U.S. diplomacy in Taiwan should return to status quo

Waging war in defense of Taiwan would tax national resources and run counter to the United States’ interests


Courtesy of Boston University

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi meets with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Aug. 3, in a display of international diplomacy that has been met with controversy and generated criticism across the political spectrum.

Ethan Wearner, Staff Columnist

On Aug. 2, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi traveled to Taiwan for a brief visit with the island’s leadership. During her stay, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen awarded Pelosi with the ‘Order of Propitious Clouds with Special Grand Cordon’. This is the highest distinction that can be awarded to civilian recipients. 

The Speaker’s office released a statement the following day, stating that her “visit should be seen as a strong statement that America stands with Taiwan.” Pelosi also proclaimed that the American-Taiwanese partnership “remains unwavering” and that Congressional support for the territory is “ironclad.” 

China has strongly admonished Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Chinese military exercises have been conducted across the Taiwan Strait median line — a response that Secretary of State Antony Blinken deemed “disproportionate” to Pelosi’s otherwise “peaceful” visit. Despite this, Pelosi’s trip has come under intense scrutiny within recent weeks. It is not clear what Pelosi achieved from meeting with Ing-wen. 

If anything, Pelosi’s decision to journey to Taiwan increased the probability of conflict while decreasing the likelihood of bilateral cooperation with China on issues such as climate change. 

More than that, Pelosi’s visit displayed American tunnel vision on Taiwan. Regardless of whether she had a right to visit the island, Taiwan will not gain lawful independence any time soon. Guided by its 2005 anti-secession law, China has continuously warned that it will employ “nonpeaceful means and other necessary measures” if Taiwan moves away from a One China Policy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains adamant on the eventual integration of Taiwan into the mainland. As Hu Jintao said in 2007 at the Seventeenth Party Congress: “the two sides of the Straits are bound to be reunified in the course of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Despite the emergence of a distinct ‘Taiwanese’ identity over the last two decades, Taiwan has historically been considered a part of China. Taiwan was sacked when Beijing was at its weakest and most vulnerable in the late nineteenth century and the Japanese captured Taiwan in 1895, four years before the Boxer Rebellion. The loss of Taiwan is associated with the national humiliation that came with the social stagnation and general instability of this period. 

Of course, Chiang Kai-Shek’s actions in Taiwan during the Chinese civil war is yet another reminder of this historical trauma. The legitimacy of the CCP is found, in part, in its ability to hoard off separatism and imperialism. It is for this reason that Beijing responds with military vigor when islands like Daiyu (Senkaku), Hong Kong and Taiwan are perceived as under threat. The United States often fails to account for this history. 

Within the CCP’s legitimacy narrative, though, are overriding security imperatives. As China continues in its presumptive growth, it will seek to determine the boundaries of acceptable behavior within East Asia. It will, in other words, seek regional dominance just as the United States did in its expansion west. 

We cannot forget, of course, that the Union also went to great lengths to ward off attempts by the British and French to support the Confederate States of America. The ideal outcome for any emerging power, be it the Union or the CCP, is to be the sole authority within their sphere of influence. Just as America benefited from expelling the British, Spanish and French Empires, so too will the Chinese benefit by reducing the American security presence in East Asia to the furthest possible extent. 

It is for this reason that many on both sides of the political spectrum have argued that it is in America’s best interest to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. The defense of its democracy and economy is, they contend, integral to the defense of liberal hegemony and to our commitments under the Taiwanese Relations Act. While Taiwan seems like an obvious partner in a balancing coalition against Beijing, it lacks a conventional military deterrent. Politicians such as Nancy Pelosi, who advocate for an “absolute” commitment to Taiwan, presuppose that we have the capacity to defend Taiwan. 

This assumption is flawed for many reasons. Firstly, Taiwan is only a thousand miles away from China — it takes just a couple of hours to arrive in the country from the mainland. In a struggle for Taiwan, China would easily emerge victorious in a conventional war with America. While America’s nuclear umbrella extends over Taiwan, no sane American would seek thermonuclear war with China in defense of 14,000 square miles of democracy. 

An unwinnable Sino-American war in defense of a small, though not insignificant island, is not in our national interest. The cost of maintaining an “absolute” defense of Taiwan would become increasingly large in the long run. Indeed, the benefit of our continued partnership would face diminishing returns in proportion to China’s growth. While it would be unwise to abandon the island outright, it would be foolish to commit to an unconditional long-term partnership with Taiwan. 

Supposing China continues to grow as it has, the best possible outcome for the United States will be to maintain the status quo of de facto independence. 

If we cannot do that, then we must recognize Taiwan’s integration as inevitable and work to secure terms with the CCP that are most suitable to American interests. Above all, though, we cannot risk war with China over the defense of Taiwan. To do so would be disastrous.