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The Impossible Price of a U.S.-China Grand Bargain: Dumping Taiwan

The argument that Washington should abandon support for Taiwan to gain favor with Beijing faces strong counter-arguments that have prevailed in policy-making up to now.  George Washington University professor Charles L. Glaser presents a fresh reboot of the idea in the spring 2015 issue of the journal International Security.  Glaser says protecting Asia-Pacific allies is a vital U.S. interest, but protecting Taiwan is not.  Yet Taiwan is the main cause of Chinese opposition to U.S. strategic leadership in the region.  Meanwhile, tensions between China and rival claimants over disputed territory in the East and South China Seas threatens to spark military conflict, and foreign governments wish for more clarity in Beijing’s longer-term strategic intentions – specifically, whether it is a “greedy state” that seeks to replace the United States as regional hegemon.  Glaser proposes solving all of these problems through a Sino-U.S. “grand bargain”: the United States government “ends its commitment to defend Taiwan” in exchange for Beijing’s promise to “peacefully resolve” its maritime territorial disputes and “officially accept the United States’ long-term military security role in East Asia.”

The case for abandoning Taiwan typically meets at least three large barriers: the betrayal of U.S. ideals, harm to America’s reputation as a reliable security partner, and Taiwan’s strategic value.  Glaser’s argumentation does not overcome these barriers.

Glaser says he recognizes that a foreign friendly country’s hard-won civil liberties “are important values” that Washington “should be reluctant to jeopardize,” but in the end they are not “key national interests” for the United States and are therefore expendable.  It is debatable that the preservation of a democratic Taiwan is not a key U.S. interest.  Recent U.S. presidential administrations representing both major political parties have affirmed a U.S. strategic interest in spreading democracy because democratic countries are generally supportive of the U.S.-sponsored international system of liberal norms and institutions.

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Glaser focuses on the US interest in avoiding a war with China.  But what about the U.S. interest in preventing a Taiwan-China war?  One of the main reasons for U.S. forward deployment is to help keep the region stable.  The PRC argues that the Taiwan “separatist” challenge would quickly dry up if the U.S. stopped selling weapons to Taiwan, but Taipei has argued the opposite: cross-Strait stability is possible only if Taiwan feels secure, and the Republic of China (ROC) will not negotiate with China under the gun.  Beijing should not assume Taiwan would be quick to surrender even in a disadvantageous situation.

Abandoning staunch, long-time friend like Taiwan would damage U.S. credibility in the eyes of other regional governments.  Glaser argues that in the case of Japan, this damage would be containable.  Tokyo realizes that compared to Taipei, its relationship with Washington is more strongly institutionalized.  Japan also has nowhere else to go, he says, other than sticking with the United States.  This is probably true, although U.S. abandonment of Taiwan would reinforce Japan’s fear regarding the long-term U.S. reliability to stand up to a strengthening China.  This would embolden Japanese advocates of accommodating China, as well as those who call for a militarily strong Japan unleashed from the alliance.  What about the damage to the reputation of the U.S. among friends in Seoul, Canberra, Manila, and elsewhere?  Glaser mentions only Tokyo, the relatively easy case.

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On the subject of Taiwan’s strategic value, Glaser spends most of his effort arguing against his own thesis.  He points out that Taiwan acts as a huge barrier, creating choke points for the deployment of PLA naval forces, while possession of Taiwan would give the PLAN direct access to the deeper waters of the Pacific, would increase the Chinese A2/AD capability, would extend the range of air cover for the Chinese navy, and particularly would make it easy for Chinese submarines to enter the Philippine Sea and threaten US carrier battle groups there.  Having made these points, Glaser unconvincingly concludes that controlling Taiwan would not “significantly increase” Chinese military leverage.

Glaser’s case has other weaknesses.

He assumes that the US abandonment of Taiwan would “dramatically improve” U.S.-China relations, and that “China can be very secure with the United States maintaining its alliances and forward deployment” as long as Taiwan is no longer in play.  This is believable only if we posit that Beijing has no aspirations for regional leadership or revisions of the current order beyond gaining control over Taiwan, both now and in the future.