Recently there has been an unprecedented volume of talk, some of it serious, to the effect that the US will, and even should, end its responsibility of defending Taiwan.
Foreign Affairs, the influential journal sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, not long ago published an article whose author suggested that Taiwan assume the role of Finland during the Cold War (ie, become a client or protectorate of China). A more recent article said the US should, given the rise of China, dump Taiwan. The author of the latter piece contends this would not whet China’s appetite for more and would resolve a major issue of contention between the US and China.
Foreign Affairs often anticipates changes in US foreign policy. Sometimes it recommends them. In this case, it may be doing both.
There are also signals US President Barack Obama’s administration does not want to continue being Taiwan’s guardian. In 2009, Obama, meeting with Chinese leaders in Beijing, concurred that Taiwan is their “core interest” — meaning something China is willing to fight for (suggesting the US may not).
Obama does not want to go to war with China. The US military is already stretched thin with current fighting. Moreover, he has proposed serious cuts to the military’s budget. Meanwhile, China’s military spending has been growing fast and will likely to continue to do so. Some say spending on an arms race with China would bankrupt the US.
Another factor is that the US is indebted to China to the tune of almost US$2 trillion and needs more of China’s money. This gives China leverage over US policies.
The Obama administration has demurred — some say to avoid angering its banker — on arms sales to Taiwan. US Senator Richard Lugar, a long-time expert on US foreign policy matters, recently expressed serious concern about US arms sales to Taiwan being held up and not being sufficient for Taiwan to maintain a minimum level of deterrence.
It is also a fact that Obama listens to the US Department of State, which doesn’t like Taiwan and would not mind giving it to China; it certainly does not want the US to use military force to protect Taiwan. Obama is hearing less from the military and the intelligence community, who see an advantage in Taiwan remaining separate from China.
There are other hints of a shift in the US’ Taiwan policy. Obama has appointed US Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke as the new ambassador to China. Locke is an expert on economic matters; he has little knowledge of security issues. Meanwhile, a number of Obama’s China experts are leaving the administration, with Japan experts set to fill the void.
Making matters worse for Taiwan, the US Congress — usually a strong supporter of Taiwan — is preoccupied with the US debt, healthcare, several wars and other issues. Moreover, the “Taiwan issue” does not resonate with many new members of the US Congress.
The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), passed into law by the US Congress in 1979 to provide Taiwan US economic and security guarantees, was 30 years old two years ago; the US Congress did little to celebrate the occasion. Few members of the US Congress cite the TRA these days.
If the US Congress is not interested in defending Taiwan, the US public is even less so. Americans, as various polls reflect, are not in the mood to see the US military sent to yet another part of the world. Specifically, the US populace does not want American blood shed to protect Taiwan.