

The president responded: “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question ... Tiny Montenegro [has] very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and congratulations, you’re in world war three.”

Trump has been complaining about Nato member states getting a free ride on America’s defence commitments. Now, he seems to be questioning Article 5 of the Nato treaty, which requires every member state to come to the aid of another member under attack. It has only been invoked once in Nato’s history, and that was when member states cited it collectively in support of the US after the September 11 terrorist attacks in America in 2001. Yes, America had friends then, and it was thanks to that exact article that Trump is now trying to undermine.

What would the US do if Beijing decided to take Taiwan by force?

But this raises an obvious question. If Trump can question America’s treaty commitment under Nato, what of its defence commitment to Taiwan?

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, made after Washington threw Taipei under the bus in exchange for recognising mainland China, the US can provide adequate military provisions to the island.

Like the Nato treaty, the US has no obligations to come to its aid should Taiwan act as the aggressor. Unlike the Nato treaty, it’s not clear whether the US would have to commit militarily if the island was attacked, presumably by mainland forces.

This is the “strategic ambiguity” often referred to in such discussions. Everyone assumed, though, that Washington would have no choice but to intervene militarily – until now.

Perhaps Carlson could ask Trump in a future interview: “Why should my son be sent to defend an Asian island half way around the world?”