Why the US Shouldn't 'Abandon' Taiwan

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 9/18/2011 12:52:00 PM
Let us revisit one of our favourite themes--the existence of Taiwan as a quasi-republic and its meaning for the international relations of Asia [1, 2, 3] There's an interesting article by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker and Bonnie Glaser in the CSIS publication The Washington Quarterly that's been gaining attention. The authors argue that the United States' role in Taiwan should remain fairly substantial. This opinion, of course, goes against the fashionable assertion that the East Asia-Pacific is increasingly becoming a Chinese lake. Their argument is that instead of China being pleased with the US accommodating PRC demands that it not sell arms and provide other means of military support to Taiwan, diluting ties would be taken as a sign of American weakness.

Such a stance is of course set against the reality of sizeable programmed cuts to US military expenditures over the next few years. The WSJ for instance recently highlighted the increasingly geriatric nature of US equipment--especially that being used in the Pacific theatre. In other words, while the authors vocally suggest that the US should be willing to stay the course with Taiwan, its ability to do so is in serious question due to budget constraints. It's not cheap to maintain a full-scale military presence in the Asia-Pacific. Nor does antiquated gear that keeps breaking down necessarily present a formidable arsenal of democracy for maintaining regional interests, but that's just me. They write:
Would abandoning or reducing support for Taiwan secure smoother U.S.—China relations? Those in China and the United States who call for a change in Taiwan policy insist there would be significant benefits. The decision by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to trade Taiwan for normalization with Beijing facilitated a momentous improvement in U.S.—China relations, setting a powerful precedent. To choose China over Taiwan once again, it is asserted, could help Washington resolve differences with China over maritime rights, nuclear proliferation, cyber security, and the uses of space. This line of thinking argues that even issues not directly connected with Taiwan policy could be easier to reconcile if what China deems a core interest were satisfied.

Beyond breaking the U.S.—Taiwan bond, Beijing has denied any desire to push the United States out of Asia. It has reaffirmed Deng Xiaoping’s injunction to ‘‘hide its light and bide its time, while getting something accomplished’’ (taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei). It has repeatedly put development and peace first. However, China’s superior economic performance during the recession, surging global trade and investments, and developing military might led Beijing during 2010 to implement a series of assertive initiatives which caused widespread anxiety in its neighborhood and internationally. As China’s power grows, its allegiance to Deng’s maxim becomes more dated and stale.
Don't give in is their ultimate message:
A decision to jettison Taiwan, or even cut back significantly on U.S. support, would prove to an increasingly confident China that Washington has become weak, vacillating, and unreliable. The 2009 U.S.—China Joint Statement reflected Beijing’s estimate that Washington could be intimidated or misled, as it juxtaposed a reference to Taiwan as a Chinese core interest with concurrence that ‘‘the two sides agreed that respecting each other’s core interests is extremely important to ensure steady progress in U.S—China relations.’’ Analysts who argue that Washington can safely appease Beijing because ‘‘territorial concessions are not always bound to fail’’ are, without evidence, assuming improbably modest Chinese objectives (emphasis added)...

Accommodating China’s demands on Taiwan, moreover, would not necessarily cause Beijing to be more pliable on other matters of importance to the United States. Beijing’s positions on issues such as Korea and Iran are shaped by China’s national interests and are not taken as favors toWashington. Beijing’s determination to preserve stability in its close neighbor and ally North Korea would continue to prevent China from increasing pressure on Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons. Resolving China’s Taiwan problem would also not mean greater cooperation in preventing Iran from going nuclear given Beijing’s almost universal opposition to muscular sanctions, its growing energy needs, and desire to promote Chinese influence in the Middle East.
There's also the intriguing observation that recent arms sales by the US to Taiwan are not a significant determining factor in PRC-Taiwan relations since they appear to be as good as they have been in recent times:
Indeed, in the past two years, the United States has sold almost $13 billion in weapons to Taiwan, and cross-Strait relations are in the best shape in decades. In the absence of U.S. backing, Taipei would likely be too insecure and Taiwan’s leaders too vulnerable politically to negotiate with China. Arms sales, therefore, facilitate cross-Strait compromise and should not be anathema to Beijing. The United States should also accelerate dialogue with Taipei to promote increased U.S.—Taiwan trade, reduce Taiwan’s growing isolation from regional and global trading blocks, and prevent yet more dependence on China. Refusing to talk about a broad range of economic issues through the only available dispute settlement mechanism, the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), because of minor, if politically thorny, problems like U.S. beef exports to Taiwan is a mistake. And progress should be made on commonplace but important requests from Taipei to join the U.S. visa waiver program and conclude a bilateral extradition agreement.
I would of course like to point out that the existence of a China-Taiwan preferential trade agreement does not necessarily imply that high politics are sorted. While the existence of TIFA bodes well especially considering the 20th century histories of the PRC/ROC, high and low politics may not be so well-integrated in the PRC scheme of things. Recall how the ASEAN-China FTA has not necessarily resulted in a lasting resolution of the South China Sea issue despite the PRC becoming ASEAN's largest trading partner in the meantime.