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A Magazine of Ideas

Don’t Ditch Taiwan

Friday, November 18, 2011

Would selling out a democratic ally help America’s economy? Don’t count on it.

As America’s economic recovery continues to lag, politicians and pundits are scrambling to find ways to kick-start growth. One of the oddest such proposals appeared recently in the New York Times. Paul V. Kane, a Marine and former international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, argued that the United States should agree to “terminate the United States-Taiwan defense arrangement,” in return for which Beijing should “write off the $1.14 trillion of American debt currently held by China.” The New York Times headline summed up the argument nicely: “To Save Our Economy, Ditch Taiwan.” While the idea of eliminating all of that debt is an attractive one, Kane fails to make the case that such a deal would ultimately be in America’s best interests.

Kane’s op-ed typifies an emergent body of work that often exhibits a profound lack of understanding both of China specifically and of the Asia-Pacific’s security environment generally. These arguments are often based on questionable assumptions and, at times, ignorance of facts. Selling out Taiwan to the Chinese would be detrimental for U.S. strategic and economic interests and devastating for Taiwan’s people. Here is how Kane gets it wrong:

“This would be a most precious prize to the cautious men in Beijing, one they would give dearly to achieve. After all, our relationship with Taiwan, as revised in 1979, is a vestige of the Cold War.”

This has been a common argument among those in favor of abandoning Taiwan. Yes, the Taiwan Relations Act, which requires the United States to sell to Taiwan “defense articles and defense services … to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability,” was passed and signed into law during the Cold War. But if the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is “a vestige of the Cold War,” then so is the cross-Strait dispute, which resulted from the Chinese Civil War’s conclusion (or lack thereof) in 1949. Oddly, there is no suggestion that Beijing relinquish its sovereignty claims to Taiwan, which would constructively contribute to stability in the region.

“Today, America has little strategic interest in Taiwan…”

In fact, America’s strategic interests in Taiwan are quite extensive.

In fact, America’s strategic interests in Taiwan are quite extensive. Taiwan is to the 21st century what divided Berlin was to much of the 20th century. It is the canary in the coal mine. How China treats Taiwan in the coming years will tell the world much about how a rising China will deal with its weaker neighbors. And how the United States handles its commitment to the island will likewise send a signal about how Washington will approach its obligations to its allies.

Moreover, America does have an interest in Taiwan’s continued de facto independence. The United States, since its founding, has seen an interest in the spread of liberal democracy. This is in part for moral reasons; Americans believe in universal rights, and those are best protected by representative governments. Only by living in freedom can people truly flourish. But it is also because Washington regards democratic governments as inherently legitimate and more trustworthy than autocracies, which makes for healthier, more productive international relationships. Given these American beliefs, Taiwan plays an important role in East Asia. Taiwan’s existence as a democracy disproves Beijing’s assertions that democracy is not suited to Chinese culture and society, and also serves as a beacon for those in China yearning to be free.

There are also military-strategic reasons that Taiwan’s continued de facto independence is favorable to the United States:

1.    An annexed Taiwan would provide China with greater strategic depth and allow it to more easily project power directly into the Pacific Ocean. China’s extra strategic depth would be gained at the expense of America’s own.

2.    By annexing Taiwan, China would make defending the islands of southern Japan much more difficult both for Japanese Self-Defense Forces and for the U.S. military.

3.    An annexed Taiwan would allow China to more easily exert control over the Luzon Strait, which connects the South China Sea to the Philippine Sea. With such a position, the People’s Liberation Army could threaten the flow of resources to Japan, South Korea, and even the United States.

Kane would reject this logic as outmoded thinking (even though he admits that Beijing does have unnamed “strategic” interests with respect to Taiwan). He writes that President Obama “needs to redefine America’s mindset about national security away from the old defense mentality that American power derives predominantly from our military might, rather than from the strength, agility and competitiveness of our economy… [T]oday American jobs and wealth matter more than military prowess.” Unfortunately, Beijing continues to play by the (supposedly) old rules. China is a country that cuts off resource exports when it doesn’t like how a neighbor is behaving; a country that clearly subscribes to the truism that “might makes right” (why else point 1600 missiles at Taiwan?); and a country that is in bed with the likes of Kim Jong-il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hugo Chávez. Ceding to China the strategic advantage in the Asia-Pacific wouldn’t seem to be the solution to America’s problems.

“[Taiwan] is gradually integrating with China economically by investing in and forming joint ventures with mainland Chinese firms. The island’s absorption into mainland China is inevitable.”

Taiwan’s existence as a democracy disproves Beijing’s assertions that democracy is not suited to Chinese culture and society, and also serves as a beacon for those in China yearning to be free.

Taiwan’s people will be surprised to learn of the island’s impending unification with China. Yes, the two economies are becoming increasingly integrated. Taiwan’s economy in particular is growing dependent on the mainland’s. Yet there is very little public support in Taiwan for unification. The public opinion statistics on this have been fairly steady over the past decade: the constituency in favor of independence (whether now or at some future date), while not a plurality, is larger than the pro-unification constituency. As of September, 25.9 percent of respondents favored maintenance of the status quo indefinitely. It should also matter that in Taiwan there is little support for a “one country, two systems” arrangement with the mainland à la Hong Kong, and that the number of people identifying as “Taiwanese” has been increasing while the number identifying as “Chinese” has been on the decline.

Kane unintentionally makes this case as well. He argues that “the status quo is dangerous” because “if Taiwanese nationalist politicians decided to declare independence … America could suddenly be drawn into a multitrillion-dollar war.” But Taiwan is a democracy; its elected politicians are representative of its people. Taiwanese leaders would be unlikely to make such a declaration unless they had solid public support; indeed, a declaration of independence would likely only follow a public referendum on the topic. If there is ever any risk of Taiwanese politicians declaring independence (a risk which at present is all but nonexistent), it will be because of the legitimate, democratic demands of their constituents.

While Kane argues that a U.S.-China deal “would open a clearer path for the gradual, orderly integration of Taiwan into China,” it is difficult to imagine how that could be. If Taiwan’s people do not desire unification (and trends do not suggest that they one day will) and if unification is “inevitable,” as Kane asserts, then that unification will have to be coerced—perhaps by a naval and missile blockade, but more likely by an outright military occupation of the island.

“The battle today is between competing balance sheets, and it is fought in board rooms; it is not a geopolitical struggle to militarily or ideologically ‘dominate’ the Pacific. In fact, China and the United States have interlocking economic interests. China’s greatest military asset is actually the United States Navy, which keeps the sea lanes safe for China’s resources and products to flow freely.”

The constituency in favor of independence, while not a plurality, is consistently larger than the pro-unification constituency.

Once again, Kane ignores the fact that the Chinese are playing the very game that he insists is a thing of the past. First of all, there is an ideological contest being played out across the Asia-Pacific region. China’s primary interest is the survival and continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party. To achieve that goal, Beijing must make the world safe for autocracies. It perceives the spread of liberal democracy as detrimental to its interests (it responded to the Arab Spring, for example, by stepping up internal repression) and actually works to stifle freedom in countries that are already democratic.

There is likewise a military struggle to “dominate” the Pacific. Kane must find it odd that the bulk of China’s military modernization is aimed squarely at countering the ability of the U.S. Navy (“China’s greatest military asset”) to operate in Asian waters. While China certainly has benefitted from the sea lane security the U.S. military provides, Beijing is no longer comfortable with America’s maritime dominance and is working to undermine it. The People’s Liberation Army is developing weapons to deny the U.S. Navy access to Asia’s littorals. Chinese maritime forces are actively challenging U.S. forces operating in international waters near China. Beijing is pushing an interpretation of customary maritime law that is at odds with long accepted practices. Indeed, U.S. naval operations to defend sea lanes and freedom of navigation are increasingly aimed not at pirates, but at China.

“Beyond reducing our debt, a Taiwan deal could pressure Beijing to end its political and economic support for pariah states like Iran, North Korea, and Syria and to exert a moderating influence over an unstable Pakistan. It would be a game changer.”

While China certainly has benefitted from the sea lane security the U.S. military provides, Beijing is no longer comfortable with America’s maritime dominance and is working to undermine it.

This argument is based on an assumption that Beijing’s policies with respect to pariah states are tied to U.S. policy on Taiwan, but that assumption is wrong. For example, it is not the case that Beijing’s support for Pyongyang results from Washington’s support for Taipei. Rather, Beijing wishes to ensure the continued existence of an independent North Korea, which acts as a buffer state between China and democratic South Korea (a U.S. ally) and which provides China with strategic depth. Beijing fears that taking measures to actually achieve denuclearization in North Korea would so weaken Kim Jong-Il that his regime might fall, leading to either chaos in the North or Korean unification—both outcomes are detrimental to Chinese interests as Beijing perceives them.

In fact, China would likely become more intransigent on these issues if the United States were to deal with China on Taiwan. Given that in Kane’s scenario China’s approach to Taiwan would be ultimately successful—Beijing gets exactly what it wants—why would it alter its approach on other contentious issues? It wouldn’t.

“By tackling the issue of Taiwan, Mr. Obama could address much of what ails him today, sending a message of bold foreign policy thinking and fiscal responsibility that would benefit every citizen and be understood by every voter.”

It is not clear that voters would understand this move in the way Kane envisions. The deal he proposes—which amounts to abandoning Taiwan to the predatory urges of an autocratic Beijing—would be contrary to both U.S. strategic interests and to America’s nature as a freedom-loving, freedom-defending nation. It is one thing to prop up autocratic regimes that ally themselves with the United States—as Washington did during the Cold War—but quite another to sell out an ally that is already democratic, knowing full well that its democracy will be crushed. In sealing such a deal, President Obama would have to sell his soul, and America’s along with it. Americans wouldn’t understand that at all.

Michael Mazza is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Mazza also writes “When Force Works” and “Dangerous Imbalance on Taiwan.” Dan Blumenthal contributes “Why Isn’t China Democratizing? Because It’s Not Really Capitalist” and “Rethinking Taiwan's Defense.” Gary J. Schmitt describes “Getting Taiwan Policy Right.”