Courtesy Reuters

Disengaging from Taiwan

Should Washington Continue Its Alliance With Taipei?

MISREADING CHINA'S INTENTIONS
Shyu-tu Lee

According to Charles Glaser, the prospects for avoiding war between the United States and China are good ("Will China's Rise Lead to War?" March/April 2011). But by ignoring China's history and economic policy and other relevant factors, Glaser arrives at policy prescriptions that would increase the chance of a Chinese nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland.

Glaser misjudges Chinese motives. China's military modernization is not primarily motivated by insecurity, as he asserts. China is not threatened by the United States or any of its neighbors. It is advocating its model of governance -- managed capitalism combined with one-party authoritarianism -- as a more efficient alternative to a free-market economy and democracy. China's mission is to regain its place as the dominant superpower so that the country can cleanse itself of the humiliation it has experienced at the hands of the West.

The rise of China poses grave challenges to U.S. security. Beijing implements a mercantilist trade policy and artificially sets a low value on its currency to promote exports, thus creating a large U.S. trade deficit with China year after year. Its army has been modernizing at a rapid pace, developing anti-access, area-denial weapons and cyber- and space-warfare capabilities. Meanwhile, China wants to integrate Taiwan because its democracy threatens Beijing's autocratic and repressive rule. In addition, Beijing needs Taiwan as a military base from which to project power into the Indian and Pacific oceans.

To keep the peace, the United States must discard the culture of excessive deference to Beijing and implement policies to maintain U.S. military superiority, stanch the flow of U.S. wealth to China, steer China toward democratization, strengthen its alliances with Japan and South Korea, and engage China in an economic and strategic dialogue to promote fair trade and avoid misunderstandings.

To prevent a crisis from escalating to nuclear war, Glaser says that the United States should back away from its commitment to Taiwan. Such accommodation, he argues, would smooth the way for better relations with China in the decades to come. Yet if Taiwan were to fall, the United States would suffer a geostrategic disaster. The sea-lanes and airspace around Taiwan are critical to the survival of Japan and South Korea. Once in control of Taiwan, China could turn Japan and South Korea into vassal states. With the demise of the U.S.-Japanese military alliance, the United States would be forced to retreat to Hawaii.

To avoid that fate, Washington must reiterate that the future of Taiwan must be resolved peacefully and with the assent of the Taiwanese people. It must deploy sufficient naval and air forces in the western Pacific to deter Chinese aggression, initiate high-level military exchanges with Taiwan to facilitate joint military planning, and speed up the sale to Taiwan of F-16 fighters and other weapons that would be useful in resisting a Chinese invasion.

SHYU-TU LEE is President of the North America Taiwanese Professors' Association.

ACCOMMODATION WILL NOT WORK
Douglas Paal

The unstated premise of Charles Glaser's recommendation of "accommodation" to China over Taiwan ("Will China's Rise Lead to War?" March/April 2011) is that the people of Taiwan would have no say in this decision.

From the early years of the United States' relationship with the People's Republic of China, U.S. presidents have wrestled with strong domestic political support for continued good relations with Taiwan, whatever new arrangements might be reached with Beijing. Over eight successive presidential administrations, this support has morphed from an implicit to an explicit tenet of U.S policy: the outcome between China and Taiwan must be decided with the assent of the Taiwanese people.

Glaser would do well to explain how Taiwanese public opinion would factor into his recommendation. What if an administration took his advice and the people of Taiwan rejected it? Can a desperate bolt for de jure independence be ruled out? Could China's leaders restrain themselves from rushing to grab the spoils to satisfy nationalist opinion and Beijing's long-standing claims on Taiwan? Would any of these outcomes bring about the stability in U.S.-Chinese relations that Glaser seeks? The outlook is doubtful and likely to produce more tensions than reduce existing ones.

There is a reason that eight U.S. administrations have embraced the same policy toward China and Taiwan, and that is because it serves U.S. interests in peace, prosperity, and stability. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are an important part of maintaining peace in the western Pacific. Despite a gradual easing of tensions between China and Taiwan, Beijing continues to enhance its military capabilities with regard to Taipei. This has developed a vicious cycle. By choosing to increase the military offensive capability deployed opposite Taiwan, Beijing compels Taiwan's leadership to seek outside sources of support and arms to deter Chinese aggression. If Taiwan's leaders failed to find that support, their voters would remove them. Only the United States has the will to fulfill Taiwan's request, compelling any U.S. administration to respond or suffer politically at home. This, in turn, compels Beijing to react strongly to what it considers interference in its internal affairs, since it claims Taiwan as part of China.

If the cycle is to be broken, it needs to start with the mainland's choice to increase or decrease its military deployments, not with Washington conceding Taiwan to Beijing.

DOUGLAS PAAL is Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

GLASER REPLIES

Shyu-tu Lee's argument hinges on two key claims: that China does not feel threatened by the United States and that China has essentially unlimited geopolitical aims. Both are quite unlikely.

First, major powers tend to see the military capabilities of their peers as threatening, unless they share excellent political relations. Although China and the United States are not enemies, they do not have confidence that each other's motives are benign. This is reflected in China's concern about U.S. ballistic missile defense systems, the survivability of its nuclear force in the event of a war, and the threat posed to its sea-based commerce and energy imports by U.S. naval forces -- which could sever China's access to critical resources and render the country vulnerable to coercion during a crisis over Taiwan. Second, although experts disagree on China's motives, the most common assessment is that China places great value on Taiwan, some value on its ability to prevail in regional maritime disputes in the East China and South China seas, and little value on gaining other territory.

Given these judgments, U.S. policies that simply seek to increase its ability to project power in the Pacific could needlessly spark tensions with China, heightening the possibility of conflict. Of course, this forecast of China's goals could prove wrong. Consequently, the United States must implement political concessions and military restraint with caution, maintaining its alliances with Japan and South Korea to provide a successful counterbalance.

Lastly, Lee's argument about the increasing danger posed by China implies that maintaining the U.S. commitment to Taiwan will be ever more costly and perilous. This bolsters the case for a U.S. pullback.

Douglas Paal, meanwhile, believes that the people of Taiwan should have a large say in U.S. decision-making. International politics, however, rarely works this way. Especially when important national security interests are at stake, states make foreign policy decisions based on their own interests. Friends, allies, and adversaries may not like these decisions, but they have little choice but to adapt to them.

Although my article focused on U.S. national security interests, it is true that the United States has a significant interest in supporting freedom and democracy around the world, including in Taiwan. These interests offer the strongest argument for Washington to maintain its current commitment to Taipei. But the United States should pursue these other interests only if they do not pose a serious national security risk.

Given the potential for the U.S. commitment to Taiwan to strain relations with China and even to lead to a severe crisis, the United States should consider scaling back -- although not necessarily ending -- that commitment. The United States could stop selling arms to Taiwan but maintain its pledge to defend Taiwan should China launch an unprovoked attack; it could continue to sell Taiwan arms but make clear that it will not intervene on Taiwan's behalf should a conflict occur, even if Taiwan did not provoke it; or it could link its continued support to the Taiwanese government's willingness to refrain from moving toward independence. This final arrangement would establish the connection between Taiwanese public opinion and U.S. policy that Paal so strongly emphasizes. Given the stakes for the United States, a full-fledged analysis of these options is certainly warranted.

CHARLES GLASER is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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