On July 4, Taiwan was in the news again in a US newspaper: The Wall Street Journal carried a “what if” report by US analyst Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution arguing that if Donald Trump won the US presidential election, and if he decided to withdraw US forces from Japan and South Korea, then the US could not realistically deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan, and then Taiwan’s leaders might seek to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
While it is essential that military strategists play such mindgames, it is extremely unhelpful that O’Hanlon published such an essay in the public domain such as the Wall Street Journal.
Here are some of the reasons: For starters, most foreign-policy academics agree that a Trump presidency would be disastrous for the US. Through all his statements, Trump has shown himself to be incapable of taking a reasonable or rational position on almost any topic, and has spewed one outrageous slur after another.
No disagreement with O’Hanlon on that basic point. However, is it necessary to drag Taiwan into the equation? Because of its special status, US policymakers already have a hard time perceiving Taiwan through “normal” lenses and are apt to avoid or postpone decisions necessary for sound relations with the democratic island nation.
Against this background, yet another scare scenario from a US analyst does not help establish a solid basis for going forward and developing better ties that really bind. It feeds into the unholy perception that Taiwan is “a problem,” instead of the democratic success story that it really is.
In any case, O’Hanlon’s scenario is built on a lot of “ifs.” One of the most peculiar ones is his assertion that “if the American security umbrella is withdrawn, then Taiwan would have incentive to develop a nuclear deterrent.”
To be honest, these are two of the most highly unlikely scenarios: Even in the (highly unlikely) case that Mr Trump is elected, it is extremely unlikely that his administration would simply walk away from East Asia, in spite of his irresponsible campaign rhetoric.
And then O’Hanlon refers to the (even more unlikely) possibility that Taiwan might resort to the development of nuclear weapons. In the process he mentions two cases in the 1970s and 1980s when the repressive Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime did attempt to develop a nuclear capability.
However, he neglects to mention that in the meantime Taiwan has evolved into a vibrant democracy and is now governed by a democratically elected Democratic Progressive Party government that is even wary of nuclear power as a means of generating electricity, let alone touch the very toxic issue of a nuclear deterrent.
As mentioned by O’Hanlon, no major Taiwanese politician has advocated this. The question to him is: Why is a US analyst then even talking about it? That is quite irresponsible.
What is needed in Taiwan-US relations is a steady hand that gradually brings ties between the two countries to a new level. Far-fetched worst-case scare scenarios are unhelpful in this context.
It is indeed essential that the US stands by Taiwan in accordance with the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act, and helps Taiwan defend itself against China’s intimidation, encroachment or an outright attack.
The “toolbox” consists of the full range of means, from diplomatic interactions with the People’s Republic of China, via deterrence and power politics to military means.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former editor of Taiwan Communique, a publication based in Washington.
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