Getting Real About Taiwan
Image Credit: US Navy

Getting Real About Taiwan


Writing off Taiwan for the sake of Sino-American amity probably qualifies as optimism of a kind—unless you have the misfortune to actually live on the island. Writing in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, George Washington University Prof. Charles Glaser maintains that to date, ‘the China debate among international relations theorists has pitted optimistic liberals against pessimistic realists.’ The former, he says, believe today’s liberal international order can accommodate China’s rise, building on economic interdependence. The latter point to China’s mounting economic and military strength, prophesying that power will impel Beijing ‘to pursue its interests more assertively, which will in turn lead the United States and other countries to balance against it.’

For realists of such leanings, this cycle of action and reaction is apparently apt to produce ‘at least a parallel to the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, and perhaps even a hegemonic war.’ Times of transition bring established powers intent on preserving their privileged positions into conflict with rising powers determined to remake the system to suit themselves.

What should be done? Glaser claims there’s a third way, namely a ‘realist optimism’ in which power politics makes not for conflict and war, but for a manageable peace—the established power should give up things that are of secondary value in order to satisfy a rising power that places inordinate value on these things. But this vision has a disturbingly 19th century ring to it. In effect, Glaser would abandon Taiwan, a secondary object for the United States, to China while reaffirming the alliances with Japan and South Korea. But buying peace with land has been tried many times before—with ephemeral results at best.

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So how would this work? Glaser maintains that ‘structural forces’ aren’t propelling the Asia-Pacific heavyweights inexorably into combat. Now (as always) the vast emptiness of the Pacific Ocean separates the two main antagonists, limiting frictions while making it hard for them to get at each other militarily. And US nuclear superiority remains unchallengeable. Such structural factors apply a damper to transpacific competition while imposing restraint on Chinese actions. By this logic, Washington and Beijing should be able to fashion an arrangement through mutual concessions, fending off war. So far, so good. The United States should make every effort to enlist China as co-guarantor of the international system over which it has presided since 1945—a system that benefits all stakeholders in globalization, including China and fellow Asian nations. But with apologies to President John F. Kennedy, Washington can’t pay any price for an Asia-Pacific entente.

Glaser apparently would. He terms Taiwan a ‘less-than-vital’ US interest. In international relations-speak, that means an interest for which the United States shouldn’t fight. The island and its residents—US friends of long standing—would be the most obvious casualty of this effort to create a new normal in East Asia. The author admits Americans will find this ‘disagreeable.’ But sympathy for stricken friends is not the only thing at stake for the United States. It’s far from clear that trading the island away would stabilize broader Sino-US relations or Asian security.

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