Abandoning Taiwan Makes Zero Moral or Strategic Sense
There’s no case for ditching a long-time democratic ally.
In an essay last week, Charles Glaser set out a case for abandoning any U.S. commitment to defending Taiwan, the small island democracy China routinely threatens with invasion. Central to Glaser’s argument is the idea that U.S. policymakers have not sufficiently debated whether the United States should “trim its East Asian commitments to reduce the odds of going to war with China.” But the idea the United States can casually shed its commitments to Taiwan is inconsistent with the values that should be central to U.S. foreign policy. It would cede authority over Taiwan to a totalitarian state committed to crushing free expression and driving U.S. influence from Asia for a purely imaginary gain.
Glaser argues commitments should be kept or shed as the global balance of power shifts. He points to Chinese military advances, particularly in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD), capabilities intended to prevent or hamper an opposing force from accessing or operating within a defined space, and the ability to sustain a navy within the South China Sea, as evidence of the fact that China has a “reasonable prospect” of prevailing in a war over Taiwan. The essay presents China as an unquestionably rising power and the United States as a declining one that must accept its diminished status in Asia. Without a discussion of China’s own structural flaws, its rancorous relations with nearly all its neighbors, and Beijing’s collapsing global reputation, Glaser’s entire thesis loses credibility before even leaving the blocks.
Glaser claims the United States must rank its interests and estimate China’s capability to threaten them. In East Asia, South Korea and Japan make his cut. “The prospects for defending these interests remain good,” he wrote. Japan’s distance from China would save it from successful amphibious invasion, Glaser said, while South Korea might have a tougher time but would “likely prevail with U.S. help.” That these countries are “large, rich, and strategically located” make them candidates worth saving. Glaser goes so far as to say Japan lies outside the Chinese A2/AD threat and could be “resupplied” along its eastern coastline.
Except Glaser is wrong. Japan and South Korea lie smack in the middle of China’s A2/AD envelope even if measuring ranges from bases hundreds of miles into the country’s interior. The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force operates a host of ballistic missiles capable of striking stationary targets across the Korean Peninsula and Japanese archipelago. Its new DF-26 ballistic missile is assessed to have an operational range of up to 2,500 miles, capable in theory of striking a moving aircraft carrier and nicknamed by Chinese sources as “the Guam killer.” The rest of Asia and northern approaches to Australia are also covered by these same missiles. Which of them should the United States abandon next?
Glaser turns next to Taiwan. Only 110 miles from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, Glaser stated, is more vulnerable to Chinese conventional forces. He admits that ideological and humanitarian rationales for protecting Taiwan are sound, but arguments regarding U.S. security interests are questionable.
First, Glaser believes if United States abandons Taiwan, Japan and South Korea would “no doubt understand” that Taiwan was less important than them and the risk was very high. “Letting go” of Taiwan, he said, “should suggest little, if anything, about the strength of Washington’s commitment to Tokyo and Seoul.”
How could that possibly be considered the truth? Abandoning a 70-year commitment to Taiwan’s continued freedom in the face of risk the author himself deems “small” could not possibly be viewed positively by Tokyo and Seoul. Instead, it would beg the question of Washington’s price for its freedom as well. Japan’s Senkaku Islands, vigorously disputed by China, would certainly be next on the menu. It is ludicrous to postulate that abandoning Taiwan would not raise fears of abandonment among Washington’s other Asian allies. It could just as easily bring down the entire hub-and-spoke system of alliances that U.S. policy relies on in the region.
Glaser assures us there is little cause for concern if China takes Taiwan. Chinese ballistic missile submarines, despite enjoying clear access to the Pacific Ocean, would pose no new threat because the U.S. nuclear deterrent would remain effective. Its other conventional forces and attack submarines would pose no meaningfully increased threat because the United States could just deploy anti-submarine warfare assets—such as its own submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, and surveillance ships—to “reduce the ability of Chinese submarines to leave Taiwan.”
That assertion is not a credible one. Some of Glaser’s assertions about defending Japan are true under the status quo, as Thomas Shugart of the Center for a New American Security noted, but would quickly ring hollow once the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) set up shop in Taiwan. Stretching from the Korean Peninsula through the Japanese islands and Taiwan and ending in Southeast Asia, the first island chain is a key element in defense considerations for U.S. allies and U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean. A quick glance at a map should make clear that gifting Taiwan to China breaks that chain and places China in control of one side of the Bashi Channel, a critical strategic chokepoint for PLA Navy forces to access the Philippine Sea from their current bases.
If China controls Taiwan, it controls the maritime space surrounding Taiwan as well as existing Taiwanese military infrastructure. That makes it, in fact, much easier for Chinese submarines to leave Taiwan, and the PLA Air Force would naturally move into Taiwan’s existing air bases. The idea that a new barrier could easily be thrown up is fantasy.
Simple math says U.S. forces, presumably the Seventh Fleet, could not maintain sufficient assets of the type required to make that happen. And in the event of a war, they would be crushed by the same A2/AD that Glaser threatens at the outset—only now those missiles and aircraft would be based in Taiwan.
Not to worry though, Glaser tells us, because once the United States is no longer committed to protecting Taiwan, the odds of war with China will drop! Peace in our time, as it were. But the assumption that China’s territorial ambitions would be sated by offering up Taipei as a sacrificial lamb is not only fictitious but counterfactual. Beijing’s raft of territorial and boundary disputes elsewhere—India, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines—would look only too easy to resolve by coercive means once Washington proves willing place Taiwan on the table. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s nationalist regime would be emboldened, not satisfied, by conceding Taiwan. And given that occupation of Taiwan would put Japan’s southernmost islands within 140 miles of the People’s Liberation Army, it’s not difficult to see where Beijing might consider pushing next. Shugart even points out that U.S. forces seriously considered using Taiwan as the jumping off point for seizing the Ryukyu Islands during World War II before ultimately choosing the route through Luzon in the Philippines.
And while it may be true that Japan and South Korea have larger economies, Taiwan is no slouch, coming in as the United States’ 10th largest trading partner. More significant than that, however, is its dominant position as a world leader in semiconductor production. Although U.S. President Joe Biden has pledged to bring some semiconductor production back to the United States, for now, the world depends on Taiwan’s domestic industry.
Should China control that production, it would control a major lever of the world economy and gain a considerable advantage for its own electronic manufacturing giants. Given Beijing’s penchant for using economic leverage to punish countries, highlighted by its 2010 cutoff of rare earth metals and ongoing spat with Australia, it seems logical to assume semiconductor production would be weaponized by the Chinese Communist Party.
The South China Sea figures even lower than Taiwan in Glaser’s estimation, and his speculations are even less rooted in fact. The United States has made “vague claims” to protect U.S.-allied Philippines’ maritime claims and U.S. Navy “dominance” in the Indian Ocean. There is no uncertainty in assertions made by former U.S. President Donald Trump and Biden’s administrations as to U.S. commitments to the Philippines, and the U.S. Navy has little persistent presence in the Indian Ocean—though rumors persist it might still create a naval fleet focused on the region. Increasingly robust signs of cooperation from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue might lend some credence to the idea, but although the grouping may continue to grow and mature, it is certainly not a formal military alliance.
Glaser suggests a “grand bargain” should have been struck before China’s positions calcified—that the United States should have ended its commitment to Taiwan in exchange for China’s agreement to “resolve” its South China Sea disputes. This proposal comes without any evidence the possibility existed aside from a link to the author’s own paper on the same subject, published in 2015. It’s assertions were certainly questionable at the time and have aged poorly in the interim. Glaser has been pushing for a U.S. reversal on Taiwan since at least 2011 by seemingly just repackaging the argument without making it more persuasive. It also comes with the idea that Beijing’s promises can be trusted, which rings particularly hollow after China broke treaties to gut Hong Kong’s liberties. But since that mythical ship has already sailed, all that’s left now is for the United States to unilaterally divest itself of its commitments to Taiwan.
Glaser offers two options: appeasement, presented to mean a total withdrawal from Asia, and retrenchment, ending the United States’ commitment to Taiwan and minimizing opposition to Beijing’s “assertive policies simply to avoid conflict.” But Glaser intends for the U.S. government to continue to make clear that China’s use of force to conquer Taiwan would violate international norms. The power of international norms is offered as an alternative deterrent against a regime currently committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
Apart from the logical flaws in his argument, Glaser seems untroubled by condemning 23 million free people to living beneath Beijing’s boot—to say nothing of the death and destruction that would be rained on Taiwan in an invasion. Somewhere along the line, some within the realist school appear to have lost their way. Too often, realism seems to just mean risk aversion and ends in calls for appeasement.
It is entirely appropriate for the U.S. government as well as the U.S. body politic to discuss and debate the future of the United States’ relationship with Taiwan, but it demands more than flimsy and error-ridden arguments when millions of lives lie in the balance. The risk of war is a terrible one, and Glaser is right to hope to avoid it, but retrenchment in the face of Chinese revisionism is not a convincing solution to the problem.
The same policies playing out in Xinjiang and Hong Kong—brutal repression, crushing dissent, reeducation camps—would be on full display in Taiwan, but the fact the United States’ long-term partners would be violently subjugated to a totalitarian government seems to be wholly outside the frame of Glaser’s concern. Realism is not an excuse for callousness. Imperfect as it may be, the United States presents itself as a state that stands for certain values, and leaving a democratic government and a free nation to be ground to dust while it looks on is not among them.
Blake Herzinger is a civilian Indo-Pacific defense policy specialist and U.S. Navy Reserve officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. Twitter: @BDHerzinger