Why Should the U.S. Protect Taiwan

It would be very natural for an American citizen to ask why their government sells weapons to Taiwan, an island in the Western Pacific, north of the Philippine chain and south of the Okinawa chain of Japan, and why the U.S. Government claims, in the 20+ year old Taiwan Relations Act law passed to establish unofficial relations with a de facto independent Taiwan, to have a large interest in guaranteeing that Taiwan's autonomy is not lost to coercive action by another party, meaning the authoritarian regime headquartered in Beijing.

US Navy

Many pundits, such as Charles Glaser, argue against this policy, claiming that helping to protect democratic Taiwan's citizenry with weapons to deter attack from China angers the ever more powerful, ambitious, and assertive regime headed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who sit 100 miles away across the Taiwan Strait. These anti-Taiwan commentators claim, with no evidence at all, that if America would just stop selling weapons to Taiwan, then the CCP would no longer act in ways that would militarily challenge America.

These well-meaning policy analysts get China all wrong. The Beijing authoritarian ruling group's number one goal is creating a world that will help legitimize and entrench their dictatorship. As a result, from Syria and Iran to Zimbabwe and Sudan, the CCP regime supports anti-American tyrants and works against internationally recognized human rights. Even if Taiwan were to sink into the ocean, the rulers in Beijing would still treat the USA as enemy number one.

A second high priority goal for the CCP is protecting China's access to energy all around the world. As a result, China is grabbing the seas of Southeast Asia which are rich in energy resources and whose Malacca Strait provides access to oil trade routes to the Middle East. This Chinese expansionism worries China's neighbors in Asia such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and India. This China challenges the American Navy's rights to movement in international ocean waters that the CCP claims, yet are far from the shores of continental China. This China means to build a navy that can stand up to the American Navy.

Two things are clear from these facts. First, the U.S. Government should strive mightily to find a way to live in peace with this ever more powerful, ambitious, and expansive China. It will not be easy. It is vital.

And second, the notion that a small, weak, un-threatening, and democratic Taiwan is the major cause of war-prone tensions between China and the U.S. does not stand up under logic. This Taiwan seeks peace and mutual benefit from China and has gone out its way to prove its friendly intentions. Therefore, if there is a danger of war, it lies in the nationalistic ambitions and politics of the CCP.

Unless the U.S. Government wishes to see an authoritarian, anti-American China dominate Asia against the wishes of Asian peoples, the U.S. should try to help these Asian peoples maintain their independence so they can live in peace and mutual benefit with America and with China. The Taiwanese should be seen as one of those Asian peoples. This is how the U.S. Government should see it. This is how the U.S. Government should act. It is correct to do so. 

Edward Friedman's teaching and research interests include democratization, Chinese foreign policy, international political economy, revolution, and the comparative study of transitions in Leninist States. His most recent books are Chinese Village, Socialist State (1991), The Politics of Democratization: Generalizing the East Asian Experience (1994), National Identity and Democratic Prospects in Socialist China (1995), and What if China doesn't democratize? Implications for war and peace (2001), China's Rise, Taiwan's Dilemmas and International Peace (Routledge, 2005), Asia's Giants: Comparing India and China (MacMillan, 2005), Revolution, Resistance and Reform in Village China (Yale, 2005), Regional Cooperation and its enemies in Asia (Routledge, 2006), Political Transitions in Dominant Party Systems (Routledge, 2008).

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