Should the United States Abandon Taiwan?

In early 2019, several well known American scholars recommended that now was the time for the United States to end its policy of supporting Taiwan. Over the course of US-China-Taiwan relations since 1949, and even earlier if one considers Taiwan in the context of the island becoming home to the Republic of China after WWII, this suggestion has surfaced periodically. In almost all instances, the underlying rationale was that such a policy shift would result in improved Sino-American relations, an argument that influenced decisions that downgraded US-Taiwan ties, such as in 1972, 1979, and 1982. The assumption then, and now, was that Taiwan was the chief obstacle to more friendly PRC ties with the United States, an assumption based on perceptions that Taiwan was the most sensitive territorial issue to Beijing and that Washington stood in the way of China’s peaceful reunification. In this article, I will argue that the United States should not end its support of Taiwan. 

Abandoning Taiwan will intensify Sino-American strategic competition to the advantage of Beijing. That the United States and China have a strategic rivalry in the Western Pacific in 2019 is self-evident by the statements of American and Chinese leaders, the published national and security strategies of the two countries, the geopolitical perceptions of many Indo-Pacific nations, and the scope and intensity of trade, security, foreign policy, and other issues that are driving both countries to try to improve relations while also preparing for the possibility of a military conflict over Taiwan, the South China Sea, or other hot spots around China’s periphery. The geostrategic competition between the U.S. and PRC is far larger than the Taiwan issue, so that even if the United States abandoned Taiwan in order to allow China to proceed with its reunification policies, the competition between China and the United States over influence in the Western Pacific would continue. If fact, if Taiwan were to be absorbed by the PRC, China’s advantage in the Western Pacific would increase dramatically at the expense of the United States. Not only would the U.S. abandonment of Taiwan weaken the perceived value of the American commitment to other friends and allies in the region, the Chinese military would be able to increase its reach dramatically into the Western Pacific, Northeast Asia, and Southeast Asia through the placement of Chinese missile, air, and naval assets on the island — in effect, making the U.S. forward deployed strategy nearly untenable in many instances.  China will assuredly use Taiwan as a defensive barrier to protect its vulnerable eastern coastline, just as it uses Hainan Island for the same purposes on its southern coastal flank. In short, if the United States reduces significantly its support to Taiwan now or in the foreseeable future, thereby allowing Beijing to pressure the island’s government into early unification, American influence and power projection capabilities in the Western Pacific will be greatly weakened while that of China will be greatly increased.

Taiwan’s experiment with democracy has historic value and should be supported. Taiwan’s democracy as it functions today is something few people would consider exemplary. It is a messy political system, with deep divisions between significant portions of the population, partisanship to the extreme, frequent abuse of power, often ineffective leadership, local irregularities, politically motivated short-sighted policies, and so on. Taiwan’s democracy is also being implemented within a small geographical area, which — as noted in the Federalist Papers — can present a challenge to the effective functioning of a system of checks and balances. These and other fragilities in Taiwan’s democracy make it seem almost impossible that Taiwan’s democratic experiment could work as an example to other countries. On the other hand, to be fair and objective, democracy on Taiwan is relatively new both in terms of actual age and within the context of Chinese political culture. Taiwan is working through one of the most difficult problems of liberal political systems: how to function effectively through popular vote in a multi-party political environment characterized by deep partisanship based on perceived ethnic, cultural, and ideological differences? Taiwan has not solved this problem. However, its efforts are a worthwhile political experiment that deserves more time in Chinese context. The United States would greatly benefit from Taiwan being able to solve this problem, because it is in traditional American interest to promote successful democracies around the world. But, other than the Taiwan people themselves, the real beneficiary of having Taiwan’s democracy succeed would be the Greater China. This is true because much of Chinese political culture is locked into a tradition of authoritarianism, which as history has shown nearly always fails the long-term interests of the whole nation. Simply put, China has been through enough absolutism in its history and there is need to awaken and encourage new political thinking to carry the nation forward into the future. Taiwan’s democracy is not the kind of government that will likely be mirrored on mainland China. However, the lessons learned from Taiwan’s experiment with democracy could be invaluable to all of China in terms of resolving the difficulty of governing a highly diverse nation through a system of meaningful political participation by all citizens. If mainland China could achieve this, then its enormous population would benefit and China’s relationship with the United States would very likely improve. The potential value of Taiwan’s experiment with democracy warrants continued U.S. support of the island. 

Reducing U.S. support for Taiwan will increase global perceptions of the decline of America. Especially since the end of WWII, perceptions of the international society and system (i.e., world order) have assumed a role of global leadership for the United States. The U.S. was instrumental in helping to define and establish many of the institutions, rules, and responsibilities underlying the current world order. Under President Xi Jinping, China has determined that it would prefer to live in a world not dominated by the U.S. and its Western alliances but rather more tailored to its own needs and advantage. In other words, China is today seeking not only to reestablish its traditional leadership role in Asia but also to establish a Sinocentric order as an alternative to Pax Americana. One of the most visible pieces of evidence of this global ambition is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, whose objectives include developing economic land corridors and ocean passages to some 120 countries, mostly in Eurasia. Although heavily invested in infrastructure that facilitates trade and local economic development, the goal of the Belt and Road Initiative is more long-term, hoping to create a new and more unified community of mankind to replace — or at minimum to offer an alternative to — the U.S.-led world order. China’s actual and promised investment in this global vision is thought to be minimally in the range of $1 trillion. In addition, China has done much to help alleviate rural poverty both domestically and internationally. The scope of this international financial investment, the significant increase in military capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army, China’s growing participation in international humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts, the overall strength of the Chinese economy, and the active global diplomacy of President Xi and other Chinese officials have all contributed to a stronger perception that, perhaps, the Chinese model may be an effective alternative to the economic, social, and political models advanced by the United States and its democratic allies. Because the Taiwan issue is so intimately connected to global perceptions of Sino-American relations, a reduction of American support to Taiwan in the face of PRC insistence would contribute to the pervasive view that U.S. global leadership is diminishing while that of China is increasing. This cannot be in U.S. interests, as long as the American people and their government wish to play a leading role in world affairs.

Conclusion: The United States should not reduce or eliminate its support of Taiwan at this time or in the foreseeable future. There are at least three important reasons for this conclusion, all based on American self-interest. (1) A resolution of the Taiwan issue on Beijing’s terms will strengthen the PRC’s position in Asia and weaken that of the United States, and such U.S. accommodation will not end Sino-American strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific region. (2) Although something of a long-shot, there is a possibility that Taiwan’s democratic experiment will succeed and be able to influence the political evolution of mainland China and other countries, an outcome that would serve American interests in promoting and supporting democratic regimes worldwide. (3) If the United States withdraws from its support of Taiwan after all these decades, it will be seen globally as further proof that the end of American preeminence is at hand and that of China is beginning to emerge on a world scale.