Why giving up Taiwan will not help us with China

Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Allen/U.S. Air Force

F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 21st Fighter Squadron, Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., fly in formation on June 24, 2002. The 21st Fighter Squadron trains pilots from Taiwan to fly the F-16.

Article Highlights

  • U.S. "abandonment" of Taiwan wouldn't serve China, Taiwan or the U.S.

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  • There's no silver bullet for U.S.-China woes.

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  • U.S. treatment of Taiwan demonstrates our core foreign policy values.

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Why Giving Up Taiwan Will Not Help Us with China

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Maintaining constructive relationships with both Beijing and Taipei is a perpetual challenge for American leaders. With the end of the Cold War and the rise of a strong, globally engaged China, some American policy analysts have begun to question whether the delicately balanced Taiwan policy the United States has followed since the late 1970s still serves US interests. According to these observers, US defense assistance prevents Taipei from making hard decisions about its future and undermines a much more important relationship—the one between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Therefore, they argue, the United States needs to phase out that aid and let Taiwan and China work through their relationship without US interference. These arguments promise a magic-bullet solution to one of the most intractable problems in US foreign relations, so it is not surprising that they have received a lot of attention. As persuasive it may be on its face, the case for rethinking US Taiwan policy and, more specifically, withdrawing American security assistance, is overstated. Such a policy change would not serve the interests of the United States, Taiwan, or China; nor would it solve the problems its proponents claim they want to address.

Key points in this Outlook:
•  In the face of a rising China, US analysts are increasingly calling on Washington to rethink its Taiwan policy, but withdrawing US support would serve neither China, Taiwan, nor the United States.
•  Phasing out US security assistance to Taiwan would not only undermine vital security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region but also send a chilling message to our democratic allies around the world that American friendship is fickle.
•  Instead of satisfying Beijing, a change in US Taiwan policy could raise China’s expectations without making peaceful cross-strait unification any easier, further damaging US-China relations.


Calls for a new Taiwan policy have come from many quarters. Retired Admiral Bill Owens offers this opinion in a November 2009 Financial Times article: “The Taiwan Relations Act . . . is the basis on which we continue to sell arms to Taiwan, an act that is not in our best interest. A thoughtful review of this outdated legislation is warranted and would be viewed by China as a genuine attempt to set a new course for a relationship that can develop into openness, trust and even friendship.”[1] China will overtake the United States in gross domestic product and military power in less than thirty years, Owens warns, so “the solution is to approach the US/China relationship not with hedging, competition or watchfulness, but with co-operation, openness and trust.” Eliminating arms sales to Taiwan, he suggests, would be a first step in that direction.

Other voices soon echoed Owens’s call for a new look at Taiwan policy. In the January 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, Bruce Gilley describes Taiwan’s current trajectory toward “Finlandization,” which means “Taiwan would reposition itself as a neutral power, rather than a U.S. strategic ally, in order to mollify Beijing’s fears about the island’s becoming an obstacle to China’s military and commercial ambitions in the region. It would also refrain from undermining the [Chinese Communist Party’s] rule in China. In return, Beijing would back down on its military threats, grant Taipei expanded participation in international organizations, and extend the island favorable economic and social benefits.”[2] Gilley claims current US policy opposes this positive trend, since it retards the Finlandization process by encouraging Taiwan to follow an alternative route: dependence on the United States at the expense of improved relations with the PRC.
   
In the March 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles Glaser makes similar arguments in analyzing Sino-American relations from the perspective of international relations theory.[3] He rejects the Realist prediction that a rising China inevitably will clash with the United States, the reigning global power. Glaser explains that China’s rise need not threaten US interests because “there is actually little reason to believe that [Beijing] has or will develop grand territorial ambitions in its region or beyond.” Therefore, Washington’s priority should be avoiding unnecessary conflict, not countering or containing China’s growing power. The best opportunity to reassure Beijing that the United States is not countering or containing it, he argues, is to yield to Beijing’s preferences regarding Taiwan. Glaser adds, “The challenge for the United States will come in making adjustments to its policies in situations in which less-than-vital interests (such as Taiwan) might cause problems and in making sure it does not exaggerate the risks posed by China’s growing power and military capabilities.”

In a May 2011 speech at the China Maritime Studies Institute, retired diplomat and China expert Chas Freeman weighed in with his case for a new Taiwan policy.[4] He, too, stressed China’s rising power—which he contrasted with a United States he believes is in sharp decline—and concluded, “In this context . . . it would seem wise to minimize activities that increase rather than diminish China’s perceived need to prepare itself for future combat with the United States.” One such activity, he argued, was US defense support for Taiwan: “The Taiwan issue is the only one with the potential to ignite a war between China and the United States. To the [People’s Liberation Army], U.S. programs with Taiwan signal fundamental American hostility to the return of China to the status of a great power under the People’s Republic. America’s continuing arms sales, training, and military counsel to Taiwan’s armed forces represent potent challenges to China’s pride, nationalism, and rising power, as well as to its military planners.”
 
Freeman fears the United States is in danger of entering a competition with China for military power comparable to the last years of the Cold War. But in this case, he warns, the United States will play the role of the USSR—exhausted and depleted by unsustainable military spending and alliance commitments—leaving China to claim victory. At such a moment, challenging China on an issue it considers crucial is, in his words, “oddly misguided.” He writes, “China sees the policies of the United States as the last effective barrier to the arrival of a ripe moment for the achievement of national unity under a single, internationally respected sovereignty. Dignity and unity have been and remain the core ambitions of the Chinese revolution. . . . The political dynamics of national honor will sooner or later force Beijing to adopt less risk-averse policies than it now espouses.”[5] Continuing to support Taiwan thus puts a depleted United States on a collision course with an ever-more-powerful China.
 
These analysts present a sobering picture of Sino-American relations and Taiwan’s role in them but offer an overly simplistic solution. For them, the bad news is that if the United States continues on its current path of supplying Taiwan’s defense needs, it will find itself in ever-deepening trouble with Beijing. The good news is that if Washington will stop selling weapons to Taiwan, relationships at all three corners of the US-PRC-Taiwan triangle will instantly improve. In the language of strategic triangle theory, the stable marriage between Washington and Taipei will be transformed into a cozy ménage à trois.

Taiwan Still Matters to US Interests

While Gilley may be right in the long run—Taiwan’s people and leaders may decide someday that US defense assistance has become an obstacle to their preferred path of rapprochement with the PRC—for now, the conventional strategic and normative arguments for keeping the defense relationship in place remain compelling.

The most-cited strategic argument for continuing US security assistance to Taiwan is that the existing security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond serves the interests of many nations. Within the network of global security relationships, Washington’s behavior toward Taiwan indicates its attitude toward security assistance generally, including its alliance commitments and willingness to honor other obligations around the world. As retired admiral Eric McVadon said, “American credibility as an alliance partner and as a bulwark of peace and stability in the region and around the world would be sorely diminished were we to abandon the [Taiwan Relations Act], cease support of Taipei, and lead Beijing to conclude that it can attack Taiwan and not be repulsed.”[6]
 
The system of alliances the United States constructed in Northeast Asia after World War II and the Korean War is not to be discarded on a whim. From 1895 to 1945 Japan, Russia, and China battled for regional supremacy, devastating huge swaths of Korea and China. American security guarantees put in place in the mid-twentieth century suspended those conflicts. Ample evidence exists in current affairs—including conflicts over contested islands in the East and South China Seas—to suggest that military rivalry could return to East Asia. The US presence, however it may offend China, actually lightens Beijing’s military burden by restraining neighboring countries’ military investments and easing their strategic anxiety. As Glaser acknowledges, “the U.S. alliance with Japan also benefits China by enabling Japan to spend far less on defense. Although the United States’ power far exceeds Japan’s, China has seen the alliance as adding to regional stability, because it fears Japan more than the United States.”[7]

Taming the military rivalries that once ravaged Northeast Asia freed countries in the region to pursue domestic development and provided a foundation for explosive economic growth and a liberal economic order based on free markets and open trade. Military alliances stabilized the international system while new economic and political organizations from the United Nations to the World Trade Organization nurtured nations’ shared interests. This system, in which the United States has served as chief enforcer and guarantor, secured six decades of peace, stability, and prosperity in non-Communist Northeast Asia.

This US-led order is far from perfect. Developing countries suffered terribly from proxy wars and economic isolation during the Cold War, and since then new threats—from climate change to transnational terrorism—have appeared. Although the bipolar competition between two superpowers has disappeared, the need for global cooperation to address economic and military challenges has not. Nations continue to look to the United States to provide leadership in mobilizing that cooperation and addressing those threats, and how the United States manages its relationships with longtime friends, including Taiwan, is an important measure of its commitment to that leadership role.

Glaser dismisses the idea that security assistance to Taiwan helps sustain the postwar security architecture in East Asia. He writes, “the risks of reduced U.S. credibility for protecting allies . . . should be small, especially if any change in policy on Taiwan is accompanied by countervailing measures.”[8] Certainly, other nations differentiate between Taiwan—which not only is not a formal US ally, but which the US government does not even recognize as a state—and other US defense partners. Nonetheless, no competent security planner would dismiss a US retreat from a long-standing security commitment as irrelevant, especially if it appears driven by American weakness.

If Washington appears to be backing away from its commitment to the alliances and institutions in which it has invested so much, other governments will take that as a sign that they may not be able to rely on US-backed security arrangements to ensure their future security, forcing them to become more competitive and individualistic. According to retired Army colonel and military analyst Albert Willner, America’s friends already are on the alert for signs of a decline in US commitments. He said in an interview, “There is a growing sense in the world that the US is a fair-weather friend, it won’t be there for the long run. This causes people in many countries to maneuver ahead of time, to get into position in anticipation of the day the US pulls back. If the US makes decisions regarding Taiwan that reinforce this perception, it will have profound implications for our other relationships.”
 
Another strategic interest the United States has in maintaining close ties to Taiwan rests with Taiwan’s position on the front line of China’s rise. China’s behavior toward Taiwan indicates how it will perform its role as a lead actor on the world stage. As Randall Schriver, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, put it, “Beijing’s ambitions go beyond Taiwan, but right now, it’s the Taiwan issue that drives their military modernization, so it’s very important to us. Taiwan is a prism through which we can understand China’s evolution, and gain insights into it.” Richard Bush, a leading analyst of the US-PRC-Taiwan relationship, summarized these concerns when he said, “How the Taiwan Strait issue is resolved is an important test—perhaps the most important test—of what kind of great power China will be and of how the US will play its role as the guardian of the international system.” By extension, how the United States and its allies treat Taiwan is an important indicator of what other countries in the region can expect from Washington as the PRC’s influence expands. They may ask, if the United States acquiesces to a rising China on the Taiwan issue, will it also acquiesce on issues important to them?
 
Beyond these strategic arguments, moral reasons exist for why the United States should not be hasty in ending its security assistance to Taiwan. One is that Washington and Taipei share decades of friendship, cooperation, common purpose, and shared sacrifice. US officials tend to trust democratic Taiwan more than the authoritarian PRC.

The United States made itself responsible for Taiwan when it required Taipei to restrain its own ambitions in exchange for American support. And as McVadon observed, affinity with Taiwan comes naturally to Americans of a certain age: “Americans of my generation feel close to Taiwan, have affection for its people, and cannot bring themselves to succumb to the reasoning that we would be better off by abandoning support for Taiwan. Taiwan is like a blood brother; it need not do any more to warrant loyalty. The PRC is, in contrast, a stranger. Its qualities run hot and cold. Its origin and upbringing create uncertainties; trust has to be developed. And these feelings, in both cases, are reciprocal. . . . It is easy to feel close to Taiwan.”
 
Fidelity to American values also matters to Taiwan policy because US treatment of Taiwan stands as a critical test of America’s commitment to its core foreign policy values: democracy, freedom, and market economics. Taiwan’s democratic transition signals success for America’s efforts to encourage democratization around the world without outside intervention or bloodshed. “Taiwan has grown into a society that represents most of our important values that we try to promote elsewhere in the world,” says an American diplomat with experience in Taiwan and China. “Look at all we’ve done to promote these values in Iraq and Afghanistan. Taiwan achieved everything we want, all on its own.” “It sounds syrupy,” says another former US official, “but Taiwan can offer hope to other countries. The fact that it can stay vibrant in spite of all its limitations is inspiring.”

If societies aspiring to install or consolidate democratic political systems look to Taiwan for inspiration, they look to the United States and its allies for signs that they will support young democracies. Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, the leading historian of US-Taiwan relations, pointed out that “the US bears some responsibility for Taiwan’s democracy, not least because it made those changes with encouragement and pressure from us.” The diplomat quoted above concurs: “If we are seen as reducing our commitment to Taiwan, it will have an impact on our position around the world. It would seem we don’t believe in our own values. Taiwan is a means to an end for the US, at least in the sense that it helps us maintain our values and credibility around the world. Our presidents describe Taiwan as a beacon of democracy in their congratulatory statements, but when we get down to business, that conviction is not carried out with the gusto it deserves.”

Critics of Glaser’s Foreign Affairs article stressed this argument, prompting him to reply: “Although my article focused on U.S. national security interests, it is true that the United States has a significant interest in supporting freedom and democracy around the world, including in Taiwan. These interests offer the strongest argument for Washington to maintain its current commitment to Taipei. But the United States should pursue these other interests [support for freedom and democracy] only if they do not pose a serious national security risk.”[9] Perhaps Glaser is right that the United States cannot afford to sacrifice other interests to protect Taiwan’s democracy. But would a retreat from the security relationship really serve the interests Glaser sees as more important?

No Silver Bullet for US-China Woes

Even if it were true that Sino-American tensions could be melted away with a single policy change in Washington, the United States should still continue to support Taiwan to maintain the credibility of its alliances and uphold its commitment to democracy as a desirable and feasible goal for developing nations. But, in reality, ending US defense assistance to Taipei is unlikely to produce the salutary effects the critics of current US policy anticipate. Such a change would indeed delight Beijing; however, it would create new problems just as intractable as the old ones but less familiar and potentially even more challenging.

The point of departure for critics of America’s existing Taiwan policy is their shared belief that ending security assistance to Taiwan would improve US-China relations. As Freeman puts it, “The kind of long-term relationship of friendship and cooperation China and America want with each other is incompatible with our emotionally fraught differences over the Taiwan issue. These differences propel mutual hostility and the sort of ruinous military rivalry between the two countries that has already begun. We are coming to a point at which we can no longer finesse our differences over Taiwan. We must either resolve them or live with the increasingly adverse consequences of our failure to do so.”[10]

As a syllogism, this argument makes sense: Beijing believes Taiwan should be unified with the mainland, and it views US security assistance to Taiwan as the primary reason it is not. Because unification is a core issue for the PRC, leaders in Beijing cannot ignore or overlook US intervention; they must constantly challenge it. Thus, if the United States ended its security assistance to Taiwan, the biggest irritant in US-China relations would disappear.

In practice, unfortunately, there is no guarantee that a change in US policy toward Taiwan would instantly or automatically end, or even significantly reduce, the tensions the Taiwan issue creates in Sino-American relations. Ending security assistance to Taiwan would raise expectations in China without removing the existing obstacles to peaceful unification. It likely would provoke panic in Taiwan, but it would not make the Taiwanese people any more enthusiastic about unification. On the contrary, the more vulnerable and threatened the Taiwanese people felt, the harder it would be for them to consider China’s overtures rationally.
 
For decades, the United States has justified arms sales to Taiwan on the grounds that Taipei can negotiate with Beijing more effectively from a position of strength than of weakness. It is easy to dismiss this logic as a rationalization, but as Randall Schriver said, “In what other instance involving a negotiation is the weaker party better off? . . . Historically, what you find is where there is equal power—or, at least, credible deterrent power—you get better outcomes.” Neither Beijing nor Taipei is well served by a negotiating process that leads to a bad deal, including one Taiwanese citizens cannot accept. Successfully pressuring Taiwan’s negotiators into accepting a deal might seem like a victory for Beijing, but if Taiwan’s domestic politics make it impossible to implement the deal, the long-term result might be worse than no deal at all.

Ending US defense assistance to Taiwan—whether by repealing the Taiwan Relations Act or by simply declining to provide defensive equipment to Taiwan’s armed forces—would not “ripen” Taiwan for peaceful unification or obviate the rationale the United States has historically followed regarding Taiwan. It would, however, intensify the debate over Taiwan policy within the United States. Taiwan still has many US friends and supporters, and many foreign policy experts would question a decision to change course. The policy changes Gilley, Glaser, Freeman, and Owens recommend would stimulate a debate over China policy at a time when negative attitudes toward the PRC already are on the rise. The last thing Sino-American relations need is an acrimonious, politically charged debate in Washington over policy toward China and Taiwan. In sum, changing America’s Taiwan policy could easily induce a poisonous turn in the domestic politics of US China policy without making peaceful unification easier.

A change in US Taiwan policy would challenge China in yet another way. Although Chinese leaders no doubt are genuinely furious about what they see as US interference in China’s domestic affairs, US security assistance to Taiwan actually reinforces their current policy direction. In recent years, Beijing has insisted domestic economic and social development must come first; risky and expensive undertakings, however attractive, cannot be allowed to undermine that goal. As long as Taiwan does not lunge for formal independence, unification can wait.

US security assistance—both the possibility of direct intervention and support for Taiwan’s self-defense—makes unification risky and expensive. If the United States withdraws its support, we should expect nationalists and hardliners in the PRC to press the Chinese Communist Party leadership to solve the Taiwan problem sooner rather than later. China’s newly muscular posture in the East and South China Seas is already raising eyebrows around the region; the last thing Beijing needs is a reinvigorated nationalist movement howling for satisfaction on another offshore issue. Although we can hardly expect them to admit it, the status quo in the Taiwan Strait serves the political interests of Chinese leaders whose top priority is domestic development and regime stability.

Indeed, even the best-case scenario for Beijing is unpredictable and potentially destabilizing. We can say Gilley is right, and Taiwan is moving toward Finlandization. In fact, there is ample evidence for a consensus within Taiwan that deeper engagement with mainland China is both inevitable and desirable. At the same time, however, the Taiwanese people are more attached than ever to their political autonomy and distinctive identity. Withdrawing US security assistance would not change these attitudes, but many Taiwanese people would view this action, rightly or wrongly, as a deathblow to the island’s autonomy. Some would try to flee. Others would urge their government to develop doomsday weapons to keep the PRC at bay, a desperate measure the United States has so far dissuaded Taiwan from pursuing. Others still would encourage Taipei to hold out as long as possible.
 
The economic costs of undermining the Taiwanese people’s confidence in their own security would be huge, and negotiating a peaceful, mutually acceptable unification in such an environment would be nearly impossible. To finish the job, China would almost certainly be forced to resort to coercive measures—precisely the expensive and risky undertaking Chinese leaders are hoping to avoid. And even if its coercive measures succeeded in winning the Taiwan government’s acquiescence, integrating 23 million sullen and terrified Taiwanese into the PRC would be yet another daunting and expensive project. US security assistance stabilizes both sides of the Taiwan Strait by reassuring the Taiwanese people and justifying Beijing’s decision to be patient.

Should the United States Oppose Peaceful Unification?

Arguments like these often are misread as justifications for containment, attempts to use Taiwan to prevent China from increasing its national power and status. In reality, although some advocates of containment do include Taiwan in their strategic thinking, a policy that supports Taipei’s efforts to craft a relationship with the PRC that serves both sides’ interests is not anti-China. Since Richard Nixon’s first visit to China in 1972, the United States has been steadfastly agnostic on the question of unification. Nixon said, “We will support any peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue that can be worked out.”[11]

Nor does the current US policy militate against China’s long-term goal of unification. The United States has never taken a position as to how the cross-strait relationship ultimately should be resolved. Instead, it holds that any outcome is acceptable, so long as the two sides arrive at it through a peaceful, mutual, and noncoercive process. Washington has made clear that Beijing should not bully Taiwan and Taiwan should not provoke or insult the PRC. During the administration of Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian, US officials forcefully reminded the country’s leaders to respect Beijing’s bottom lines and avoid gratuitous offense or unilateral action. When cross-strait tensions eased under President Ma Ying-jeou, US officials were quick to express encouragement for the warming trend.

Although the United States has an interest in seeing Taiwan’s future decided peacefully and democratically, it does not want to block Taiwan from forging a permanent peace—or even unifying—with mainland China. Today, few in Taiwan believe Beijing is prepared to offer a unification proposal that would preserve their democratic system, but if it were to offer such a deal in the future, they might well support it. And if they did, nothing in such an arrangement would be inconsistent with the interests of other nations, including the United States, assuming the PRC did not use Taiwan’s territory as a base for expanding its military reach in the western Pacific.

Much Ado about Nothing?

Critics of existing US Taiwan policy resist the characterization that they advocate “abandoning” Taiwan. All of the individuals cited in this article made clear that Taiwan’s democracy is valuable and should be encouraged. As Admiral Owens put it, “We must always protect the democracy and freedoms Taiwan has developed, but weapons sales do not do this.”[12] But how can the United States protect and encourage Taiwan’s democracy while cutting off security assistance? The critics square this circle with a key assumption: the PRC has no desire to dismantle Taiwan’s democratic system or restrict the Taiwanese people’s freedom, so the whole enterprise of Taiwan “holding out” against the PRC is much ado about nothing. Unfortunately, the evidence to support this assumption is scant.

Chas Freeman argues unification is compatible with Taiwan’s democracy because the PRC leadership says so: “American priorities look all the more inverted when one considers that Beijing has offered to negotiate what amounts to purely symbolic reunification with Taiwan, forgoing any political or military presence of its own on the island. This offer cannot be dismissed as incredible.”[13] He offers Hong Kong and Macau as proof of Beijing’s “willingness to tolerate amazingly different politico-economic orders on what is nominally its territory.”[14]

Readers will have their own views of how well Hong Kong is faring fifteen years into its fifty years of promised autonomy, but it is not hard to fathom why many in Taiwan are skeptical about China’s offer. To give just one example, the PRC has trotted out various formulations of its “One China Principle” in conversations with Taiwanese officials, some of them quite generous, implying that Taiwan and the mainland are both parts of a China that is not defined by either state. In the international arena, however, the One China Principle has not changed. It states there is only one China in the world, Taiwan is part of China, and the sole legal government and international representative of China is the People’s Republic. A key PRC policy document, “The One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue,” confirms, “the government of the PRC naturally should fully enjoy and exercise China’s sovereignty, including its sovereignty over Taiwan.”[15] How can Taiwan agree to the One China Principle when the definitions are so slippery?

Gilley offers a different rationale for why Taiwan need not fear the PRC. Americans, he argues, fundamentally misunderstand China’s domestic politics when they believe “that Beijing is motivated by nationalism and that the PRC’s irredentist claims to Taiwan stem from a broader national discourse of humiliation and weakness . . . [and that it is] striving to reincorporate Taiwan into China in order to avert a domestic nationalist backlash and a crisis of legitimacy.”[16] Gilley dismisses this interpretation. He says Chinese leaders have long since relinquished an ideologically charged view of Taiwan and that today “both sides have embraced a view of security that is premised on high-level contact, trust, and reduced threats of force.”[17]

The real driver of China’s policy, says Gilley, is geostrategic. Beijing wants to dominate its offshore regions, and it wants to ensure that Taiwan cannot “serve as a base for foreign military operations against China [or] . . . constrain Beijing’s ability to develop and project naval power and ensure maritime security in East Asia.” Taiwan is a problem for Beijing in this regard only if it is aligned with the United States. A Finlandized Taiwan poses no threat, since China’s concern is “with Taiwan’s geostrategic status, not with the precise nature of its political ties to China.”[18] Therefore, unification (or Gilley’s idea of Finlandization) need not impinge on Taiwan’s domestic autonomy at all. In the near term, meanwhile, Gilley says that dropping arms sales might cause China to scale back military preparations aimed at Taiwan.

The problem with these arguments is that they are based on an analytical judgment that cannot be proven. Certainly it makes sense today that Beijing would not want to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs by blowing up the underpinnings of Taiwan’s success, nor does it have any interest in scaring its other neighbors, many of which are already on edge. But how long will this logic prevail? After Finlandization, what happens if Chinese nationalists flood the streets of Beijing demanding “real” unification? What happens if a crowd starts singing Taiwan’s national anthem during a joint appearance of the PRC president and his Taiwanese counterpart? Will “autonomy” require limiting what Taiwanese citizens say and publish? Once China “fully enjoys and exercises its sovereignty over Taiwan,” as the PRC white paper put it, what steps can other nations take to defend Taiwan’s democracy? With so many questions still open, it is not hard to see why so few in Taiwan are ready to take Beijing’s promises at face value.

Taiwan’s ability to have its independence recognized internationally is nil and growing niller every day, but China’s ability to force its will on Taiwan is strong and growing stronger. In other words, the issue motivating Beijing’s deterrence policy is already moot, but the factor driving Taiwan’s arms purchases is anything but. China’s arms buildup continues unabated, and its campaign to isolate Taiwan internationally has diminished only marginally. In this context, asking a weak Taiwan to surrender its self-defense capabilities on faith that China will play nicely seems the very definition of “oddly misguided” thinking.

Gilley, Glaser, Freeman, and Owens believe arms sales are the driver for China’s military buildup opposite Taiwan. But that buildup has continued uninterrupted through periods of arms sales and periods when arms sales were suspended; it continued under Sinophobic Taiwanese presidents and is continuing now under the most proengagement president Taiwan has ever seen. The evidence suggests China’s military posture has its own logic, which in turn suggests that a change in US policy would do little to alter it.

Foreign Affairs published several letters criticizing the Gilley and Glaser articles, especially the two authors’ sanguine view of China’s military deployments. Both authors published rejoinders to their critics in which they made critical concessions. In Gilley’s words, “If China were to reduce its threat to Taiwan by promising verifiable and immediate force reductions, as well as by allowing Taipei to continually expand its role in international organizations, Taiwan may decide that participating in U.S. military planning, purchasing major weapons systems from the United States, and denying offshore naval security to China are no longer worth it. However, an implicit U.S. promise to intervene in the event of any invasion of Taiwan would be necessary in order for Taipei to choose to change course” (emphasis added).[19] Glaser made a similar concession, writing, “The United States could stop selling arms to Taiwan but maintain its pledge to defend Taiwan should China launch an unprovoked attack; it could continue to sell Taiwan arms but make clear that it will not intervene on Taiwan’s behalf should a conflict occur, even if Taiwan did not provoke it; or it could link its continued support to the Taiwanese government’s willingness to refrain from moving toward independence.”[20]

Both authors, in other words, admitted that some kind of US security guarantee was necessary for Taiwan: in exchange for ending arms sales, the United States would need to make an implicit (or explicit) “promise to intervene.” Three serious problems with this line of argument exist. First, in the absence of arms sales, a promise to intervene might not be credible. Could the United States mount a successful defense of Taiwan if the island had been disarmed? Second, such a policy invites envelope pushing on both sides of the strait. America’s decades-old policy of strategic ambiguity is based on the idea that keeping the two sides guessing about how the United States will react in a crisis restrains Taiwan’s tendency toward recklessness and Beijing’s tendency toward aggression. Gilley and Glaser are recommending the United States ditch that policy.

Finally, trading arms sales for a promise of intervention would completely undermine the thrust of Gilley and Glaser’s original articles. On what basis can we conclude that such a policy would be any less offensive to China than America’s current policy? Indeed, Beijing would probably find the promise of direct military intervention even more of an intrusion into China’s domestic affairs than arms sales. And surely such a change in US policy would only accelerate the development Freeman is most concerned about, an expensive and destabilizing race for military dominance between the United States and the PRC.

Taiwan as an End in Itself

Critics of America’s Taiwan policy couch their arguments in terms of US national interests. Up to this point, I have responded to their arguments in the same terms. But I am not content to limit the debate to American interests, because I believe US policy should take into account what is at stake for Taiwan, too. Of course, the United States cannot allow its policy to be driven by Taiwan’s interests or its people’s preferences, but Americans should at least inform themselves about what could be lost if Washington changes its policy. Taiwan and its people may serve as means to American ends, but we should acknowledge their right—a right shared by all people—to be recognized as ends in themselves.

The Taiwanese people treasure their democratic achievements and their personal freedom. They also love their island homeland. Still, most recognize and acknowledge their Chinese roots. It is not inconceivable that the two sides could negotiate a form of unification that protects Taiwan’s political system and honors its unique position in China’s past, present, and future. A loose confederation would not please hard-line unificationists in China or hard-line independentistas in Taiwan, but it might satisfy moderates on both sides. Maintaining peaceful interactions between the two sides, interactions that enhance their mutual interests and build cross-strait confidence, is the most sensible near-term goal.

The United States and other countries have no interest in encouraging conflict in the Taiwan Strait; on the contrary, given the deep interdependence among the PRC, Taiwan, and the global economy, instability in the strait would be a catastrophe for everyone. But lasting peace and stability cannot be built on a foundation of might-makes-right. China’s leaders and people are understandably proud of their accomplishments in recent decades. The PRC’s fast-growing economic power and international influence give Beijing both the means and the will to prevent outsiders from intruding and interfering in matters it defines as core interests. But this capability does not predetermine the choices Beijing will make regarding Taiwan.  The PRC has great latitude in how it handles its relations with Taiwan.

Taiwan offers proof that development—both political and economic—is possible, but its experience reveals how fragile states’ independence really is. It shows that the autonomy most nations take for granted ultimately rests on the forbearance of the strong or on wobbly balances of power that, when they shift, leave states defenseless. In one sense, Taiwan is extremely unlucky: thanks to Chinese nationalists on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, it lost its chance at full independence. In another sense, though, it is lucky: unlike the many countries that have seats in the United Nations but are at the mercy of political and economic forces that make life miserable, Taiwan is wealthy, successful, and protected for now by powerful friends. Taiwan is able to mobilize others to support its survival, if not its sovereignty. Turning away from Taiwan is a decision the United States should not make lightly. We all have too much to lose.

Shelley Rigger ([email protected]) is the Brown Professor and chair of political science at Davidson College and the author of Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).

Notes
1. Bill Owens, ‘‘America Must Start Treating China as a Friend,’’ Financial Times, November 17, 2009, www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/69241506-d3b2-11de-8caf-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1RXebUtOH (accessed November 21, 2011).
2. Bruce Gilley, ‘‘Not So Dire Straits: How the Finlandization of Taiwan Benefits U.S. Security,’’ Foreign Affairs 89, no. 1 (January/February 2010): 44–60, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65901/bruce-gilley/not-so-dire-straits (accessed November 21, 2011).
3. Charles Glaser, ‘‘Will China’s Rise Lead to War?: Why Realism Does Not Mean Pessimism,’’ Foreign Affairs 90, no. 2 (2011), www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67479/charles-glaser/will-chinas-rise-lead-to-war (accessed November 21, 2011).
4. Chas W. Freeman Jr., “Beijing, Washington and the Shifting Balance of Prestige,” (speech, China Maritime Institute, Newport, RI, May 10, 2011), www.mepc.org/articles-commentary/speeches/beijing-washington-and-shifting-balance-prestige (accessed November 21, 2011).
5. Ibid.
6. Unless otherwise cited, all quotes in this piece are from interviews with the author that took place between July 2010 and January 2011.
7. Glaser, “Will China’s Rise?”
8. Ibid.
9. Charles Glaser, “Glaser Replies,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 4 (2011), www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67937/shyu-tu-lee-douglas-paal-and-charles-glaser/disengaging-from-taiwan (accessed November 20, 2011).
10. Freeman, “Beijing, Washington.”
11. Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China, an Investigative History (New York: PublicAffairs, 1999), 135.
12. Owens, ”America Must Start.”
13. Freeman, ”Beijing, Washington.”
14. Ibid.
15. Taiwan Affairs Office and the Information Office of the State Council, “The One-China Principle and the Taiwan Issue” (white paper, Chinese government, February 2000), www.gov.cn/english/official/2005-07/27/content_17613.htm (accessed November 21, 2011).
16. Gilley, “Not So Dire Straits.”
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Bruce Gilley, “Gilley Replies,” Foreign Affairs 89, no. 3 (2010), www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66403/vance-chang-hans-mouritzen-and-bruce-gilley/to-the-finland-station (accessed November 21, 2011).
20. Charles Glaser, “Glaser Replies,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 4 (2011), www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67937/shyu-tu-lee-douglas-paal-and-charles-glaser/disengaging-from-taiwan (accessed November 21, 2011).

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