In the ancient Chinese treatise The Art of War, Sun Tzu spells out clearly Beijing's strategy for securing Taiwan and diminishing U.S. military influence in the Western Pacific. “The supreme art of war”, Sun Tzu observed, “is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This is clearly Beijing's strategy going forward. And there is a clear linkage here between Taiwan and America's future role in the Pacific.
A Taiwan under the political domination of Mainland China would give Beijing's growing naval power access to the vital sea-lanes that link Southeast and Northeast Asia. An acquiescent Taiwan would also serve to further enhance a key Chinese military goal directed toward the realignment of the balance of military power in the Pacific. That would be the implementation of its antiaccess/area denial strategy (A2/AD) to diminish that forward projection of U.S. naval power. It was not for nothing that General Douglas MacArthur once referred to Taiwan as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.”
There are those who have advocated a gradual disengagement from Taiwan in order to reach an accommodation with Beijing. Some have cautioned that a future Sino-U.S. crisis over Taiwan could easily escalate into a wider war, with regional and even global implications. The solution put forward is to curry favor with a rising China by reneging on the commitments made in the Taiwan Relations Act.
No one would dispute that the strategic retreat advocated by these naysayers would certainly be welcomed in Beijing. It would also further enhance Beijing's number one foreign-policy objective as articulated in the 2009 U.S.-China Joint Statement, to have Washington cede that China's “core interests,” including Taiwan, were now off-limits for the United States. That statement clearly spelled out Beijing's position that “the two sides agreed that respecting each other's core interests is extremely important to ensure the steady progress in U.S.-China relations.” One would note that similar diplomatic language expressing accommodation to paper over grave policy differences was contained in the British-German Declaration issued at the conclusion of the Munich Conference in September 1938. That Declaration stated in part that “We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.”
The ensuing public debate over the inclusion of “core interest” language in the 2009 U.S.-China Joint Statement led to a strategic retreat on Beijing's part as the realization sank in that it may have overplayed its hand at too early a stage. In the run-up to June’s informal Sunnylands Summit with President Obama, new Chinese president Xi Jinping, therefore, spoke instead in a more veiled, diplomatic manner of a “new type of great power relationship." While this language avoids the more obvious sting of “core interest,” it nonetheless appears to be a clear reflection of the view of many in the PLA and Communist Party that China is rising as America continues down a road of gradual decline. In these cadres' minds “the East is Red”—and increasingly so—to quote the old Maoist Cultural Revolution song.
The reported readout from Sunnylands is that President Obama stood his ground on the issue of continued defensive-arms sales to Taiwan, as called for by the Taiwan Relations Act. This was in response to Xi's reported urging for a date certain to end those sales. It would have been an even clearer statement of resolve if the American side had included the “Six Assurances” in its response as well.
There was reportedly greater progress by the two sides on the issue of North Korea. On this, however, only time will tell. The United States and its allies have been repeatedly led down the garden path by Beijing on the North Korean issue for the past two decades, starting with the Four-Party talks in Geneva in the late 1990s. In past instances, the illusion that Beijing will somehow produce the elixir that will heal the North Korean illness once and for all has only led to disappointment. It is often forgotten that Beijing's primary goal for the Korean peninsula is the maintenance of an ideologically compatible buffer state that will keep Washington and its allies at arm's length. Issues like denuclearization and reform remain secondary.
Taiwan, to be sure, remains a key piece in Beijing's intricate game of Chinese chess. Lulling the Americans into a sense of tranquility with regard to cross-Strait relations and wooing Washington away from past commitments to Taiwan—as contained in both the Taiwan Relations Act and Ronald Reagan's Six Assurances—has strategic value in Beijing far beyond the historic and cultural importance of Taiwan itself. The Pax Americana in the Pacific, anchored in the Seventh Fleet, is based on an intricate web of security alliances which evolved at the conclusion of the Second World War.
This set of alliances has maintained the peace in the waters of the Pacific for seven decades hence. The renewed competition in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan Strait clearly demonstrates that naval power is on the ascendancy. Any American “pivot” or rebalance to Asia without the expenditure of scarce resources on a robust naval presence will leave the U.S. high and dry in the South China Sea. Taiwan, of course, straddles those very sea-lanes which are pivotal to this renewed naval competition.
The current reduction in cross-Strait tensions which followed President Ma Ying-jeou's election in 2008 gives the United States some additional breathing room for the implementation of its rebalance to Asia. It also underscores the basic correctness of a U.S. policy that has maintained the status quo in the Taiwan Strait for the past three decades, allowing for the further economic growth and the development of democratic institutions without resort to force. Taiwan has been able to achieve a new confidence in its dealings with Mainland China while Beijing's clinging to a zero-sum game mentality only reveals its outdated Cold War-era strategy.
Any hint of a diminution of American commitment in the Pacific, however, could trigger a slow unraveling of this very alliance structure that maintains the peace and prosperity of the most economically dynamic region of the world. Imagine the shock waves, from Seoul and Tokyo in the north to Manila and Canberra in the south, which would follow in the wake of an American accommodation to a coercive move by Beijing against Taiwan. The imposition by force of an externally mandated political settlement contrary to the aspirations of the people of Taiwan would not only be diametrically opposed to America's own core values but would raise doubts about the durability of Pax Americana in the Asia-Pacific.
Whatever the restraints placed on Asian capitals' freedom of action by Beijing's coercive “one China” policy, diplomats in most of these capitals look to Washington as a strong counterweight to a re-emerging but still authoritarian China. If this counterweight is brought into question, policy makers in Seoul might conclude that Korea's best, if painful, option would be to return to its traditional, compromised relationship with the resurgent Middle Kingdom. An increasingly isolated Japan, concerned once again with the acquirement of energy resources in a post-Fukushima era, might see a risky go-it-alone strategy as the only option. Southeast Asian nations might also view further accommodation to Beijing's mercantile and territorial demands as the only viable alternative.
And America, without its fleet in the area to protect its commercial interests as the British fleet once did when “Britannia Ruled the Waves,” might see itself squeezed out of vital markets in the new economic center of the world to the detriment of the long-term living standards of its people.
Taiwan, therefore, represents more than a small struggling democracy facing a communist behemoth across a narrow strait no wider than that separating Key West and Cuba. Taiwan stands for more than just being a Chinese cultural example of democratic evolution and serving as a beacon of liberty for those still overshadowed by oppression. Taiwan is a vital link in that alliance structure, formed in the crucible of the Second World War, running from the Korean peninsula and Japanese islands in the north to the Philippine islands and Australian continent in the south. Once a link in a chain fence is broken, the fence itself easily falls down.
Continued security cooperation with Taiwan, as reemphasized by President Obama at Sunnylands, remains a key link in America's post-World War II security structure in the Pacific. Without Taiwan, there would be a huge hole in Washington’s rebalance toward Asia. If the twenty-first century is, indeed, the Asian Century, then the United States and Taiwan, in partnership, both have a role to play.
Dennis P. Halpin is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University.