September 12th, 2013
09:14 AM ET

Don’t abandon Taiwan for better China ties

By Abraham Denmark and Tiffany Ma, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Abraham M. Denmark is vice president for Political and Security Affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), and previously served as Country Director for China Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Tiffany Ma is a project manager at NBR. The views expressed are their own.

According to Chinese media, Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan arrived in Washington last month to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel with a grand bargain in mind: that Beijing would adjust its military deployments along the Taiwan Strait if the United States ended arms sales to Taiwan. Although a Chinese official reportedly claimed that Hagel had a positive response to the suggestion of forming a working group to explore this proposal, Washington quickly dismissed concerns that this might represent a change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Yet even after the media flames are doused, this proposal will likely encourage a small but growing contingent within the U.S. academic community that sees downgrading U.S. obligations to Taiwan as a justifiable trade for improved U.S.-China relations.

To be sure, this was not the first time that China has pushed such a proposal, and it certainly won’t be China’s last word on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Nonetheless, Washington has robust reasons to stand firm on its commitments to Taiwan and to disregard any such proposals that may come from Beijing.

The U.S. position on this issue is founded on a complex mix of diplomatic agreements, laws and policies that all generally point to America's continued support of Taiwan. Between 1972 and 1982, Washington and Beijing signed three joint communiqués that paved the way for the establishment of normalized relations between the United States and China and for the relationship's maturation. The final communiqué, signed by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, included the following passage:

“[T]he United States Government states that it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”

But just one month prior to signing this document, President Reagan issued six assurances that, among other things, the United States would not consult with China on potential arms sales to Taiwan. Moreover, and with the force of law, U.S. policy toward Taiwan is informed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which commits Washington to make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.

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Yet beyond simply honoring a legal requirement and a policy legacy, Washington’s ongoing support of Taiwan reflects the island’s continuing importance to a broad set of American interests in Asia. Indeed, Taiwan’s steady track record as a reliable friend to the United States stacks up on the side of Washington’s assets, not liabilities. As a remarkable success story of democratic transition and a vibrant hub in the global economy, Taiwan plays a vital economic and political role in the Asia-Pacific. Further, the island plays an important role in the United States’ regional security architecture, and this has been one of the constant features in Asia’s evolving strategic environment.

Washington’s renewed focus on Asia brings even more compelling reasons not to bargain away assurances to Taiwan. The potential for mainland China to use force in an effort to settle cross-Strait differences remains a potential flashpoint in Asia, despite a profound improvement in relations between Taiwan and the mainland since 2008. Indeed, the cross-Strait détente has not slowed China’s military buildup – the 2013 Pentagon report on Chinese military power noted that China now fields more than 1,100 short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan.

With Taiwan poised to play a role in the United States’ rebalance strategy, enabling Taiwan’s capacity to contribute as an effective partner becomes more critical than ever. Buckling to pressure from Beijing would not only lose Washington a valuable partner in its rebalancing efforts, but also heighten concerns among other U.S. allies and friends of being sidelined for China, and even affirm a perception of U.S. appeasement to Chinese demands.

Militarily, meanwhile, this proposed bargain makes little sense for American interests. If implemented, Taiwan's ability to defend itself would be greatly diminished, while China would be able to quickly re-deploy its military forces across from Taiwan. Indeed, there is a tremendous amount of evidence that U.S. arms sales improve cross-Strait stability by deterring the mainland from using military force while also giving Taipei the much-needed security it requires to engage the mainland with a diminished fear of attack or coercion. The historically unprecedented peace and stability that China and Taiwan have enjoyed since 2008, while certainly the result of policy decisions made in Beijing and Taipei, has also been grounded in U.S. military support for Taiwan.

Despite the potential adverse repercussions, U.S. proponents for abandoning Taiwan may argue that ending the arms sales will engender greater cooperation from Beijing. However, this is far from likely. China’s rising assertiveness in the region, from territorial claims to support for a belligerent North Korea, will remain sticking points in the bilateral relationship. Assumptions of progress on global security issues, from climate change to non-proliferation, often fail to consider fundamental differences in national interests. In short, selling out Taiwan is not the panacea to challenges in the U.S.-China relationship. Indeed, appeasement has a history of simply generating additional demands for greater acquiescence.

Thankfully, people in Taiwan can rest assured that calls to accept such an agreement have gained little to no traction in Washington's halls of power, and this has been true for both Democratic and Republican administrations. Yet is it clear that, as China's importance to the United States grows, so too will calls for the United States to fundamentally reevaluate its relationship with Taiwan.

The answer to the challenge of maintaining a positive relationship with Beijing is not to sacrifice a stalwart, democratic friend. Rather, both Washington and Beijing must find ways to cooperate on issues of mutual interest, and when possible avoid competitive or confrontational issues, within the context of America's ongoing relations with Taiwan. Friends can disagree, but only adversaries allow those disagreements to define a relationship. For U.S.-China relations to truly mature, it must grow beyond issues of Taiwan and address challenges that deserve the focus of two great powers.

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Topics: China • Taiwan • United States

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. sand

    usa is finished anyway 1 chinese icbm armed with 10 nuclear warheads when that thing seperates and comes down from space usa is burned to dust.

    September 12, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Reply
    • outdplay

      And you do not think the US has any such weapon? I would be surprised if the chinese icbm even made it off the launch pad.

      September 13, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  2. rightospeak

    The fate of Taiwan will be determined by our banker, the Communist Chinese. The US has little to say. Money talks , the US b.s. walks.

    September 13, 2013 at 10:17 am | Reply
  3. smallpotato

    Communist China will die soon just like all other Communist countries. Yup, money talks and soon it will corrupt itself to death. Just watch. It's controlled by bunch of crooked politicians and it's doomed.

    September 13, 2013 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • Really?

      And the US MIC corporate interest only politicians aren't leading the US down a slippery slope now? Your blindness to your own government's faults are astounding.

      September 13, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  4. AndrewL

    Taiwan and the rest of the Southeast Asian countries have a dilemma. On one hand, they want all the economic benefits of trading with China. On the other hand, they fear becoming economically dependent on China and being dominated by China. Hence, their strategy is to play U.S. and China off against each other. This way, while they continue to reap the economic benefits from China, they also get security guarantees from the U.S. for free. Great for them! They can have their cake and eat it too. Guess who's paying for their cake?

    September 14, 2013 at 2:04 am | Reply
  5. William E. Sharp, jr.

    Abandoning Taiwan will do nothing to improve relations between the US and China. It would gravely impact US credibility in Asia where allied countries often already question US reliability despite the pivot or rebalancing to Asia. Abandoning Taiwan would only embolden China in pursuit of its regional goals. The ramifications of the US abandoning Taiwan would be global not just limited to Asia.

    The social, economic, and political systems of China and the US are obviously quite different. As a result, there will always be tension.

    William E. Sharp, Jr.
    Hawaii Pacific University
    Author Random Views of Asia from the Mid-Pacific (Savant 2012)

    September 14, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Reply
    • peace across pacific

      Why USA and China have to kill each other? Cold war mentality, it is outdated and dangerous.

      October 17, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    It's a delicate affair: the China-Taiwan issue!
    If China disapproves the US selling arms to Taiwan, just think about what the US would feel, should Russia sell arms to Puerto Rico!

    September 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  7. Easton

    This is a brilliant article from two to Washington's leading China Hands. Really enjoyed it!

    September 16, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  8. Tim

    The Taiwanese despite taking up American Citizenship may still be loyal to mainland China and open to manipulation by the PRC.

    October 16, 2013 at 9:35 pm | Reply
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