In the past year or so, Taiwanese officials have on occasion been forced to reassure their audiences that the US would not “abandon” Taiwan for the sake of better relations with Beijing, an idea that has gained some traction among a limited number of US academics. Make the same suggestion in Washington today and chances are you will be laughed out of town. The reason is simple: The idea was the product of a time that has come and gone. It only managed to insinuate itself into the pages of otherwise “serious” publications, such as Foreign Affairs, because the context in Washington was — for a brief period of time at least — open to such scenarios.
That window, now closed, was during the first two years of US President Barack Obama’s administration, which was determined not only to improve China-US diplomatic relations damaged by his predecessor, but also to start softly on China where others had chosen a harder position. A key aspect of this set of priorities was to downplay human rights and calls for democracy as Obama attempted to dissociate his administration from that of former US president George W. Bush, whose exporting of democracy through force had severely undermined the US’ reputation abroad.
Therefore, the implication for Obama’s policy on Taiwan and China was to play down China’s atrocious human rights record while accommodating Beijing’s wishes on several issues. It was in that context that academics, along with a handful of retired government officials (the latter often running lucrative business deals with China), proposed the idea of abandoning Taiwan and presented the concept as realist policymaking that would clear the way for Sino-US cooperation on a number of other important issues such as North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions, global warming and so on. Washington officials, in turn, expected that de-emphasizing the Taiwan “issue” would encourage Beijing to act as a responsible stakeholder in return.
However, the events that transpired soon after made US policymakers realize that rather than see accommodation as a win-win approach to diplomacy, Beijing understood it as a sign of weakness on Washington’s part and therefore continued to ask for more, while failing to deliver on the issues where the US sought cooperation — Sudan, Myanmar, Syria, currency manipulation, trade practices and human rights. When China did deliver, it was to benefit itself, such as combating piracy off the Somalian coast as part of a multinational force because it provided necessary combat training for its naval fleet and allowed it to show its flag on the high seas, providing a convenient airing of its seafaring ambitions.
Following the Obama administration’s epiphany, Washington changed course and hardened its stance on China, a process that was compounded by China’s belligerence in the South China Sea and resulted in the famous “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. In this new context, one in which US officials regard the region once again as “indispensable” and re-emphasize the importance of human rights and democracy, the notion of abandoning Taiwan has lost all credibility.
The facts on the ground, even when academics were proposing selling Taiwan and its 23 million souls down the river, belied the notion. Military-to-military relations between Taiwan and the US are very solid and it is said of the Pacific Command officers who work alongside their Taiwanese counterparts that they are bright, educated, often fluent in Mandarin and are truly committed to assisting Taiwan with its defense.
In other words — even when relations became strained between Taipei and Washington over political issues like F-16 fighter jets or US beef exports containing ractopamine — on the ground, at sea and in the air, cooperation on defense showed no sign of waning, let alone preparing the field for an eventual abandonment.
Given the new context — one that will likely last much longer than the first half of Obama’s first term — rather than abandon Taiwan, the US is likely to work much closer with it.
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