For more than 50 years, the US has enjoyed a remarkably close relationship with Taiwan. Arguably, no other country maintains as many ties with Taiwan. What lies behind US interest and how has it changed over time?
During the late 1940s, US military planners described Taiwan as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" and warned that, while it might not improve US military capabilities in East Asia, the island would certainly enhance the military capabilities of any power hostile to the US.
Even today, some fear that if Beijing takes over Taiwan, it would "unleash" China, which might project its military influence outward over the Western Pacific.
Still others warn that China would "inherit" most of Taiwan's military, advanced technology, economic muscle and educated workforce if it managed to secure Taiwan largely intact.
Some analysts also caution that the US would lose a trustworthy military ally if Taiwan should cease to exist as a sovereign political entity. Finally, a number of military experts speculate that Taiwan's incorporation into China -- peaceful or otherwise -- might prompt East Asian countries to recalibrate defense policies and key relationships.
Others believe that it is Taiwan's economic miracle -- not the island's strategic importance -- that binds Washington to Taipei. Since the 1950s, Taiwan's GDP has increased over 1000 percent. It is the US' eighth-largest trading partner and a major source of advanced technology products.
But the "economic miracle" promotes US interests in many other ways. Perhaps most importantly, it serves as a model of modernization for much of the world. The island has long been an embarrassment to those governments that peddle a totalitarian road to development, while serving as an inspiration to countries hoping to avoid such a path.
Despite the evidence cited above, the US' commitment to Taiwan cannot be traced to shrewd strategic calculations or economic considerations. Rather, political interests serve as the basis for the continued close relationship.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Taiwan was a military asset to the US, but only because China was considered an enemy.
Those days are over. The US' ties with Beijing are closer than ever. Washington shares intelligence with Taipei, but it also cooperates on intelligence matters with Beijing. Moreover, the suggestion that China taking over Taiwan would enable it to traumatize East Asia ignores geographic and strategic realities. China's coastal military facilities already provide it with ample opportunities to create mischief in the Western Pacific. But the US' military bases in Japan, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii and port visitation agreements throughout Southeast Asia would deter such adventures.
As one of the world's largest economies, Taiwan commands the respect of the international community.
Today it is China, however, that is feted by the world's political and financial leaders as an economic miracle and US foreign direct investment in China now outpaces investment in Taiwan by substantial margins. China enjoys an average GDP growth rate approaching 10 percent and may overtake the US as the world's largest economy within 20 years.
Unlike strategic and economic interests, the US' political stake in Taiwan has grown exponentially with the passage of time. Taiwan has long served as visible evidence that the US stands by its friends and honors its commitments.
But most important is Taiwan's peaceful evolution into a democracy.
Taiwan's feisty democracy is far from perfect. But the island's democratization has stiffened the US' resolve to protect it. This is because most of the US supports the central propositions of "democratic peace theory."
The US believes that democracies tend to be more reliable partners in trade and diplomacy and seldom threaten peace. Furthermore, democracies do not attack other democracies, engage in terrorism, wreak environmental damage or unleash waves of refugees on the world. It is for these reasons that the US will remain committed, as it has for more than half a century, to Taiwan.
Indeed, the US' stated interest in Taiwan's democracy makes as much (or more) sense today as it did in the past.
This article was written by Dennis V. Hickey, the director of the graduate program in International Affairs at Missouri State University.
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