Taiwan as a Factor in Sino-American Strategic Relations

Executive Summary

This website will present several essays and articles discussing Taiwan as a strategic factor in Sino-American relations. The first article focuses on the strategic aspects of the Taiwan issue, including such considerations as the competition between Washington and Beijing in Asia; the importance of Taiwan from the security perspectives of the United States, China, and Taiwan; and national security implications that derive from these observations.

The essential argument of the first article is as follows:

China is becoming an increasingly strong strategic competitor to the United States in the Indo-Pacific area. Although China may have certain legitimate territorial claims to Taiwan, the possession of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would significantly enhance the ability of China to challenge U.S. security, geopolitical, and other critical interests in the Western Pacific – as these are currently defined by the United States.

Therefore, it is not in American interests to facilitate China’s absorption of Taiwan either now or in the foreseeable future. It is, however, in U.S. interests to maintain and build upon friendly ties between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan. Friendly and supportive ties between the United States and Taiwan ought not to be viewed as part of an American strategy of “containing” China; nor should these ties be interpreted as an effort by the United States to permanently separate Taiwan from China.

The ties between the United States and Taiwan can perhaps best be described as part of a “hedging” strategy to ensure Taiwan does not become a flash-point in U.S.-PRC relations. The best way to avoid confronting such a flash-point is for the U.S., PRC, and Taiwan to maintain the basic framework of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Such a strategy will likely remain viable until China and Taiwan settle their differences peacefully, and Sino-American relations evolve from strategic competition to strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific area. These conditions will likely require several decades before becoming a reality.

The purpose of the second article is to explore the importance of Taiwan from long-term cultural and ideological points of view. Calculations of security interests in strategy and policy belong to a more realist frame of analysis. Calculations of cultural and ideological factors in strategy require a different approach, one based on an appreciation of deeply held values and expectations of the majority of a country’s population over several generations.

The principal argument of the second article is as follows:

The cultural values and expectations of the people of the United States, China, and Taiwan are not supportive of a communist party-led state. Whereas the United States reflects an historical tradition of representative democracy, balance-of-power arrangements, and high levels of personal freedom and liberty, China and Taiwan do not have the same traditions in this regard. The people of China and Taiwan have historically shown a high degree of toleration for authoritative systems – when they have had little choice. However, in circumstances where the Chinese or Taiwanese people have had an opportunity to live under more liberal circumstances (e.g., Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan), they have enthusiastically embraced those alternatives even though their form of democracy and expressions of freedom are uniquely reflective of their own cultures.

If given a choice, the communist party-led state of the PRC is not the preferred model of government for either the people of Taiwan or of mainland China. Therefore, there is no compelling reason for the United States to either support the continuation of the current political system on mainland China or to facilitate the importation of the communist party system into Taiwan.

The United States has a long tradition of promoting American values such as freedom and democracy. At the same time, Washington has learned at great expense the difficulty of trying to impose such ideology and political processes on other countries. Thus, while it would likely be highly counterproductive for the United States to try to reform China’s current political system or actively intervene to improve Taiwan’s evolving democracy, it would be in U.S. traditional interests to explain the theories of democracy and freedom through various communications channels. At the same time, the long-standing American tradition of supporting human rights and opposing gross violations of those rights ought to continue as a matter of universal decency.

In terms of Sino-American strategic relations, a carefully nuanced and balanced U.S. approach in the areas of culture and ideology seems most appropriate. The United States ought not to seek regime-change in mainland China. Nor should Washington accept the argument that imposition of China’s government on the people of Taiwan may be an acceptable cost justified by efforts  to improve U.S.-PRC relations. Seen from a broader and more long-term perspective, the cultural and ideological aspects of U.S. strategy and policy towards China and Taiwan play an important role in establishing parameters preventing Taiwan from becoming expendable in East Asian big-power politics.

An additional factor is that the democratic experiment on Taiwan might eventually yield relevant positive lessons for the people of mainland China as they themselves struggle to find an appropriate political model to incorporate both the best of China’s past as well as its tremendous potential for the future.