US-China-Taiwan Relations
The Case Against Abandoning Taiwan

Some American scholars argue that Taiwan is a strategic liability because U.S. support for Taiwan jeopardizes U.S. relations with China. This viewpoint is wrong because it seriously overestimates the ability of Washington to influence Chinese leaders, even if the United States significantly reduces its support to Taiwan.

The Chinese are a sophisticated and deeply traditional society, and one of the characteristics of their foreign and security policies is a keen appreciation of their own national interests. One of those often stated interests is to reduce U.S. support to Taiwan so that China's goal of national unification can be expedited. Another -- and much broader -- interest is to reduce the U.S. presence in East Asia so that China can assume its historic role of being the predominant power in the region.

As China continues its rapid modernization in the 21st century, Beijing's goal is a de facto American retreat from its strong forward-based, military and diplomatic posture in the Asia-Pacific region. Because of this overriding, long-term strategic goal, China would welcome a reduction of U.S. support to Taiwan but it would not satisfy Beijing. The U.S. retreat from Taiwan would only be seen as vindication of China's effort to reestablish itself as East Asia's predominant power and be viewed as a key step toward the realization of that larger national goal.

A U.S. retreat from Taiwan would convince Chinese leaders of the historic inevitability of a major shift in regional power in a direction favoring themselves. The effect, therefore, of a reduction in American support to Taiwan would be the exact opposite of that predicted by those viewing Taiwan as a strategic liability. China would continue to press the United States to withdraw from China's front door on the Pacific. Beijing would not become a U.S. strategic partner for regional stability but rather become a more determined strategic competitor for regional dominance.

Instead of being seen as a strategic liability, Taiwan should be viewed by Washington as a strategic asset in Sino-American relations. U.S. support of Taiwan, while needing to be handled carefully with Beijing's sensitivities in mind, reinforces the perception of continuity and strength in the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. The foundation of that commitment is a determination that no regional hegemon will be allowed to gain too strong of a position in the Far East.

Because of its commitment, the United States plays a vital role as a strategic balancer in the region. No other country can play that role for the foreseeable future. Given current trends, the most likely power to challenge regional stability is China, whose military expansion and economic strength are sometimes troublesome to almost all of China's neighbors.

The United States is under no legal, moral, or strategic obligation to help China resolve its unification issue with Taiwan. Since a united China would in all likelihood pose an even greater challenge for the United States in East Asia, it makes little sense for Washington to seriously contemplate an abandonment of Taiwan.

February 7, 2013