Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ditching Taiwan?

The New York Times on Friday published what a Daily Kos contributor approvingly called, "something that should prompt serious discussion of our national goals in a new world reality." Written by Paul V. Kane, a Marine Corps veteran of Iraq and a former fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard, here are the take home points:
  1. The American economy is doomed thanks to its massive debt, and there is currently $1.14 trillion of U.S. debt currently held by China.
  2. The U.S. ought to broach a deal with China, in which its debt is written off in exchange for a cessation of American arms to Taiwan and an end of the U.S.-Taiwan defense agreement.
  3. Because China so highly values Taiwan, Beijing will agree to such a deal.
  4. A China-U.S deal can offer a number of ancillary benefits:
"The Chinese leadership would be startled — for a change — if the United States were to adopt such a savvy negotiating posture. Beyond reducing our debt, a Taiwan deal could pressure Beijing to end its political and economic support for pariah states like Iran, North Korea and Syria and to exert a moderating influence over an unstable Pakistan. It would be a game changer."

I won't discuss about how stupid this argument looks from an economic perspective. Joe Weisenthal has written an excellent analysis on why we really should not be worried about the US national debt. Patrick Chovanec, whose excellent blog I'll add to my follow list soon, wrote why China would be a complete idiot to accept the deal, because:

There is no way that China could “forgive” its holdings of U.S. debt in exchange for an American policy commitment on Taiwan without bankrupting its entire financial system, unless it made good the loss by heavily taxing or borrowing from its own people.  To put it mildly, such a transaction – while theoretically possible — would be in no way as “simple,” or as obviously beneficial, as its proponent implies. [bolded and underlined for emphasis]
 Not surprisingly, James Fallows of the Atlantic, openly asked whether the op-ed was a joke. The China Post called it simply 'dumb,' and a bunch of Taiwanese animators from NMA TV made fun of it, while skewering President Barack Obama in the process (talk about collateral damage!)

While these economic arguments are very convincing, let us talk about the security and geopolitical implications of this harebrained idea.

First of all, let's say, for the sake of argument, the United States "gave" Taiwan to China. Then what? Other countries around China would start asking uncomfortable questions. Notably, if the United States was willing to surrender its long-time ally for just a trillion dollars and a couple of foreign policy changes, why would they trust the explicit guarantee of the United States to defend their sovereignty?

China has many territorial disputes with its neighbors. Take the Spratly Islands as an example, where China is involved in territorial disputes with a couple of Southeast Asian nations. China has claimed complete sovereignty over the area shown in the map below:.

Why would Vietnam and Philippines, for instance, rely on the U.S. to balance China, if they saw the Obama administration throwing Taiwan under the bus? Some would see the rise of China to be inevitable, prompting them to make some concessions and agreements with China. They might find it very beneficial to bandwagon with China (throwing their lots with the biggest threat to gain more benefits). Or worse, in trying to balance China, some could bring India or even Russia deeper into regional politics, making Asian politics very messy, complicated, and arguably more dangerous. Moreover, the U.S. would be shut off from one of the most strategically important regions in the world, unable to advance its interests in Asia.

What about South Korea? Why would South Korea rely on American protection against the North Korea? South Korea (and possibly Japan) might instead aim to make their own nuclear bombs since they could no longer rely on the Americans for sufficient security aid and defense.

There is also no guarantee that China would behave benignly. The hard-liners could see this proposed deal as Washington throwing in the towel, and they would claim their tough talks works, that the U.S. is paper tiger, a declining power, that will bend in face of more strength. In short, America's credibility and its prestige in the region would be completely compromised.

Second, the essay contains the false assumption that the regimes of Iran, Pakistan, Syria, and even North Korea are completely dependent on China. While China might be a rival to the U.S. for world power and influence, and an emerging great power, there are limits to what the Chinese can control and manipulate. For one, most of China's dealings with those countries (except North Korea) are commercial in nature, trying to find the best deals in order to maintain its economic growth. In the case of Iran, Manochehr Dorraj and Carrie L. Currier even argued that:

In the unlikely case, that would Iran assume a more belligerent foreign-policy posture, substantially escalating tensions with the United States and its European allies, the Chinese government may decide to distance itself from the Islamic Republic.

To put it bluntly, the Mullahs of Iran are not China's client. China can't completely control them. Even without China, Iran can easily purchase their weapons from Russia, as the Syrians are finding out, in the face of international boycott over its harsh treatments on its domestic discontents. In essence, China cannot dictate its terms to its trade partners, including Pakistan.

It's even questionable as to how much China can control North Korea, which is very dependent on China for its survival. :
“At the moment China has limited influence,” said Cai Jian, a professor of Korean studies at Fudan University. “On one hand it’s unhappy with North Korean actions and its provocative behavior, but on the other hand it still has to support North Korea.
”The support continues because China fears that the vacuum created by a sudden collapse there would open the door to rule by South Korea, “and that will put an American military alliance on the doorstep of China.”

It is indisputable that the question of Taiwan is very important for Chinese decision-makers. They are very interested in getting Taiwan back. Yet at the same time, it is simply impossible that China and its so-called client states would follow the script as naively elaborated by Paul V. Kane. His logic is simply wishful thinking. China's global influence is not as extensive as what Mr. Kane believes. And more importantly, the United States also can't hand over Taiwan on a silver platter for one simple reason: Taiwan does not belong to the United States.

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