As the world adjusts to the rise of China, a growing number of political commentators have proposed that to avoid an arms race with Beijing and to secure its cooperation on various challenges, the US should “cede” Taiwan by revising its long--standing security commitment.
Most recently, Charles Glaser, writing in the establishment Foreign Affairs, made such a case, approaching the matter from what he described as a realist, albeit not pessimistic, perspective.
The gist of his argument stems from two assumptions. First is the belief that ongoing improvements in China’s military capabilities could make it likelier to escalate in a conflict scenario, which, if it were to get out of hand, could turn nuclear. Added to this is the belief that any attempt by the US to ensure a balance of power over Taiwan would spark an arms race.
The second assumption is that the neutralization of Taiwan (to which we will turn later) would open the door for Chinese cooperation on other difficult matters, such as the South and East China seas and other territorial disputes.
At the intersection of those assumptions lies the conclusion that it would be in the US’ best interest — both in terms of avoiding armed conflict with China and ensuring its cooperation on regional and global matters — to negate the point of contention that, according to Glaser’s view, creates -distortions in the relationship. In other words, Taiwan.
The author contends that “disagreeable” though it may be, Washington’s best option is to back away from its commitment to Taiwan, a move that somehow would magically smooth the way for better relations between the US and China “in the decades to come.”
Critics of this grand bargain, Glaser argues, would claim that Beijing would not be satisfied with such appeasement and it would be encouraged to make greater demands. This is wrong, he contends, because “not all adversaries are Hitler, and when they are not, accommodation can be an effective policy tool.”
According to Glaser’s logic, it would have been morally acceptable for civilized countries to stand by as Nazi Germany dismembered Czechoslovakia in March 1939, provided Hitler did not go any further. In this scenario, whatever fate awaited ordinary Czechs as the brown shirts took control of their government, curtailed their civil liberties and murdered dissidents remains a bearable abstract, as long as the transgressions ended there.
Perhaps even more reprehensible is Glaser’s treatment of Taiwan as a mere territory or piece of real estate to be auctioned off whenever it is -convenient for great powers to do so. His dehumanization of Taiwan entirely effaces a history and political system that are altogether different from those seen in China. However much the realist he likes to believe he is, the 23 million people who inhabit Taiwan cannot be treated as mere pawns on some grand Brzezinski chessboard.
While such thinking “outside the box” will likely gain traction in some corners, one can hope that the current leadership in the White House regards the world with more humanity than Glaser does and realizes that human beings, regardless of whether they live in freedom and democracy or under authoritarian rule, are worthy of compassion and, when needed, protection.
With the benefit of hindsight, history reserved tar and feathers for the “appeasers” in World War II, but did so for the wrong reasons. The blemish on their reputation lies not so much in their failure to realize that after Czechoslovakia would come Poland and many others, but rather in their willingness to sacrifice a weaker member of the family of nations in the first place. Just as in East Asia today, however, a militant Czechoslovakia under Nazi control would have compounded regional insecurity and likely sparked an arms race, with the result that any future conflict might have been even deadlier than the cataclysm that was visited upon Europe during those years of madness.
One thing Glaser’s article does not address is how other regional powers, such as Japan and India, would react to China suddenly extending its line of control and threatening the first island chain and beyond. As Robert Kaplan writes in his most recent book, Monsoon, “China wants desperately to integrate Taiwan into its dominion, so that it can redirect its naval energies to the Indian Ocean” and thereby escape from the Strait of Malacca dilemma.
Here, as in the 1940s Europe from our alternate scenario, the likeliest outcome would be an arms race, perhaps even the entry of Japan as a nuclear power. From then on, any future conflict — now region-wide — would risk being even more devastating.
Lastly, it is unlikely Taiwanese would go gently into the night and allow their hard-earned democracy and freedoms to be devoured by the wolves simply for the sake of regional stability, or because the US followed Glaser’s advice and “abandoned” them. They would resist, and from that resistance would come tremendous pressure on the US and its allies to act. In other words, besides highlighting his poor moral judgment, Glaser’s gamble could make armed conflict between the US and China more likely rather than less.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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