The ‘Realist’ call for strengthening U.S.-Taiwan relations

Written by Yuan-kang Wang.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s recent stopover visit to the United States on her way to Paraguay and Belize, two of Taiwan’s sole remaining diplomatic allies, is seen as a breakthrough in US-Taiwan relations. For the first time since 1979, a sitting Taiwanese president visited a US federal government building: NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. This, along with other breakthroughs, should be seen in the broader context of the strengthening of US-Taiwan relations driven by the changing structure of the international system, a development that is anticipated by realism.

Unfortunately, realism is often associated with the “abandon Taiwan” arguments. Yet realism, properly understood, actually does not call for the United States to weaken its security commitment to Taiwan. Instead, as China rises in power, realism predicts a strengthening of US-Taiwan relations, a trend that is becoming increasingly apparent today. The changing international structure is pushing Washington and Taipei into closer security cooperation.

One vocal “abandon Taiwan” argument employs a version of realism known as “defensive realism.” This version holds that the structure of the international system does not necessarily favour competitive policies; that the system is generally benign because it is often easier to defend than to attack; that security is plentiful, competition unnecessary; and rational states can credibly convey information about their non-aggressive motives and intentions through costly signals and policy choices. To avoid conflict, the United States can signal its benign intentions by scaling back its security commitment to Taiwan. If China reciprocates, such as on the South China Sea or other issues, it would convey information about the limited extent of China’s foreign policy aims. China’s rise, therefore, need not be competitive and dangerous.

But the problem is that the historical record often contradicts the dictates of defensive realism: states often behave in ways contrary to the theory’s prescriptions. Defensive realism is a normative theory that prescribes what states should do to achieve their goals, not how they actually behave. It is, in essence, idealism with a realist façade. As such, it is not a useful guide to state behaviour.

As John Mearsheimer points out, defensive realist theories “do a poor job of accounting for the past and present actions of the major powers in the international system.”

A more useful strand of realism is offensive realism, which posits that international structure often favours competitive policies. To be secure in an anarchic world, states need to maximize relative power and compete for dominance. Given the limits of geography and technology, the practical outcome for a state is to become the hegemon in its own region. In the nineteenth century, the United States accomplished this feat in the Western Hemisphere through a series of determined pursuits of power. As the regional hegemon, Washington enforced the Monroe Doctrine to exclude outside powers from meddling in its backyard, while making sure no other great power dominates another region.

China is now trying to do the same in East Asia. Generations of Chinese leaders recognize that a strong, powerful China is the best guarantee of national survival. The “century of humiliation,” when a weak China was invaded repeatedly, validates the imperatives of power. Beijing goes to great lengths to dismiss any hint of a future Chinese hegemony. But if Chinese power grows to surpass that of the rest of East Asia combined, it will, by definition, become a regional hegemon.

This outcome would go against US national interest. As the regional hegemon, the United States does not want peer competitors. There is consensus among US policymakers and commentators that it is in the national interest to prevent any power from dominating Asia (and Europe). Even Henry Kissinger, whom China considers an “old friend,” stresses that “it is in the American national interest to resist the effort of any power to dominate Asia” (emphasis original).

Thus, the changing international structure foretells a competitive dynamic between the United States and China. China’s suspicions of US motives and intentions are structurally-driven, just as US suspicions of China are driven by the same structural conditions. Uncertainty about intentions is a built-in characteristic of an anarchic system, generating the security dilemma and mutual distrust.

How, then, does Taiwan fit into this? In the context of US-China security competition, Washington will have strong incentives to ramp up security cooperation with Taiwan in order to contain the growth of Chinese power.

First, Taiwan’s geostrategic location is of particular value to US national security interests. The island controls the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) extending from Japan to Southeast Asia and serves as a check on China’s maritime expansions into the East and the South China Seas. If Washington wishes to maintain its preeminent position in Asia, it is in the US interest to include Taiwan (along with Japan, South Korea, and other allies) in its overall Asia strategy. It makes good strategic sense for the United States to help strengthen Taiwan’s defence capabilities in order to deter Beijing from attacking the island. Strong US-Taiwan security ties ameliorate the power asymmetry across the Taiwan Strait and thereby increase the costs of China’s military coercion.

Second, defending Taiwan is linked to the credibility of the United States for protecting allies and partners in Asia. If Washington abandons Taiwan, Beijing would likely view the concession as a weakening of US resolve for protecting other interests in Asia. Seeing the United States as a “paper tiger,” China might become more aggressive in pursuing territorial interests in maritime Asia. Moreover, abandoning Taiwan would reduce allies’ confidence in the credibility of US security commitment to them. At a time when Asian states need the United States to counterbalance Chinese power, a US decision to abandon Taiwan would be particularly alarming, sending shock waves across the region.

Based on shared strategic interests, realism anticipates that the United States will cooperate with Taiwan to thwart China from dominating Asia. Washington is currently taking measures to upgrade US-Taiwan relations. In early 2018, Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages high-level visits between the two countries. The National Defense Authorization Act calls for “strengthening the defence partnership between the United States and Taiwan.”

In August 2018, the White House took the unusual step of issuing a stern warning and recalling US ambassadors to three Latin American countries (El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Panama) for switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Going forward, US support of Taiwan is expected to grow.

The strengthening of US-Taiwan ties is structurally driven. Whether this trend will persist depends on the evolution of Chinese power. If China becomes too powerful, Washington is likely to find itself incapable of defending Taiwan even if it wants to. But the rise of Chinese power is not preordained. The Chinese economy appears to be slowing down. There are indications that Washington is planning to contain the growth of the Chinese economy through trade measures. Moreover, countervailing forces are gathering to thwart Chinese attempts at domination. Washington is building a balancing coalition to “promote a balance of power that favours the United States.” Japan, India, Vietnam, and other regional countries concerned about an expanding China are likely to see Taiwan as their strategic partner and move to strengthen bilateral security cooperation.

The core tenet of realism is that states define their interests in terms of power. As the unipolar structure winds down, great power competition has returned. The changing structure of the international system is elevating the strategic importance of Taiwan and strengthening its relations with the United States.

Yuan-kang Wang is Professor of Political Science at Western Michigan University. He is author of Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics. This article draws from his forthcoming chapter “Rethinking US Security Commitment to Taiwan” in Wei-chin Lee ed., Taiwan’s Political Re-Alignment and Diplomatic Challenges (New York: Palgrave, 2018). Image credit: CC by Office of the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

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