Why You Should Care About Taiwan

If we were to give up Taiwan, in the way Paul Kane suggests, we might gain the whole world but forfeit our soul.
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It was a bright, sunny day as Chinese President Hu Jintao woke up for his first full day at the APEC summit in Hawaii last Friday. Everything seemed just perfect.

Maybe it was the fresh, clean air coming off the Pacific. Maybe it was the tropical water, the sun, the aloha spirit of the Hawaiian people. Or, maybe it was the op-ed in the New York Times, calmly proposing that the U.S. sell out Taiwan in return for China writing off America's $1.14 trillion debt.

"With a single bold act," Paul Kane writes, "President Obama could correct the country's course, help assure his re-election, and preserve our children's future... [through] a deal to end American military assistance and arms sales to Taiwan and terminate the current United States-Taiwan defense arrangement." After all, Kane reasons, "America has little strategic interest in Taiwan... [and] the island's absorption into mainland China is inevitable."

In another era, Kane's article might have been interpreted as a clever nod to Jonathan Swift's treatise, "A Modest Proposal", in which Swift lampoons the British aristocracy by satirically advocating that poor Irish be permitted to sell their children for food. "I know!" it seems to say. "Let's sell out a thriving, peaceful democracy to an oppressive dictatorship -- it's the perfect solution to the debt we incurred from all our saving-democracy-from-oppressive-dictatorships." Put that way, you could almost be fooled into think it was satire -- but it's not, not as far as I can tell. I imagine that the fact that we're even debating this must make someone in Beijing very, very happy.

Kane's proposal shows initiative and creativity, but he fundamentally misunderstands our relationship with Asia. The fact that we are $1.14 trillion in debt to China is not, per se, a good thing -- but it may be a good thing for peace. After all, there's very little to be gained by going to war with your biggest debtor, to say nothing of your biggest export market -- and keeping the peace between the superpowers goes a long way toward helping all nations in the region succeed. And while Kane may see Taiwan's absorption into China as "inevitable," it certainly does not seem inevitable to the 23 million people currently living under a freely-elected government in Taipei, nor to the host of American allies that look at Taiwan as a bellwether of U.S. commitment to the region.

After all, if the U.S. is willing to sell out Taiwan for a few bucks, why not Korea? Why not Japan? And what would you do if you were a small, technologically-advanced nation sitting in the shadow of a sometimes-hostile neighbor, suddenly in doubt about whether you could rely on your defense agreement with the U.S.? I know what I would do: I would build nuclear weapons, lots of them, and fast. And what do other countries do when all their neighbors start a nuclear program? They arm themselves too. Soon, annual APEC meetings are no longer about ho-hum trade routes, exchange rates, and investment -- they're about radiation poisoning and nuclear disarmament. Not exactly the cheery end to a vestigial cold war that Kane envisions.

But it's more than that. It's undeniable that much of China has been taught to see Taiwan as an aggravating, irritating, barely tolerable remnant of colonialism that will never be right until it is reunited with the motherland. Chinese leaders indeed do see Taiwan as a precious prize that they would "give dearly" to retrieve, and they would be heartened -- to say the least -- by such a cynical, unprincipled, and frankly reasonable change in U.S. policy. But would they come through on their side of the deal?

Not likely. Because negotiation with the Chinese is almost never a "grand bargain" of the type Kane proposes, but rather a subtle and ever-shifting adjustment of pieces on twenty different chessboards. An open admission that the debt issue had weakened American resolve to the point of putting Taiwan on the table would only confirm what many in China already suspect-- that the U.S. is on the decline and soon will be unable to fulfill its commitments in East Asia. But of course, if the Chinese became convinced that the U.S. had reached that point, why compromise at all? The smartest thing to do would be to happily agree to the arrangement -- maybe even write off a few hundred-million -- and then watch as the U.S. government goes around convincing Congress and Joe Public that Taiwan is no longer worth fighting for. By the time they were done, you could just accept Taiwan's capitulation gracefully and still call in the remaining debt.

But all of this ignores the most obvious problem, which is that if we sell out Taiwan we would also give up our claim to ever having been an "exceptional" country. When we took over Afghanistan -- a $475 billion project -- we said it was because we were going to build a safe, free, and democratic nation where terrorists could no longer hide and plot attacks. When we went into Iraq -- a$803 billion project -- we claimed it was because we were freeing the Iraqi people from a brutal and capricious dictator. Whatever you might think about the rationality or strategic wisdom of these two decisions (I was firmly for the first, firmly against the second), we resolved to finish the job because we could not simply abandon a newly free country to the forces of tyranny.

If we were to give up Taiwan, in the way Mr. Kane suggests, we might gain the whole world but forfeit our soul. What would it mean to be American, once we give up on democracy? And although I have lived on Taiwan, and I do know people there, this is not a sentiment that comes from being a Taiwan nationalist or a "China hawk." If the people of Taiwan elect, in their own time, to rejoin the mainland -- or even if Beijing is savvy enough to make it a fait accompli-- I can live with that. People have a right to determine their own fate. But to give up Taiwan just because it's expedient would be to betray our basic values as a nation -- a nation of people who threw off oppression and then refused to be cowed by the large hegemonic power that wanted us back. As Americans, we should all think about that before we start debating what a small island in the Pacific is worth to us.