(Why) should America abandon Taiwan?

(Why) should America abandon Taiwan?

Taiwan’s upcoming elections on January 14th look set to be a close-run thing. In the presidential contest, incumbent Ma Ying-Jeou’s Kuomintang (KMT) is locked in a tight race with Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Less important than the policy specifics of who prevails is the spectacle of a lively, democratic election in a free Chinese society. Taiwanese may rightly fear China’s overweening military power and growing economic leverage. But it is rulers in Beijing who will watch nervously as citizens across the Taiwan Strait who look like them, speak their language, and share their culture freely and peacefully choose their leaders.

Unlike a senior Obama administration official — who last September used an interview with the Financial Times to inappropriately inject Washington into Taiwanese domestic politics by suggesting that the United States did not believe Tsai Ing-wen was ready to govern – most Shadow Government types presumably hold no position on who should win on January 14th. The election is an opportunity, however, to highlight a troubling argument in American foreign policy circles over whether Taiwan has become a strategic liability for the United States.

A gathering debate is underway in Washington over whether Taiwan is a spoiler, rather than a partner, in America’s Asia strategy as President Obama continues the efforts of Presidents Bush and Clinton to "pivot" towards the region.

The core of this argument assumes that relations between the United States and mainland China will define the 21st century — and that they should not be held hostage to the legacy of the civil war between Chinese Nationalists and Communists in the 1940s. Why should Washington risk its relationship with the rising superpower of 1.3 billion people over its ties to a small island nation of only 23 million, given the high military and economic stakes for the United States of a conflicted relationship with Beijing? In this view, China and America could enjoy a fruitful partnership if only the thorn in the side of the relationship posed by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan could be removed. Without arms sales, of course, Taiwan would have no choice but to rapidly accept the mainland’s terms for unification, irrespective of the views of the Taiwanese people.

But arguments to let Taiwan go get strategy backwards. First, cutting off an old U.S. ally at a time of rising tensions with an assertive China might do less to appease Beijing than to encourage its hopes to bully the United States into a further retreat from its commitments in East Asia. Second, it would transform the calculus of old American allies, like South Korea and Australia, who might plausibly wonder whether the U.S. commitment to their security is as flexible as it was towards Taiwan.  

In particular, Japan, the United States’ most important ally in Asia, may have few viable strategic options to maintain an independent foreign policy without a free Taiwan. As China’s military power casts a growing shadow over its neighbors, Japan’s capacity to maintain strategic choice may hinge on Taiwan’s ability to retain autonomy from the mainland in ways that preclude a hostile China from projecting military power from Taiwan into the sea lanes that are the Japanese economy’s lifeline.

Third, abandoning Taiwan would upend the calculations of new U.S. partners like India and Vietnam, whose leaders have made a bet on U.S. staying power and the associated benefits of strengthening relations with America as a hedge against China. Fourth, such preemptive surrender would reinforce what remains more a psychological than a material reality of China emerging as a global superpower of America’s standing — which it is not and may never be. Finally, and most importantly, it would resurrect the ghosts of Munich and Yalta, where great powers decided the fate of lesser nations without reference to their interests – or the human consequences of offering them up to satisfy the appetites of predatory great powers.

Taiwan’s people may one day vote to reunify with (a politically liberalizing) China. The choice should be left to the Chinese and Taiwanese people, acting through legitimately elected leaders. That’s why Taiwan’s election this week — made possible by a regional security environment underwritten by the United States and its allies — is strategically significant, irrespective of who prevails.