Can the United States abandon Taiwan?

Three key considerations suggest that Washington cannot abandon Taipei

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(Image from Flickr user Kevin Harber)

SINGAPORE (East Asia Forum) -- 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" incentivizing 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.

Beijing further isolated Taipei internationally, with the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor 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 single-handedly 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 institutionalizing 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 militarizing its installations in the South China Sea, hint at a paradigm shift in the way it is utilizing 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 neighborhood, the reality is that states in the vicinity of the middle kingdom want a choice — instead of band-wagoning 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.


(Associated Press Image)

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 recognizes  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 maneuvers 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.


President Tsai and U.S. officials at the opening of the American Institute in Taiwan complex in Taipei, June 12, 2018 (Taiwan News Image/ Teng Pei-ju)

Jansen Tham is a Masters of Public Policy candidate specializing in Politics and International Affairs at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. This article originally appeared on East Asia Forum, published June 15, 2018.