Why die for Taiwan? This is a question that will soon be asked by Western skeptics of competition with the People’s Republic of China.
Students of history will recognize the echo of a slogan from the interwar period. “Why die for Danzig?” made its debut on May 4, 1939 as the title of an article (“Mourir pour Dantzig?”) in the Paris newspaper L’Œuvre. It was a variation on the theme invoked the previous year by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, shortly before his Munich deal with Hitler, that there was no great issue at stake in the quarrel in “a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
This episode is relevant today not because the People’s Republic of China is reminiscent of the Third Reich or poses a comparable threat to world order. The risk of a conflagration between the PRC and the United States is not even necessarily imminent. But it’s worth recalling that avoiding the Thucydides trap of great-power conflict is rarely as straightforward as sacrificing a small democracy on the altar of peace. The appetite of a large and proud power may not be so easily satiated.
Of all the potential clashes in the new cold war between the United States and China, Taiwan is the most frightening. China claims the island as its own territory; America has a longstanding implicit commitment to protect it. One need not possess a keen historical imagination to conceive of a confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwanese independence, already endorsed in principle by Taipei, is regarded by the Chinese Communist Party as a casus belli. If Taiwanese independence were ever formally recognized by the United States, the CCP would almost certainly issue military threats and send naval vessels into the strait––whatever was necessary to bring the Taiwanese to heel. At which point, the American president would face an unenviable choice between responding in kind—that is, repelling the Chinese incursion by force—or to flinch and sacrifice Taiwanese freedom in an instant.
Since 1978, when President Carter unilaterally annulled the U.S.-Taiwan treaty that had been in place for a quarter-century, American policy on the protection of Taiwan has taken the form of “strategic ambiguity.” More than forty years later, many Americans would like to abandon this posture in favor of a forthright admission that Taiwan does not constitute a vital U.S. interest and therefore should be of no concern to the United States. A growing chorus wishes to formalize the “one China” policy that recognizes Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan while granting China an enhanced sphere of influence in Asia. From this vantage point, the chief danger to American security lies not in Chinese ambitions but in the accretion of security guarantees extended to U.S. allies in the Pacific Rim.
The liberal writer Peter Beinart has argued in this vein that Taiwan is the most glaring example of America’s strategic “insolvency.” In Beinart’s eyes, two factors make the defense of Taiwan an “unsustainable commitment” for U.S. foreign policy. First, “the people of mainland China care far more about Taiwan than Americans do,” considering it fully part of China whereas most Americans would struggle to find it on a map. Second, China’s growing military might dooms any American effort to preserve the sovereignty of Taiwan to failure.
Beinart and others have suggested that the United States should likewise jettison assurances to the sovereignty of disputed islands like Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea (claimed by both China and the Philippines) or the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea (claimed by both China and Japan)—“islands far from the heartlands of both U.S. allies.” Alarmed by the proliferation of U.S. military commitments, these observers would look askance at Washington extending new security obligations in the Chinese sphere.
Whatever the preferences of American decision-makers and commentators, Taiwan seems unlikely to fold to Chinese pressure. A distinct and democratic polity, there is no great hunger in Taiwan for unification with the tyrannical Chinese mainland. President Tsai Ing-wen used her inaugural remarks in May to reject “one country, two systems” for the island. (On this point, she enjoys the support of the vast majority of her fellow citizens who consider this option “unacceptable.”)
The Taiwanese people can readily see that China isn’t keeping its promise of autonomy to Hong Kong, and would look even less favorably on any claim made by Taipei. (In recognition of these aligned interests, Taiwan is reportedly preparing to offer refuge to Hong Kong political activists who can no longer count on their safety in the territory.) For its part, Beijing reacted to President Tsai’s address by asserting that reunification is “a historical inevitability.” Chinese officials have pointedly dropped the customary practice of describing that inevitable reunification as “peaceful.” Such saber-rattling has not been confined to rhetoric, as illustrated by China’s recent practice of testing Taiwan’s defenses with aerial sorties.
This confluence of events makes urgent the question of the nature and character of America’s alliance with Taiwan. A foreign policy of restraint that writes off the defense of Taiwan will neither suit nor serve America’s interests. It would likely bring an end to American military hegemony in Asia while elevating China to America’s status as a global superpower. But the alternative of deterring and, if necessary, confronting Chinese aggression is not pleasant, and so its rationale and ramifications must be appreciated beforehand.
We might conclude that the best chance of avoiding conflict with the People’s Republic of China is to make sure Beijing officials know they will pay a heavy price for aggression in the Taiwan Strait. But since this involves the United States credibly committing itself to the protection of Taiwan––that is, running the risk of war with China––the alternative of placing Taiwan outside of America’s defense perimeter will be tempting.
The danger in this scenario, however, lies in what would be conveyed by the abandonment of Taiwan. If America refused to stand by Taiwan while it was forcibly absorbed into China, it would have to insist that Taiwan was somehow a separate case from the rest of Asia, even though it is not the only foreign territory to which China lays historical claim. If that insistence was not made, or if it was not credible, friend and foe alike would conclude that America was conceding Asia to China’s domination.
Before the outbreak of World War II, French and British citizens did not want to “die for Danzig,” and Americans today don’t want to die for Taipei. But that desire mattered less, then as now, than a sound calculation of what they would die for. The European powers charged with defending the peace decided to remain aloof while an aggressive dictatorship threatened the balance of power.
Their reasoning was not hard to understand. The interwar consensus in Europe and America rejected the possibility that armed force would ever again be needed or used. Years of fighting had produced a deep revulsion toward geopolitical competition among Western democracies. The general desire to lay down arms coincided with an insular turn toward domestic affairs.
The peace movement and imperial guilt weakened the political legitimacy and moral authority of the great liberal powers of the day. Haunted by memories of war and stigmatized by past sins, how could the Western democracies muster the élan required to enforce peace? Unaware of the sins of omission, they chose appeasement instead. This determination to pull up the drawbridge (more risky for Britain than America, and riskier still for France) and dispose of any larger conception of national interests and international responsibilities was prevalent. The spirit of the epoch was close to Rhett Butler’s in Gone with the Wind: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” But eventually, the tug of war came when many in Europe and eventually America discovered they gave a damn after all.
So “why die for Taiwan”? Friends of that lonely island, and of the cause of freedom in East Asia, possess one advantage over those who wish to cede that sphere to an aggressive and totalitarian dictatorship: They understand that a policy of aloofness and appeasement is not a formula that proved successful against a rising power before, and there is no reason to think this time will be any different. In sum, the best way to ensure no one will die for Taiwan is to evince a willingness to die for it.