December 6th, 2012
11:25 AM ET

Why the U.S. shouldn't abandon Taiwan

By Denny Roy, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Dr. Denny Roy is a senior research fellow in Asian security issues with the East-West Center in Honolulu. The views expressed are his own.

China is the next superpower, the United States is in decline, and America needs to get on China’s good side. So say many analysts who have recently argued that in order to gain favor with Beijing, Washington should stop supporting Taiwan.

The U.S. support at stake here includes two explicit policies and one implied policy.

Since Taiwan cannot keep up with China’s massive military expansion, the United States sells arms to Taiwan.  Washington also insists that any settlement of the Taiwan sovereignty issue must be agreeable to Taiwan’s people, not forced on them by Beijing.  Finally, China understands that U.S. forces might intervene if Taiwan came under military attack.

The argument for abandoning Taiwan may be superficially appealing in its cold-blooded logic.  But it is terribly wrong.

U.S. foreign policy has always been a reflection of American principles along with strategic and economic interests.  Taiwan is a legitimate democracy, one with a long history of close friendship with the United States, threatened by a large authoritarian state demanding a political annexation that Taiwan’s people clearly do not want. If Americans will not stand by Taiwan, the principled component of U.S. foreign policy is dead.

But abandoning Taiwan would not be merely immoral. Washington has economic, political and strategic interests in promoting democracy worldwide. In general, democratic governments make better international citizens than authoritarian states and are more likely to be partners than adversaries in America’s pursuit of its global agenda. Abandoning Taiwan would not only reduce the democratic world in concrete terms by throwing a community of 23 million people back over the barbed-wire fence. It would also signal that America is no longer serious about promoting democratization elsewhere.

Some countries in the region are willing to stand up for their own interests against Chinese encroachment only if they have confidence in a long-term U.S. commitment to be a security partner. Other Asia-Pacific governments friendly to the United States would certainly take note if Washington sacrificed Taiwan to improve relations with China. Not only would the U.S. reputation for reliability suffer, but regional governments would perceive a shift in regional leadership from America to China.

Absorption of Taiwan by China would make Taiwan an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the Chinese military. Taiwan anchors the “first island chain,” limiting the Chinese Navy’s access to the Pacific Ocean. Conversely, occupation of Taiwan would allow Chinese forces to straddle important sea lanes that are the economic lifelines of Japan and South Korea. Chinese control of Taiwan would greatly increase the pressure on Tokyo and Seoul, critically important U.S. allies, to accommodate Beijing’s strategic wishes. These alliances, and along with them the U.S. leadership role in the western Pacific, might become untenable.

Although too small to act as a political “Trojan Horse” to massive China, as a vibrant Chinese democracy Taiwan is an influential model for China. It is easy for Chinese to dismiss the American or Western European democracies as unsuitable or unimaginable in a Chinese context, but Taiwan is a different matter. If the persistence of Taiwan as a political showcase (now viewed in person by almost two million mainland Chinese visitors annually) could constructively affect China’s political evolution toward democracy, this Taiwan contribution would be invaluable. But Taiwan requires help to safeguard its democratic system against Chinese pressure.

Advocates of abandoning Taiwan may erroneously believe that halting U.S. military and diplomatic support for Taipei would reduce tensions in East Asia. This is certainly what Beijing would have us believe. According to Chinese officials and commentators, U.S. assistance to Taipei is all that stands in the way of peaceful unification, and without it the people of Taiwan would stop resisting and accept Beijing’s terms for unification.  This premise, however, ignores an important reality: the main obstacle to unification is not U.S. arms sales, but rather Taiwanese nationalism and the wish of nearly all Taiwan’s people not to be ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Thus, withdrawal of U.S. support would not necessarily lead to a peaceful resolution of the cross-Strait imbroglio. The opposite outcome is at least as likely. Deterrence against an attack by the People’s Liberation Army would be weakened, while Taiwan’s people may well choose to fight rather than capitulate.

Another dubious assumption is that removing the Taiwan issue from U.S.-China relations would clear the way for a vastly improved bilateral relationship. It is true that Taiwan is the greatest single irritant in U.S.-China relations, that U.S. support for Taiwan reinforces Chinese suspicions of an American “containment” strategy, and that the cross-Strait war scenario is a major rationale for China’s military modernization and buildup. But neither U.S.-China relations nor Chinese regional behavior would improve much, if at all, as a result of a U.S. sellout of Taiwan. The Chinese would still have many other reasons to believe the United States is trying to keep China from rising, such as the U.S. alliances, increased American security cooperation with other governments in the region, and the alleged American “meddling” in the South China Sea dispute.

There is no reason to expect that China would do more to further the American agenda on issues such as the North Korean and Iran nuclear weapons crises, since Chinese policy follows Chinese self-interests. Most importantly, Taiwan is not the source of China-U.S. friction. The two main Asia-Pacific powers are engaged in a rivalry for regional leadership and, even more fundamentally, in a struggle between two competing models for conducting international relations: one based on modern international laws and norms, and the other based on a return to the Sinocentric sphere of influence that prevailed for much of history. Rather than satisfying and pacifying Beijing, a U.S. concession regarding Taiwan might embolden Chinese demands for more concessions aimed at further weakening America’s strategic position in the Asia-Pacific region.

Many observers see America in permanent decline and China as the anointed regional hegemon, but both of these outcomes are highly uncertain.  Although now in the trough of an unemployment and fiscal crisis, the United States will probably recover. Conversely, China faces serious limits to its bid for regional leadership. These include internal vulnerabilities such as an aging population, the potential for large-scale political turmoil caused by groups angry at the Chinese government, and the necessity of making huge and painful adjustments to the Chinese economy.

Externally, few states in Asia prefer Chinese to U.S. leadership. Unless China becomes overwhelmingly strong and American capabilities greatly diminish, security cooperation among the Asia-Pacific countries in defense of widely-accepted norms of international behavior will be sufficient to check those Chinese aspirations that are illegitimate in that they forcibly intrude on other people’s vital interests.

One of these illegitimate aspirations is the notion that China cannot be a prosperous, secure great power without politically absorbing Taiwan, the last big piece of unfinished business from China’s “century of humiliation.” Abandoning Taiwan would, tragically, acquiesce to this notion. The threat of Taiwan independence is an unfortunate invention of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a fake threat. An autonomous Taiwan is not preventing massive increases in China’s prosperity and security. On the other hand, Beijing’s threat to militarily destroy the political system and political identity chosen by Taiwan’s people is real.

Abandoning Taiwan is completely at odds with the broad U.S. agenda for international affairs as well as with the specific policy of “re-balancing” toward Asia. Washington should consider cutting off its support to Taiwan only if the United States has decided to abdicate its leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region and pull its influence back to the Western Hemisphere.


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Topics: Asia • China • Military • Taiwan • United States

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Really?

    The US won't bring much to Taiwan other than more weapon sales, and it abandoning Taiwan now or later is only a matter of time. Since people such as Saddam, Mubarak and even Al Qaeda were all abandoned when it wasn't in the US's interest to keep them anymore.
    Taiwan as an independent nation should try to keep away from being one of the US's temporary puppets, the US have a history of abandoning "allies."
    And as for the US's plan to "containing China"..... Keep on wasting tax payer's money on the military, it's the only thing the US have going for it, even though there are tons of better investment options... such as infrastructure and high speed rails.

    December 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Reply
    • Denny Roy

      Thanks for your views.

      You seem to make two points. First, that US support doesn't matter because it is "little more than weapons sales." I disagree. The weapons sales and the possibility of US intervention raise the cost to China of trying for a military solution, and therefore help deter this choice. A policy that helps avert war on Taiwan while allowing Taiwan's people to shape their chosen destiny is exactly what is needed.

      Second, you point out that America doesn't have a good track record when it comes to supporting allies. The examples you cited (Saddam, Mubarak, al Qaeda) are unfortunate because Taiwan is a far more worthy ally in the sense of sharing US values. But I accept your point that the risk of the US abandoning Taiwan is high. Exactly why I wrote this article.

      December 6, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
      • lynn

        i am a chinese, as far as i was concerned, i don't hope any violence happened between these 2 countries, if we say taiwan is a country. and i think china would never be threatened by a couple of aircrafts selling by America, after all, taiwan is much weaker, i think china would never do military work to Taiwan, as we are the same nation, we all love our nation

        December 7, 2012 at 10:59 am |
      • Taiwanese for Life

        Denny, I totally agreed with your views. US arms sales to Taiwan has guaranteed the island's security for the last 60 years. It makes the Chinese think twice about using military option on Taiwan. However, with China getting stronger I do worry that its leadership will become more assertive and arrogant about annex Taiwan and the South China Sea. This will inevitably leads to war between China and the United States. Are you awared that China is pushing for a peace agreement with Taiwan, but president Ma backs off? What happens if Taiwan refuses China's proposal, and China threatens to use force? This day could come. You know what I mean.

        December 7, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        The US wouldn't abandon Taiwan and it's highly unlikely that China would "re-possess" Taiwan.
        Yes, Beijing keeps increasing the number of short-range missiles aimed at Taiwan, hence Taipeh sees its relationship with Washington pivotal, which is the main weapons supplier to the island. Taiwan is one of the world's biggest buyers of arms and Beijing regularly expresses anger at US arms sales to Taiwan. China knows the intricacies of "re-possessing" Taiwan and it will do its cost/benefit analysis before taking serious action. We will see periods of sabre rattling and muscle flexing now and then, but nothing more!

        December 8, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • Taiwanese for Life

      You miss the point about Taiwan. Taiwan is considered a "close" US Allie. This is not some distant friendship. They are close in term of visa waver, military, trade, democracy, human rights, democratic government, intelligence sharing about China, respect for private property, freedom of speech, and worship...ect. The list goes on. The US can do more than just selling arms to Taiwan like free trade agreement between the two countries, helping Taiwan to join more international organization, more high level official visits, and allow Taiwan to have joint military exercise with it and some other allies. Your view is extreme, and is not compatibility with the current status in Taiwan. I will say US -Taiwan freiendship remains strong for many years to come as Taiwan is weary about China's political ambition. This is indicated as China-friendly Taiwan president Ma does not trust China politically.

      December 7, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  2. Austin Wang

    Unfortunately, China had began its war toward Taiwan.
    Not military war, but business and media one.

    December 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
    • Denny Roy

      Austin, you are right to point out that Beijing is gaining leverage and could eventually get its way regardless of US support to Taipei. All Washington can do is try to encourage the right outcome.

      December 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  3. Greg

    Would the American people be willing to go to war with China over Taiwan? No.

    But no need to worry. Taiwan will sell itself to China. Twenty-three million islanders
    are more that willing to sell themselves to China for the right price. Scientists, professors,
    doctors, industrialists, etc., are all willing to head east and abandon Taiwan for the quick $.

    Taiwan believes the United States will never let them slide into China, no matter what they do.
    The United States should say nothing and do nothing. No reason to save Taiwan from themselves.

    December 6, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Reply
    • Sad people

      Greg, reading your comment about Taiwan, i feel really shameful and struggling myself to should I agree your points. First, i would like to clear that Taiwan Twenty-three million islanders do not want to sell ourselves to China, sadly, only our president would. Second, There are many people in China for money, no matter their social status, but what i heard, some of them found it is really hard to break in the market, and also fit in living there. Not all people want to go there for living, however they all admit that it is crucial to go there.
      As for last part of your comment, it is seems like Taiwan is helpless for this situation, and rarely anyone realize what is going on outside the island.

      December 6, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Reply
    • Jennifer

      I am a strong support of Taiwanese independence but I am glad Greg posted this comment. What can you do for the people who chose a President who is kowtowing to China? What does this say about the Taiwanese people? and truthfully on some days, it makes me wonder why I am advocating for them when they chose this for themselves..but then I remember, the TW people don't realize how much they are sacrificing by giving into the quick dollar but I do, so i must keep caring and fighting for what's right.

      December 7, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  4. Lipumano

    Although, since the Nixon Administration, we do not recognize the Republic of China as the one true government of greater China, it itself is still a sovereign nation-state, regardless of whether the majority of nations do not recognize it.
    As a former ally, and due to our own laws which regulate our policies regarding the sovereignty of the Island of Taiwan, we should continue to support their wishes to remain a sovereign/independent nation-state. Let us not forget, that Red China is the Communist nation responsible for the repression at Tianenmen Square of pro-democracy reformist.

    December 7, 2012 at 12:56 am | Reply
  5. John

    Hi Everyone,
    I am an American who has been living in Taipei for the past 12 years. Taiwanese are very proud of keeping their Traditional Chinese language (they will never change to simplified Chinese) and proud of being distinct from mainland Chinese. While its true that many taiwnese travel to and from the mainland for their jobs, they never lose sight of their goal, which is to stay independent from the mainland as long as possible, that being said, most Taiwanese realize that sooner or later the mainland will absorb Taiwan through financial means. In my opinion, I think the USA and mainland china are both interested in keeping things the way they are now. In defense of the USA, it is nowhere near decline, they have huge untapped oil reserves, the largest far flung empire and military of this era, and control of a huge part of the world's drugs. And there you have you have it, GOD, or Guns-Oil-Drugs. Talk of US decline is just propaganda.
    The only way mainland china would even consider taking Taiwan would be in the event of WW3. In that case all bets are off on what the USA might or might not do in aid to Taiwan. So just relax everybody things will go on this way until that dreaded day arrives.

    December 7, 2012 at 1:20 am | Reply
  6. luano

    Sir, I take issue with Denny Roy's comments about "America is no longer serious about promoting democratization elsewhere". I wonder where Denny Roy' has been living for the last century? America has always been on the side of dictators provided they were anti-communist and as long as they let American companies exploit cheaply their resources..
    Remember the Shah of Iran? He was no democrat. General Batista? General Franco? Salazar? The Emir of Kuwait? The Saudi Royals, are they democratic? Bahrain, a close US ally, do they allow free elections? Only in Central and South America there are countless examples of the US supporting evil dictatorships against the peoples. remember Chiang Kai Shek, Soeharto and so many others. Please study some history Denny Roy,before you make such false assumptions.

    December 7, 2012 at 3:39 am | Reply
    • Denny Roy

      Iuano, thanks for reading and commenting on the article.

      I have two problems with your comment. First, I'm not sure if you were being intentionally ironic when you listed examples of US support for "anti-communist dictators" as evidence for the point that America always supports democracy. I suspect you were being obtuse rather than brilliantly sarcastic, given the other problem I have with your comment: your rant about me being ignorant of history, based on your mischaracterization of what I wrote. I said America would appear no longer serious about promoting democractization IF America abandoned Taiwan. The point of my article is that I support America continuing to promote democracy.

      December 7, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  7. Biko lang

    In a world where china matters, taiwan matters even more

    December 7, 2012 at 6:09 am | Reply
  8. Hate Wins

    So a Chamberlin style agreement with any new "Hitler’s" is preferable to protecting a good friend.
    Give a playground bully your lunch money on Monday and please don’t be surprised when he/she wants it on Tuesday, Wednesday etc. If Taiwan is sacrificed in the name of appeasement then WE DO NOT DESERVE OUR FREEDOM. If Taiwan votes to be adsorbed by China then it let it happen. But don't be surprised when China demands your lunch money.
    Those who do not study history are commended to repeat it. Almost all the appeasements made in the last 100 years have come back and bit us in the butt.
    As far as so of the U.S. pass alliances. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend"
    A good example is Finland a Co-belligerent with Germany in WW2 fighting the USSR. Even though the U.K. sided with Russia and declared war in Finland the U.S. did not. This most likely was first stand against communism in Europe the U.S. made openly. Finland fought a hard and desperate war with only two countries supporting them, Sweden and Germany. About the only thing Germany did I can agree on.
    Pray a prayer for those who died 71 years ago today defending our FREEDOM.
    Remember Pearl Harbor

    December 7, 2012 at 8:34 am | Reply
  9. Hate Wins

    Denny Roy I do in fact agree with you. I have worked with the Taiwan military.

    December 7, 2012 at 8:37 am | Reply
    • Denny Roy


      December 7, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  10. Just For Fun

    No matter the 21st. is comming. No more world at midnight.

    December 7, 2012 at 10:47 am | Reply
  11. Uncle Sam

    We may not have a choice on supporting Taiwan as we become increasingly dependent on, and indebted to, the PRC.

    The first thing we need to do is implement a long term program to prohibit importation of manufactured goods from countries that do not have equivalent environmental protection, wage and hour, workplace safety and other laws and that pay less than the equivalent U.S. minimum wage. I call this leveling the playing field.

    If we accomplish that, then we can have the independence to make decisions on issues like whether to support Taiwan.

    December 7, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  12. Jennifer

    As a member of Formosan Association of Public Affairs which advocates for international support of Taiwan, I want to express my thanks for writing this article. At a time when most Americans only care about economic policies and don't think Taiwan matters in the whole scheme, I am grateful that you are address this relevant issue. Please keep up your great research work.

    December 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Reply
    • Denny Roy

      I appreciate your comment, Jennifer.

      December 7, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  13. GreatPeople

    Taiwanese are like just like Cantonese, Shanghainese, HongKongee, Zhangren or any other people of China. We are tied by History, Long Culture and BLOOD. The complicated situation now were the result of you imperialist and colonist in the past.

    Feel proud for what happened in the past all you can. It is a different world now. Only people driven by hidden agenda(money, political status, corruption, spy) want to be kept separated from their umbilical motherland for long. China had suffered the most of foreign invasion in the not so distant past. Anybody not wearing a colored lens would celebrated that as the achievement of great human spirit. We ordinary people just want to get on and hope for a better life for our children.

    Don't meddle in our Chinese's business anymore. Don't play "god". Do not think that you know better as we know what you have done is for your own interest ONLY.

    By the way, I was born a taiwanese but will die a CHINESE.

    December 10, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Reply
    • Taiwanese

      In Taiwan, at least we get to decide who we want to represent our country. There is really no transparency in how the government operates in China – embezzlement, corruption, poltical favors and don't even get me started on things the government "filter out" from the media because they don't want you to know certain facts. All I can say is, just stick with the lands that you already have and cultivate them. Stop trying to conquer the world and make people who obviously do not want to be part of your country to do so.

      December 21, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
    • A person

      I would say I am a Chinese as my race and Taiwanese as my nationality.

      December 22, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • Taiwanese

      I would like to say 'Don't meddle in our Taiwanese business anymore." Taiwan is Taiwan and China is China. Please let Taiwan go. Don't you see the anti-mainland China protest to Chinese in Hong Kong and Singapore?

      February 17, 2013 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  14. Second person

    I would say I am a Taiwanese ethnically and a Taiwanese by nationality. I am not sure what the rest of things that GreatPeople said was about.

    January 22, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  15. michael chen

    Importance in the asia-pacific strategic position of Taiwan has long been ignored and underestimated its national strength
    The United States it is necessary to improve and strengthen the Taiwan relations act

    March 31, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
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    December 3, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  17. Good Riddance

    The U.S. has no interest in expanding democracy save for those nations which don't appeal to the U.S.'s interest at large. Don't be so naive. The only reason that the U.S. still hangs on to Taiwan is because it is still a territory of the U.S. (don't use your opinions to contradict this FACT, go look at the Treaty of San Francisco!) The Taiwanese people at large have no interest in even having relations with foreigners. Again, before you start talking according to your childish opinions, go ask people that have actually lived in Taiwan for an extended period of time. Taiwanese people are spoiled brats who need to learn real lessons of life. If the U.S. had any true desire to uphold democracy in the world, they would have intervened over 60 years ago and crushed Mao's forces with an allied effort. The Taiwanese government was given a chance to govern the region of Taiwan, and they continue to do a horrible job of it.

    February 9, 2014 at 5:54 am | Reply
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