There has been a wave of arguments in U.S. magazines and newspapers, as well as in academic circles, that the United States discontinue its obligation to protect Taiwan. Before the recent arms sales to Taiwan, some of President Obama’s advisers reportedly suggested this should be the last sale.
The pitch for abandoning Taiwan is founded on the view that the Taiwan issue generates the only serious friction between the United States and China, and disposing of that issue would greatly improve Sino-American relations. This view favors anything that reduces the likelihood of conflict between the world’s sole superpower and its only fast-rising challenger (an unstable global situation).
It is also said that Washington can no longer afford to maintain the Asian forces needed to defend Taiwan and that an arms race with China will render a fatal blow to America in these times of economic woe.
In addition, Taiwan is a danger to the United States. Taiwan cannot defend itself and must depend on Washington for its security; one major political faction in Taiwan wants independence from China and seems willing to drag the United States into a war to see this happen.
Finally, America is not in the mood for another war, as opinion polls demonstrate.
But there may be something missing. There is another factor involved: Does China want Taiwan?
Of course, China wants Taiwan. It would be absurd to say otherwise. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that China does not desire the reunification of Taiwan and it is its determined policy to bring that about.
But it is not absurd to ask how and when China wants Taiwan back into the fold.
All of China’s top leaders have read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. One of Sun Tzu’s most well known teachings is that the greatest victory in war is one attained without fighting.
This is especially apropos of Taiwan. Using the military to retrieve Taiwan would result in horrendous damage to the island, not to mention untold loss of life. Beijing would prefer to have Taiwan back intact and without killing huge numbers of its own people.
A military assault against Taiwan would also hurt China’s reputation throughout the world and reverse some, perhaps many, of its foreign-policy gains. It could permanently spoil U.S.-China relations; Taiwan has many avid supporters in the United States.
Then consider the possibility that Taiwan might bomb the Three Gorges Dam during a conflict. This could kill millions of people and wreak havoc on a vital part of China’s midland.
China prefers to bring about Taiwan’s reunification by creating an economic attraction Taiwan cannot resist. This, in fact, has been happening. Taiwan exports more to China than anywhere else. Its economic growth has been succored recently by its commercial relations with China.
China also believes in cultural and people-to-people links. There is growing support in Taiwan for closer cultural relations with China. Most young people say they would like to live and work in China.
The next question is: When does China want Taiwan?
There is no reason to believe China is in a hurry. Probably the conditions wherein China would be impelled to use military force are: if Taiwan should formally declare independence; another country (especially Japan) were to gain bases or too much influence in Taiwan; Taiwan became enveloped in chaos; or Taiwan went nuclear.
None of these conditions prevail at present. The new head of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party has not pushed independence with any vehemence, and the issue has faded with the passing of the previous president, Chen Shui-bian. Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen has also not signaled any inclination to overturn last summer’s economic agreement linking Taiwan and China, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. She has, however, suggested reviewing it.
The United States has stated it opposes Taiwan’s independence and has acted accordingly. U.S. policy is One-China—the People’s Republic of China. This is not likely to change.
China currently faces a host of foreign-policy problems, including strains with several Southeast Asian countries over claims in the South China Sea, serious spats with India and deteriorating relations with Japan. Why add another problem that does not require attention?
The United States is declining as an Asian military power. At some point in the future, Washington may not be able to challenge Beijing in the region. Why not just wait for that to happen? Trying to speed it up may result in an America determined to see that it does not happen.
All of this must be seen in the context of civilian-military relations in China. Since Deng Xiaoping died in 1997, China’s top civilian leaders have not enjoyed the allegiance he commanded.
Beijing is planning civilian leadership changes next year, and the prospects for the military influencing foreign policy have thus increased. Certainly now is not a good time for China’s political leaders to foster an external crisis.
The PLA would benefit from Taiwan returning to China under the specter of military force or even force itself. If this were to happen, the army’s political influence would increase greatly. But for civilian leaders as well as for China’s friends, this would be highly problematical.
Hence China probably does not want Taiwan back at the moment and has its own timetable for accomplishing that goal. This suggests there is no good reason for America to abandon Taiwan.
John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.