Shadow Government

Rethinking U.S. foreign policy towards Taiwan

International Relations theorist Charles Glaser has joined a growing chorus calling for the abandonment of Taiwan. His take on why we should abandon the island is tucked into his "nuanced version of realism" argued on the pages of Foreign Affairs. As do most "abandon Taiwan" arguments, he begins with a "realist" argument for why war ...

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

International Relations theorist Charles Glaser has joined a growing chorus calling for the abandonment of Taiwan. His take on why we should abandon the island is tucked into his "nuanced version of realism" argued on the pages of Foreign Affairs. As do most "abandon Taiwan" arguments, he begins with a "realist" argument for why war between the United States and China is unlikely. Why? Because besides Taiwan, Sino-U.S. interests are compatible.

Parting company with other "pessimistic" realists who believe that "power transitions" — the historic condition of a rising power challenging the existing hegemon — more often than not lead to war, Glaser believes that this time it is different. The security dilemma (in pursuing our security we take steps which decrease their security which leads them to take steps which decrease our security, a process that can end in conflict) in the Sino-U.S. case. The task for Beijing and Washington (but mostly Washington) is to trust that each country just wants security, not domination. 

For example, the United States should not fear China’s nuclear build-up because of Beijing’s limited ability to strike the U.S. homeland. According to this logic, the United States should forego temptations to increase its own nuclear arsenal in response to China’s own increases. All China is doing is increasing its security with a second strike capability. In turn, China should not fear U.S. conventional capabilities because most are resident across the Pacific.

But ultimately, the argument goes, it is up to the United States and not China, to make adjustments to its security posture and not exaggerate threats that China poses. The United States is safe because China will never have the means to destroy its deterrent.

Glaser concedes that this theory overlooks the fact that U.S. security alliances could seem threatening to China. Here we get to the nub of his argument. The United States must ask itself how important its security alliances are. Unlike "Neo-isolationists," Glaser, an advocate of "selective engagement," believes that the alliances with South Korea and Japan are important. And the United States could defend those alliances without creating a debilitating arms race if it provides just enough conventional deterrence, plus the threat of nuclear retaliation should those countries come under attack.  

To Glaser, Taiwan is different. China’s belief that Taiwan is part of it is non-negotiable, and Beijing and Washington have very different views of what constitutes the status quo across the Strait. The Taiwan dispute has no diplomatic solution and the risks of nuclear war are getting too high, particularly with China’s advancing second strike capability. His answer is for the United States to make the necessary "adjustments" and abandon Taiwan.

He acknowledges potential critics who may say appeasement usually whets the appetite of the appeased. But, says Glaser, not all adversaries are Hitler, and China has limited territorial goals. Even if China has more expansive territorial claims, the United States can remediate any military imbalance through a greater conventional presence.

In the end, the real danger is a self-fulfilling prophesy, a failure by the United States to realize that its basic goals are compatible with China’s. Glaser fears that this is already happening — the United States is taking a much more competitive military stance because its ability to operate along China’s periphery is in danger. According to Glaser, this dilemma has two solutions. The first is for Washington to realize that U.S. interests are changing — Taiwan is not really vital. And second, the United States should forego the kind of nuclear superiority that could counter China’s second strike capability. Problem solved.

This is a fairly conventional international theory argument about the relative stability of Sino-American relations. Glaser is essentially taking a side in an old debate. His innovation is the abandonment of Taiwan, a necessary step to decrease the security dilemma and reveal China’s truly limited aims.

Glaser’s argument is both timely and testable: unlike most social science experiments, it has been conducted in the real world. The Obama administration came to power in step with this theory. First, the administration initially viewed the biggest obstacle to Sino-U.S. stability as Washington’s misreading of Chinese intentions which they thought were actually quite limited. The greatest risk to peace, they argued, was that the United States would overreact to China’s rise. The Obama administration called its new policy "strategic reassurance": we would reassure China that we would not contain it. Second, the United States has basically abandoned its commitment to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act. The only action the Obama administration has taken consistent with the TRA was the sale of half an arms package left over from the Bush years. There has been no serious effort on the part of the Obama administration to enhance Taiwan’s security. The Obama administration has arguably taken the most minimalist interpretation of the TRA since the law’s passage. The third policy change occurred in Taiwan. Taipei has followed a policy of reconciliation and removed any conceivable "threat" of "independence" (always a red herring; according to Taiwan’s democratic procedures it is practically impossible to vote for independence).

And how has China reacted to all of these concessions, including the de facto abandonment of Taiwan? By pressing other territorial claims, intimidating allies elsewhere, and rejecting calls for better military relations with the United States. In short, Washington took all the steps that Glaser called for and Sino-U.S. relations have rarely been worse.

Eventually, the administration had to resist China’s aggressive moves. And its very modest attempt to push back against China’s extravagant claims in the South and East China Seas were met with histrionics in Beijing. China aggressively pressed Vietnam to give up its claims to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea and moved missile brigades in place to intimidate Hanoi. China broke off diplomatic relations with Japan and stopped shipments of a strategic commodity when Japan arrested a drunken trawler captain who had rammed a ship in Japanese waters. China’s refusal to acknowledge North Korea’s responsibility for the slaughter of South Korean soldiers and civilians and its hyperventilating about U.S.-South Korean exercises in Korean waters has made Japan and South Korea suspicious about China’s intentions on the Korean peninsula.

Australia, no ally of Taiwan, has announced a massive military build-up because of its fears of Chinese movements deeper into the Pacific. And on it goes. Indeed, while China-Taiwan relations are at a high point and U.S.-Taiwan relations virtually non-existent; the rest of Asia is arming itself to the teeth to guard against the dual danger of China’s rise and a weakening of the U.S. commitment to Asia. Perhaps the absence of U.S. support for Taiwan is being interpreted in Asian capitals as Washington’s general ambivalence about its security commitments?

Indeed, in providing an answer to Secretary Rumsfeld’s infamous public query about why the Chinese are engaged in a military build-up, Glaser undermines a pillar of his own argument that China’s goals are limited. He says that China is merely responding to U.S. regional military activities.

Exactly right. But the activity that Glaser describes includes strategic tasks that the United States has undertaken since the end of the Second World War. Perhaps China is building up its military because it does not like U.S. presence in Asia, no matter how limited. The difference now is it has the power to do something about it. China is certainly not reacting to a U.S. military build-up. To the contrary, the very capabilities the United States most needs in the Pacific have been steadily eroding over the past decade. Yet despite stability in the strait and a relative decline of U.S. military power in the Pacific, Chinese military advances continue apace.

Glaser never asks the central question — how do China and the United States come to their respective views of security? My own view is that the sources of national security policy are both deeply embedded in a nation’s traditions and are constantly changing. (Who would have imagined that we would be fighting for ten years in Afghanistan? If North Korea collapses tomorrow, we may be looking for nukes with a heavy ground presence for some time). Only three years ago we were certain that China’s "core interests" were limited to Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. Now the Chinese have informed us that their core interests include the entire South China Sea.

For its part, the United States has always taken an expansive view of its security in Asia; an impulse that intensified after Pearl Harbor. It would never slog through the Pacific again, it would defend forward, and it would rely on a set of allies to do so. It would press those allies to become democratic capitalists (realists never explain why the United States always thinks it does better in a world populated by other democracies) and forego their nuclear weapons. It all happened. We have enjoyed peace in Asia for over three decades. Our policy has worked, why should we adjust it?

Then there is the role of Taiwan in our foreign policy. It has been a significant part of Asia’s democratic peace, as well as a critical part of Asia’s — including China’s — economic boom and the region’s political transitions. Every time we try and abandon it — in the 50s, in the 70s, in the 90s — we find it too important to be left to China’s tender mercies. Theorists like Glaser offer no explanation for why we have not abandoned Taiwan given all the opportunities we have had to do so. 

Let me offer a few. Any change to Taiwan’s de facto independent status would be highly destabilizing. First, almost no Taiwanese want to live under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Many Taiwanese would leave the island, meaning that Asia would lose a critical part of its economic engine. Those who would not leave would likely start to build nuclear weapons and their delivery systems — a process that began, and which we stopped, the last time we tried to abandon Taiwan.

Second, if Taiwan were to fall into China’s hands, China could militarize it in such a way as to remove any strategic depth from Japan, to control the South China Sea, and to push farther forward into the Pacific. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, we face threats to our command of the Pacific Ocean. China’s control of Taiwan would hasten that process. The United States and China would then find many new reasons for conflict — the protection of Japan, access to the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, and so on.

Third, there is the matter of U.S. politics, always a significant factor — much to the consternation of so called realists — in U.S. foreign policy. While most Congressmen today do not focus intensely on Taiwan, a debate about the repeal of the Taiwan Relations Act would focus the mind. In all likelihood, all the latent frustrations the American public and their representatives feel toward China — from unfair trade practices, to constant cyber attacks, to human rights abuses — would find expression in a debate about whether or not to repeal a law that has kept the peace and allowed Taiwan to prosper. In short, a debate about abandoning a democratic friend in the face of Chinese pressure would probably bring about the exact opposite of what Glaser intends. Congress would start to focus on all the dangers that China poses and frustrations its presents.

Glaser should be commended for his effort to think through war avoidance with China. But President Obama has more or less tried Glaser’s approach and the result has been a nadir in Sino-U.S. relations and an intensifying Asian arms race. Given what we have learned about China over the recent past, the answer to its aggressiveness is not more concessions — and certainly not the abandonment of a key partner in Asia’s long peace.

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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