Taiwan as a Humanitarian Factor in Sino-American Relations

The humanitarian factor in Sino-American strategic relations is important in terms of U.S. policy towards Taiwan and China. This factor becomes critical when the President of the United States feels obligated to use force overseas due to his or her personal moral beliefs or those of a significant majority of the American people. A 2012 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 70 percent of Americans would favor deploying U.S. troops to stop a government from killing its own citizens. This humanitarian value appears to have played a key role in President Bill Clinton’s decision to intervene in Bosnia in 1995 and in President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene to rescue the Yazidis from ISIS in 2014. U.S. intervention to stop atrocities has never been a given, however, as illustrated by the lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Nor did the United States intervene to stop Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, or Mao’s invasion of Tibet. Whether the United States would intervene, on humanitarian grounds alone, to stop China for absorbing Taiwan by force needs to be examined more closely to define some of the parameters influencing such a decision.

As seen in historical precedents, the United States is less likely to intervene on humanitarian grounds when the offender is a large, powerful country, than it is when the offender is a weaker country. This would weigh against U.S. intervention on Taiwan’s behalf in the event of a PRC attack on Taiwan. Precedent would also suggest that the likelihood of intervention is also less when the incident is isolated geographically or in an area not easily accessible by American power projection. In the case of Taiwan, the United States is well position for intervention, making such an action more likely. Another factor is the historical relationship between the American people and those being subject to abuse by another country. The people of Taiwan and the people of the United States have a long history of close and friendly ties, thereby making intervention on humanitarian grounds more likely. Relatedly, intervention is made more or less likely by the level of friendship between the offending party and the United States. In a scenario of China attacking Taiwan, there is some conflict of interest here, because the American people have long admired China even though they have sometimes felt antagonism towards that country, especially during the early years of communist rule. There is also the factor of perceptions of good and evil. The Communist Party of China is seen by many Americans as being inherently evil because it is both cruel to its own people in matters of free expression and atheistic. The government of Taiwan is not viewed in that way by the American people. In this respect, therefore, the possibility of U.S. intervention on humanitarian grounds is greater rather than lesser. Finally, there is also a de facto factor, such as if the worst abuses have already occurred and intervention by the United States is likely to be too late to remedy the situation. In this event, if China quickly occupied Taiwan and then committed abuses, it would be difficult for the American government to do much about it.

Overall, it would be appear that the likelihood of American intervention to stop PRC atrocities are only slightly higher than nonintervention. Critically, to be effective the intervention would probably have to occur before the atrocities began. In other words, if China were to seize control of Taiwan in a successful fait accompli, the United States would likely feel unable to intervene on Taiwan’s behalf to protect the humanitarian interests of the island’s population. On the other hand, if the United States believed it could stop a potential humanitarian disaster by deterring the PRC from forcefully taking over Taiwan, then there is a fairly high possibility it would do so. 

These observations, when coupled with the many other interests the United States has in helping Taiwan resist PRC aggression, should give pause to Chinese leaders contemplating a use of force against Taiwan. While American intervention ought not be taken for granted, the probability of intervention is high enough that it would be risky for Beijing to assume nonintervention. In this delicate balance of interests, the humanitarian factor could be sufficient to tip the American decision in favor of intervention, although no U.S. leader would make that decision lightly.