China’s rise and assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region has been concerning to its neighbors and the United States. American Sinologists such as Avery Goldstein have noted that China’s recent maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, its close ties with North Korea, and its cyberespionage attacks against the United States have engendered feelings of uneasiness in its neighboring countries. Despite these friction areas, Taiwan remains a pressing security issue and the single issue most likely to ignite a Sino-American war.
Since the Ma Administration in 2008, cross-strait relations have warmed substantially. In 2011, a group of U.S. leaders and scholars who support stronger U.S.-China relations even called for the abandonment of Taiwan. Moreover, a recent survey by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs in 2014 found that only 46 percent of Americans would support maintaining military aid to Taiwan and a minuscule 25 percent favor sending U.S. troops to defend Taiwan if China were to invade. Evidently, Taiwan does not seem to be a priority for the U.S. government and public. However, Taiwan’s geostrategic value necessitates its inclusion in the U.S. policy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific.
From the start of the Carter Administration until the end of the Bush Administration in 2008, the triangular U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship has been tumultuous. Under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), the United States has continually carried out arms sales with Taiwan, much to the dismay of Beijing. Furthermore, President Clinton ordered two U.S. aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait in 1996 in order to ensure peace and stability in the face of Chinese missile tests and Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s provocative pro-independence policies. The United States viewed President Chen as threatening to U.S. national security and therefore withheld meetings and arms sales during his administration.
When President Ma assumed office in 2008, Washington welcomed his policy of reassuring China that Taiwan would not move toward independence. China and Taiwan have since pursued stronger economic engagement, which has led to diminished discussion of Taiwan in American policy circles. Consequently, in 2011, Congressman Bill Owens and Ambassador Chaz Freeman proposed stronger U.S.-China relations by abandoning Taiwan so as to avoid the possibility of a Sino-American war. Moreover, scholars such as Bruce Gilley, Charles Glaser, and John Mearsheimer have all proposed initiatives that abandon Taiwan.
Bruce Gilley suggests the “Finlandization” of Taiwan in order to benefit American security. In this case, Taiwan would resort to an agreement with Beijing to not join alliances or serve as a base for any country other than China in exchange of recognition of its autonomy and democratic system. Charles Glaser supports the gradual easing out of the U.S. commitment to Taiwan in order to remove the most obvious and contentious flashpoint in U.S.-China relations. Finally, John Mearsheimer, of the school of offensive realism, believes in the inevitability of Taiwan being absorbed into China.
However, one cannot simply call for the abandonment of Taiwan without addressing the severe repercussions of pursuing such a policy. There are several points to consider. Abandoning Taiwan could lead to the loss of U.S. strategic influence in Asia. According to another Sinologist Denny Roy in his book Return of the Dragon, Taiwan is the “anchor” of the “first island chain” consisting of itself, Kyushu, the Ryukyu Islands, the Luzon Strait islands, and Luzon itself. Roy further states that Taiwan, under the United States, is able to restrict the mobility and expansion of the Chinese. Should the United States decide to abandon Taiwan, it will give China liberal access to the Western Pacific. Therefore, breaking away from Taiwan could lead to military confrontation with the Chinese as Taiwan is of geostrategic importance to both the United States and China. In addition to the strategic value, jettisoning Taiwan sends a negative message of credibility to both China and other U.S. allies and partners.
Nancy Tucker and Bonnie Glaser note that should the United States decide to pull out of Taiwan, “inconstancy could convince American allies and friends to rely less on Washington, undertake an arms race, and/or bandwagon with China.” As mentioned earlier, the two aircraft carrier battle groups that were dispatched during the Clinton Administration to the Taiwan area during the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis led to increased confidence in the United States. U.S. allies such as Japan would be most concerned about the implications of the United States pulling out of Taiwan, as present Sino-Japanese relations are underscored by a history of hostility and violence.
Finally, tense cross-Strait relations deriving from Taipei’s unwillingness to unify could undercut U.S.-China relations. If the United States abandons Taiwan, reunification will still remain as China’s ultimate goal. Thus, in the event that the United States decides to leave Taiwan, cross-strait unification goals could induce a messy situation consisting of angry anti-China Taiwanese protests. The recent Sunflower Movement demonstrates the possibility of such an eventuality.
Undoubtedly, China-Taiwan relations have eased since the appointment of President Ma Ying-jeou. Yet four years of debate on whether or not the United States should abandon Taiwan have featured little discourse about the benefits and drawbacks of Taiwan as U.S. ally in the context of warmer cross-Strait relations. However, George Washington University scholar Robert Sutter postulates that Congress will become much more interested in Taiwan during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election in the context of countering China’s rise. Next year’s elections in the United States and Taiwan—as well as China’s impending leadership rollover—have generated worry among China scholars and U.S. military personnel.
For all these reasons, China’s rise renders Taiwan more important to the United States than ever. While the majority of the American public does not prioritize Taiwan as a national interest, Taiwan’s geostrategic value should nonetheless still be prominently displayed in the U.S. pivot to Asia. As the role of U.S. allies like Japan in U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific region grows, the United States will need to reassure allies. While the United States and China have had cooperative engagement with each other, especially with issues regarding the global economic crises, climate change, and contentious issues like North Korea and Iran, regional Chinese assertiveness has pushed the United States toward finding ways to reassure Asia-Pacific governments. Taiwan, however, has not been factored into the discussion regarding plans to counter Chinese aggression. The United States should not abandon Taiwan; rather, Washington should consider including Taiwan prominently in its rebalance policy
Sebra Yen is a first-year graduate student in the Global Communication program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. He has a dual concentration in Public Diplomacy and East Asian Studies. He received his BA from the University of Virginia, studying Politics and Foreign Affairs.