Is it Time to Relinquish Taiwan?

Written by Elizabeth Freund Larus.

Image credit: 200818-N-AJ005-1033 by U.S. Pacific Fleet/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

In his April 2021 Foreign Affairs article “Washington Is Avoiding the Tough Questions on Taiwan and China,” international relations scholar Charles Glaser asks whether it is time for the United States to relinquish maritime hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. He concludes that Washington should retrench those areas that would be unacceptably costly in terms of lives and treasure to defend. One of those places is Taiwan. This determination method is reminiscent of Dean Acheson’s 1950 “perimeter speech.” He excluded South Korea and Taiwan from the US defensive perimeter in East Asia in the early years of the Cold War. Stalin and Mao were watching, and we know how the story on the Korean peninsula ended.

Instead of cutting off Taiwan, the United States must keep its commitment to Taiwan for the following four reasons: defending Taiwan is vital for US credibility; Taiwan has geostrategic significance for the United States and the Asia-Pacific; the alternative to US supremacy is unacceptable, and the US must not abandon a long-term friend and ally.

First, the United States is an essential player in the Asia-Pacific. It has defence agreements with several allies and robust diplomatic and/or economic relations with others. US regional allies and friends can see the rise of China and want to know that the United States has their back. They do not want to side with China but will bandwagon with Beijing if the United States drops its 90-year commitment to the government in Taiwan. The consequences for perceptions of power in the region and elsewhere are enormous. The United States risks losing these friends and allies if it does not defend Taiwan. If the United States gives up, it shows that it is weak. By most indicators, the United States is still significantly more powerful than China, but it will be game over in the region and the world if the United States allows China to seize Taiwan,

Second, Taiwan holds important geostrategic significance for the United States and the Asia-Pacific’s peace and security. Foremost, Taiwan’s location in the First Island Chain, a group of islands running from the Kuriles to Indonesia that forms China’s defensive perimeter, is essential. Whoever controls Taiwan controls the Asian Seaboard and most of the Western Pacific. Chinese possession of Taiwan would push China’s naval presence further out into the Western Pacific, compromising the security of the US naval presence, military bases, and the security of US regional allies.

Third, abandoning Taiwan and perhaps other regional friends to China would allow Beijing to reshape the region’s order. Since the end of WW2, the US has been the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific. Moreover, it has primarily been responsible for the peace and security of the region. The Asia-Pacific without US leadership would not merely be an alternative to the past 75 years. Still, it will be one in which China will call the shots for large and the small, including the United States, in the Asia-Pacific. Do not expect to be benevolent and gracious to its maritime neighbours who counter China’s claims to maritime. Beijing has already violated and ignored international jurisprudence concerning disputes in the South China Sea. China regularly uses Wolf Warrior tactics to intimidate and influence others. In a China-dominated Asia-Pacific, bets are that Beijing will increasingly use such strong-arm tactics against smaller states. And compared with China, they all are smaller.

Fourth, now is not the time to abandon a friend that the United States has defended for nearly a century. For 90 years, the US has helped the Republic of China (ROC) defend itself, either via the Chinese mainland or in Taiwan. Think of Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, a band of American mercenary fighters who defended the ROC against the Japanese in World War II. Other countries are aware of US support for Taiwan, including billions in arms sales over 40 years. If Washington cuts and runs now, other countries observing US cold-eyed calculations of who is worth supporting, will wonder if they are next. Countries that think they are next on the chopping block will either bandwagon with China or expand their militaries (including a remilitarized Japan) and perhaps even adopt nuclear weapons, further destabilizing the region.

The United States can defend Taiwan in both military and non-military ways. The best assurance of peace is through strength. Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued that “To deter is to make oneself strong at the decisive place and time.” To keep Taiwan safe, Washington needs to raise the cost to China high enough to think twice about attacking. This tactic involves regular arms sales to Taiwan. A stronger Taiwan also means that Taiwan can come to the bargaining table with Beijing with a stronger hand. A weak hand is a disservice to the 24 million people of Taiwan. The United States can also support in myriad non-military ways. For example, Washington can support Taiwan’s inclusion in international organizations, mainly those that do not require statehood for membership; engage in more academic exchanges, such as promoting unconditional endowments; expanding the Fulbright Taiwan programs; and securing delivery of COVID-19 vaccinations to the island, among other things.

If the United States deserts Taiwan, the consequences and collateral damage will be enormous. Twenty-four million people who have struggled and succeeded in building a vibrant democracy will lose their liberty. They will be like the pilots in the 2015 Taiwan TV series “A Touch of Green.” Through 31 episodes, the series followed the ROC pilots and their wives during the Chinese Civil War and their retreat to Taiwan. Most pilots perish in the civil war, and the survivors are physically and emotionally scarred for life. Without US commitment, Taiwan is in the same vulnerable position as these pilots. The pilots went down in flames. Some 70 years later, the United States needs to determine if it will abandon Taiwan to the flames. If it does, the United States will never recover.

Elizabeth Freund Larus is the author of Politics and Society in Contemporary China, 2nd ed. and Chairman of the Department of Political Science and International Affairs, University of Mary Washington (USA). She was also on the Intelligence Squared US debate on May 20th, 2021.

This article was published as part of Taiwan’s Security & China-US Rivalry special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.

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