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

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