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Can the United States abandon Taiwan?

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A demonstrator holds flags of Taiwan and the United States in support of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen during an stop-over after her visit to Latin America in Burlingame, California, United States, 14 January 2017 (Photo: Reuters/Stephen Lam).

In Brief

The first five months of 2018 have seen a remarkable downturn in the state of relations across the Taiwan Strait with China ratcheting up its diplomatic, economic and military coercion of Taiwan. In addition to ramped up military exercises around Taiwan, Beijing announced ‘31 measures’ incentivising Taiwanese residents to study, work, set up businesses and live on the mainland — measures that would contribute to the ongoing brain drain of Taiwanese graduates.


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Beijing further isolated Taipei internationally, with the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favour of China. Taiwanese office-holders — and even reporters — were also barred from attending the 71st World Health Assembly (WHA).

It is clear that Taipei has neither the clout nor the capacity to singlehandedly resist Beijing’s multi-faceted pressure campaign. In recent months, the executive and legislative branches of the US government have expressed explicit support for Taiwan’s plight, including by institutionalising Cabinet-level US–Taiwan exchanges through the Taiwan Travel Act (TTA), and through diplomatic support by 13 Senators and 170 members of Congress for Taiwan’s ‘unconditional participation’ in the WHA.

The looming question is whether Taipei can continue to rely on Washington for support or, when push comes to shove, will the United States abandon Taiwan for its own strategic interests vis-a-vis China?

Three considerations suggest that Washington cannot — under present circumstances — abandon Taipei.

First, the Trump administration has articulated an Asia policy of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. While the details of this strategy remain unspecified with clarity needed in several areas, the fundamental premise is to ensure that states straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans remain free from coercion.

Abandoning Taiwan — ostensibly an Indo-Pacific territory with a vibrant democracy and successive governments that espouse universal human rights — would denigrate the credibility of the administration’s Indo-Pacific policy as it runs counter to the principles of deterring coercion and promoting freedom of governance and fundamental rights. This is particularly damaging as the source of coercion is China — a state with communism enshrined in its constitution and a less-than-stellar human rights record.

Second, discontinuing its backing of Taiwan would severely erode the current balance of power in Asia. Beijing’s ongoing moves at consolidating control over its disputed periphery, including militarising its installations in the South China Sea, hint at a paradigm shift in the way it is utilising its new-found national power in the diplomatic, economic and military spheres.

While Beijing constantly decries Washington’s ‘Cold War mentality’ in creating spheres of influence in China’s immediate neighbourhood, the reality is that states in the vicinity of the middle kingdom want a choice — instead of bandwagoning to Beijing’s preferences. The United States provides this choice, allowing states to hedge their bets between the global hegemon and Asia’s rising power. But the United States’ role in balancing China in Asia is credible only insofar as it can maintain the trust and confidence of its treaty allies — such as Japan, South Korea and Australia — and partners like India and Vietnam. Abandoning Taiwan to China’s coercion would decimate this trust.

Third, the Taiwan issue impacts US domestic politics. The prevailing sentiment both in the White House and on Capitol Hill is that the rise of China threatens US dominance in Asia and the rules-based international order that the United States has constructed.

Any decision taken by the executive branch suggesting the abandonment of Taiwan would face vociferous opposition from Congress, the influential Taiwan lobby and American voters — the latter relating to Americans that support the rule of law, democracy and human rights, and those who benefit from Taiwanese trade and investment.

This analysis of US interests makes the case for renewed backing of Taipei. For a start, Washington should reiterate the principled positions established by previous administrations. This includes abiding by the US one-China policy articulated in the three joint communiques, where the United States recognises Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China and that the United States does not support Taiwanese independence. At the same time, Washington should continue its commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), TTA and the Six Assurances toward Taipei.

This upholds the ‘dual deterrence’ strategy that both reassures and warns Beijing and Taipei to preserve peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Specifically, the United States should view the coercion of Taiwan and its people with ‘grave concern‘ as prescribed in the TRA, and warn that further Chinese diplomatic, economic or military manoeuvres antithetical to Taiwan’s interests will invoke a robust US response.

Beyond declaratory statements to this effect, Washington should put its money where its mouth is and ramp up practical counter-measures in support of Taipei, such as deploying US naval assets for port calls in Taiwan, voicing support for Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy as it attempts to diversify its economy away from reliance on the Chinese market, or permitting high-level US–Taiwan official exchanges under the TTA’s auspices.

Of course, Beijing is likely to view some of these measures as blatant contraventions of the one-China policy. The specific policy measures to deploy will depend on an assessment of China’s anticipated response and the egregiousness of its pressure campaign on Taiwan — calibrated carefully to avoid overt conflict with Beijing. Peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait will depend on Washington’s savviness in navigating the complex triangular dynamics and its adroit management of cross-strait relations.

Jansen Tham is a Masters of Public Policy candidate specialising in Politics and International Affairs at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

2 responses to “Can the United States abandon Taiwan?”

  1. From an article from East Asia Forum’s own website:
    “Tellingly, at a recent speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Tsai spoke of the importance of securing the ‘accumulated outcomes of more than 20 years of negotiations and exchanges’, which apparently includes the 1992 Consensus. She stated that ‘these accumulated outcomes will serve as the firm basis of [her] efforts to further the peaceful and stable development of cross-strait relations’.”

    Among the first things current Taiwan Tsai administration did was rejecting 1992 consensus, even kicking off a protracted “academic explanation” to discredit the 1992 consensus as a sham, and I’ve read a couple such articles on various international news publication sites. Also, the apparent independence leanings of the administration and DDP become more apparent over time, with actual policies being put into place. Simply put, in many ways it was a fundamental shift from the 8 years of previous KMT Ma administration which saw a stable, warming ties between Mainland and Taiwan without giving up much on Taiwan’s side, in fact Taiwan was able to gain access to various UN agencies under previous agreed format, which the DDP and Tsai administration simply dewmolished without a replacement (and had since been complaining to no end when Mainland no longer supports Taiwan’s participation in UN agencies) . Failure to bring this all important point up clearly exposes the author’s bias, and unfortunately this bias permeates throughout rest of author’s article.

    One has to wonder, where would this “liberal democracy” vs “sovereignty” tug of war will eventually land for all parties involved. A casual glance at Taiwan’s location will know securing Taiwan will be one of the most basic security priorities for Mainland China by even the most casual of security experts, and this won’t change whether China is a democracy or “authoritarian” or led by a newborn Chinese Hitler. Of all the unlikely scenarios China will be willing to go to war for and will not compromise on, Taiwan stands above everything else in its own league (or is US and allies planning another Korea? Vietnam?). Trying to countenance this critical reality with arguments for liberal democracies, implied security needs for Japan and other Asian littoral states (while, of course, ignoring China’s), or even US’s domestic support for Taiwan (need better explanations of how and why should this trump China’s positions) seem like a really disingenuous proposition. Is this really determined to be the best way to secure and spread “liberal democratic values”?

    • Thank you for your comments. You made two good points.

      First, you alluded that the current cross-strait impasse is partially (if not entirely) due to policies by the Tsai administration, in rejecting the 1992 Consensus and resulting in outcomes like being disinvited from meetings involving UN agencies. This was a fundamental shift from the Ma administration’s more re-conciliatory position.

      Second, you said – correctly – that Taiwan remains the mainland’s single most important security and territorial issue. As a side note, contrary to what you said that “this won’t change whether China is a democracy or “authoritarian””, it is clear that should the mainland change its political structure/values, there is indeed very real chance reunification could happen – and on terms satisfying both sides.

      However, neither of these points – where you focus on Taiwanese domestic policies/politics and Beijing’s preoccupation with Taiwan for national security purposes – address nor go against the core argument in this article: the US at this present point cannot abandon Taiwan, and this is because the US has strategic national interests to consider as part of its posture in Asia.

      The closing paragraphs also made the point that support from Washington for Taipei should be to “preserve peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and calibrated carefully to avoid overt conflict with Beijing – all in response to the campaign that Beijing has undertaken in recent months. Indeed there is bias – bias towards preserving the current peace and deterring more aggressive coercive activities across the Strait.

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