Charles Glaser, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, wrote an article for Foreign Affairs on April 28, arguing for the U.S. retrenchment of commitment to East Asia, particularly Taiwan. Jacques deLisle, Director of Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Asia Program, and Avery Goldstein, Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program, claimed that the shed of commitment is not what most Americans believe and does not help resolve the fundamental conflicts between the U.S. and China. But Glaser’s position reflects the thinking of some Americans, which requires our attention and a more proactive approach.
The core of Glaser’s argument is threefold. First, rising China and the declining U.S. have greatly increased the likelihood of conflicts between the two powers. The U.S. should therefore examine its security interests.
Defeatism is not U.S. national consensus
Second, American security interests see a hierarchy. Homeland security, a core interest, is not threatened by the rise of China, given its isolation from China by the Pacific Ocean and the deterrent advantage over China by the U.S. nuclear weapons. The security of allies, including Japan and Korea, is on level 2. The U.S. can and should help them defend against Chinese attacks. In contrast, the security of Taiwan (and the South China Sea) is not seen as a core interest. China has the intention and capability to seize the island. And the Taiwan Strait is not a strong barrier to frustrate Chinese aggression with traditional force.
Third, ending the commitment to Taiwan would not result in a domino effect as Japan and South Korea understand they are different from Taiwan. Glaser believes that backing away from the commitment to defend Taiwan is aimed to reduce the odds of going to war with China. Instead, Washington can demonstrate its resolve by consolidating the military support to Japan and South Korea, as well as approving more arms sales to Taiwan. Once China annexes Taiwan and poses a threat to U.S. forces, the threat will be accepted and managed given its nuclear deterrence and naval superiority.
It is not difficult to refute Glaser’s argument. First, a tone of defeatism underlies his idea, assuming the U.S. is on the decline. This is not a consensus in the United States on a factual level. If so, Trump and Biden administrations would not have defined U.S. security as “competition between two powers”. They would not have competed with China on fronts of security, trade, technology and human rights.
If abandoning Taiwan, Japan and South Korea will find it difficult to trust the U.S.
Furthermore, the argument that the U.S. should help defend Japan and South Korea is based on the assumption that the “current” cost for such a move is not unacceptably high. Following the thread of the logic, as long as Taiwan demonstrates its will to defend its security and to strengthen its defense capabilities, the U.S. should respond by toughening its countermeasures against China and increasing support for Taiwan, the move expected to inflict a greater cost on China if it invades Taiwan and to reduce the potential loss to the U.S. if its forces are embroiled in the war.
Finally, if the U.S. ends its commitment to Taiwan as it is unable to defend it, it will be a matter of time before the U.S. abandons Japan and South Korea given the rise of China and the fall of America in power continues. In such a context, Japan and South Korea had better associate closely with China as soon as possible while both still have bargaining chips instead of believing in their special position in the U.S. security policy and maintaining the current alliance. If so, both will ultimately be subject to China’s leadership after China is winning in the U.S.-China rivalry. In other words, Glaser believes the U.S. security interests and commitments are arbitrary, adjustable, and even disposable. This makes it hard for Japan and South Korea to build trust with the U.S. and deepens their fear that “Today’s Taiwan, tomorrow’s Japan (South Korea).”
In Glaser’s words, the U.S. self-identity, including the superpower, the winner of the Cold War, the builder of the liberal world order and the guardian of values, constitutes an obstacle for the U.S. to revise its foreign policy when its interests and identity do not match. In fact, his view has reduced international politics to a matter of physical interests. The view, narrow but concise, is appealing to some in the U.S. (and beyond).
But it is a dangerous idea. If values, including liberty, democracy and human rights, were not important in foreign policy, the U.S. and beyond would have to accept the changes in the world landscape following China’s rise and its aggressive moves, from economic penetration, technology theft, export of its authoritarian model of government through the Belt and Road Initiative, securing the control of international organizations, to the threat of other countries’ military, diplomacy, economy and speech of freedom. In other words, the world order is more about power competition, seeing no difference between good and bad.
Taiwan’s security and U.S. competition with China
In response to Glaser’s belief, Taiwan should act the opposite way. Taiwan’s security is the key to the interest of the U.S. and free democracies. It is also a test over whether they uphold their values. With regards to identity, abandoning Taiwan will expose the hollowness of the so-called “rules-based international order”, a mockery and denial of American (and Western) values. With regards to interests, Taiwan’s security is the niche for the U.S. in the competition with China.
Yang Jiechi, Chinese Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, talked about universal values in the Alaska talks on March 18. He made it clear that “the U.S. itself does not represent international public opinion, nor does the Western world”. Indeed, universal values are not defined by a single country, and the choice of core values varies from country to country. Taiwan’s choice of autonomy, democracy, and prosperity underscores the diversity of options. This poses a challenge to the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and should be seen as a strategic asset for the U.S. and the free democratic countries.
(Li Junyi, Researcher at Institute for National Defense and Security Research)
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