Why Taiwan Matters

A small island of great strategic importance.

Should the United States disengage from Taiwan? Why does the island democracy matter? Are America’s security commitments to the small, isolated, Republic of China (ROC) worth both the risk and the cost? China’s impressive economic and military rise, when viewed through the prism of America’s recent economic difficulties and bouts of domestic dysfunction, has engendered amongst certain U.S. elites an exaggerated sense of America’s decline. This declinist persuasion, has, in turn, added grist to the arguments of proponents of U.S. military retrenchment or offshore balancing, who believe that America’s commitment to Taiwan serves little to no strategic purpose. Meanwhile, the growing strength of isolationist sentiments amongst an American populace weary of costly overseas engagements has rendered it increasingly challenging for U.S. policymakers to muster popular support for U.S. actions in remote foreign locales. Summarizing these trends, leading academics, such as John Mearsheimer, have predicted that,

Given the fact the United States will eventually reach the point where it cannot defend Taiwan, there is a reasonable chance American policymakers will eventually conclude that it makes good strategic sense to abandon Taiwan and to allow China to coerce it into accepting unification.

Others point to the fact that Chinese elites regularly invoke the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as a major source of friction, and as the principal obstacle to deeper U.S.-China military-to-military ties and greater mutual trust between Washington and Beijing. Finally, a number of leading academics view the United States’ security commitment to Taiwan as a perilous strategic liability, which fans the flames of Sino-U.S. military competition. For these thinkers, Taiwan forms a dangerous and unnecessary flashpoint at the very heart of the Sino-U.S. relationship. Christopher Layne, one of the best-known proponents of offshore balancing, has argued that

An offshore balancing strategy would also require a new U.S. stance on Taiwan, a powder-keg issue because China is committed to national reunification and would regard a Taiwanese declaration of independence as a casus belli. If U.S. policy fails to prevent a showdown between China and Taiwan, the odds are that America will be drawn into the conflict because of its current East Asia Strategy… the issues at stake in a possible showdown between China and Taiwan simply would not justify the risks and costs of U.S. intervention.

Charles Glaser agrees with this assessment, cautioning that a “U.S. attempt to preserve its ability to defend Taiwan, meanwhile, could fuel a conventional and nuclear arms race… and leading to a general poisoning of U.S.-Chinese relations,” before concluding that

The United States should consider backing away from its commitment to Taiwan. This would remove the most obvious and contentious flashpoint between the United States and China and smooth the way for better relations between them in the decades to come.

At first glance, some of the arguments invoked by those in favor of abrogating the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) might appear compelling. Indeed, since the earliest days of the Taiwan-U.S. military relationship, U.S. decision makers have fretted over the risks of entrapment. To this day, the United States still struggles to calibrate its policy of “dual deterrence,” which seeks to not only deter China from aggressing Taiwan, but also to dissuade Taiwan’s leadership from sparking conflict by overtly declaring independence. Even the staunchest defenders of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship also recognize that the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remains a major irritant in Sino-U.S. relations. Nevertheless, despite the validity of these concerns, an abandonment of Taiwan would constitute a major strategic blunder for several reasons.

First, abandoning Taiwan would likely fail to improve the Sino-U.S. relationship. Second, the abandonment of Taiwan might considerably enhance China’s geostrategic position in Asia and endanger that of the United States and its allies. Last but not least, forsaking the small island democracy would severely erode American credibility in the Indo-Pacific, add fuel to an ongoing regional arms race, and encourage nuclear proliferation.

Abandoning Taiwan would likely fail to ameliorate the Sino-U.S. Relationship.