A couple of years ago, George Washington University (GWU) professor Charles Glaser wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs, titled “Will China’s Rise Lead to War?” in which he said that the US should back away from its commitments to Taiwan in order to avoid a conflict with a rising China.
In an article in the Taipei Times, I rebutted Glaser, showing that his arguments were ill-founded (“Charles Glaser’s fallacious arguments,” March 7, 2011, page 8).
History now seems to repeat itself: Two weeks ago, GWU professor Amitai Etzioni made many of the same arguments as Glaser.
In a Jan. 17 article in The Diplomat titled “The Benefits of Being Clear on Taiwan,” Etzioni said that the US and China should arrive at an explicit understanding “that as long as China does not use force to coerce Taiwan, … the US would continue to refrain from treating Taiwan as an independent state.”
Whether such an implicit understanding exists is unclear: In the article, Etzioni presents the responses of eight experts, and only one of them said there is such an understanding. That seems to be a rather feeble basis for an academic argument, let alone for a new policy.
Like Glaser before him, Etzioni does not have a background in East Asian policy issues. While he is a highly respected sociologist, it would have been better had he considered a number of points that are essential to a thorough understanding of the situation.
The first drawback in his reasoning is in the very beginning of his article, where he argues that “the way Taiwan is treated is currently a much less pressing issue than settling the differences about the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu [釣魚台] islands and … the South China Sea.”
The key point here is that — together with the Senkaku Islands [as they are known in Japan] and South China Sea — gaining control of Taiwan is a core element in China’s grand strategy to expand its military influence in the Western Pacific. They cannot be separated out as unrelated issues.
In fact, Taiwan is a key link in the first island chain, which ties together democratic nations in the region, extending itself from South Korea and Japan via Taiwan to the south. It is thus not about Taiwan itself, but its strategic location.
The second flaw is that Etzioni seems to suggest that the US should make a deal with China over the heads of the Taiwanese. That would not be in line with the nation’s democratic principles, and actually a repeat of dismal earlier actions by the US.
After World War II, the Taiwanese were — without being asked — subjected to a military rule by the losing side of the Chinese Civil War. Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) position became increasingly weak by the early 1970s, and the US subsequently had to recognize Beijing as the government of China.
In their haste to normalize relations with Beijing, former US presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter failed to consult the people of Taiwan, but fortunately, the US Congress overwhelmingly passed the Taiwan Relations Act, maintaining a semblance of relations with the island and its people.
Etzioni therefore needs to take into account that in the late 1980s, Taiwan made a momentous transition to democracy. The people on the island are now free to express their views, and the large majority consider themselves Taiwanese instead of Chinese. His view would again sell Taiwan down the river.
The Shanghai Communique clause stating that “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China” has become rather irrelevant: In the latest Taiwan opinion poll, 78.1 percent of those polled said they are Taiwanese, while 12.3 percent identified as Chinese (“Independence beats ‘status quo’ in poll,” Dec. 31, 2013, page 1). A large majority does not consider Taiwan to be part of the PRC. (“Taiwanese identity stays strong: poll,” Aug. 13, 2013, page 3).
The US indeed needs to be crystal-clear on Taiwan: It needs to support the right of the Taiwanese to determine their future. If their choice is that they want to be accepted by the international community as a free and democratic nation, the US needs to respect and support that choice. This would be in line with the country’s values and the principle of self-determination as enshrined in the UN Charter.
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 to 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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