This is Part 1 in a two-part series by former US State Department diplomat David An on why the United States should not abandon Taiwan for a bargain with China.

George Washington University Professor Charles Glaser recently restated his policy recommendation: “The United States should negotiate a grand bargain that ends its commitment to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression.”

“In return,” he wrote, “China would peacefully resolve its maritime and land disputes in the South China and East China Seas, and officially accept the United States’ long term military security role in East Asia.” Glaser made this statement in the most recent Spring publication of the academic journal International Security, which is little known among laymen but widely read by academics and policymakers. He argues that US security is at stake when it protects Taiwan.

He reiterates a point he made four years ago in the more widely read Foreign Affairs journal in his article titled: Will China’s Rise Lead to War? In that April 2011 article, he flatly concluded, “The United States should consider backing away from Taiwan.”

Many Americans are unaware of this ivory tower policy discussion, but the fate of Taiwan matters to the United States and China, and of course, carries heavy implications for the people of Taiwan. Regaining influence and control over Taiwan matters a great deal to China as a historical victory, to bring closure to the Chinese Civil War of the 1940s under what Beijing would see as favorable terms. However, the US and its regional partners Japan and South Korea maintain great security and trade benefits when China’s maritime dominance does not continue to push east toward the second and third island chains in the Pacific.

Glaser’s recommendations are likely to be on the minds of key decision makers in the US government due to the prominence of Foreign Affairs and International Security journals. It is hard to dismiss a well respected professor who previously worked alongside John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago before starting this next step in Washington, DC.

But how did Glaser come up with this idea? The best way to fully understand the implications of abandoning Taiwan is to recognize that Glaser’s policy recommendation is a simple deduction based on the logic of his self-styled Rational Theory of International Politics. We should first understand his theory; then we can see that the case for continuing US support for Taiwan is brightest in precisely those areas where structural realism, which is the basis of Glaser’s rational theory, is woefully blind.


Glaser’s talk of abandoning Taiwan began around 2010 when Princeton University Press published his academic book Rational Theory of International Politics.

In the book, Glaser makes a unique contribution to the existing academic literature by showing how states could escape the “security dilemma.” The security dilemma can be explained as the following: states that seek security might build arms with defensive intentions; however, other states might view this as offensive and leading to an act of aggression, and subsequently reciprocate in building up their own arms. The dilemma is that both states build up arms but paradoxically neither is more secure.

Glaser’s rational theory approaches this dilemma by arguing that a state’s strategy is determined by three factors: whether it has greedy or security-seeking motives; whether the military capabilities of its weapons are greater than its adversary’s, and its information on the other state’s motives. All of these factors are combined to determine a state’s strategy toward another state. If a state judges that its counterpart is security-seeking, possesses a moderate mix of weapons, and has restrained motives, then that state should pursue a strategy of cooperation and accommodation in order to break out of the security dilemma.  Glaser judges that China is a security-seeking state since it has a defense advantage in its military deterrent capabilities, the US has no reason to believe China has expansionist motives based on available information, and the US is safe from China because the large geography of the Pacific Ocean helps make a large conventional attack on the US virtually impossible (Glaser, Rational Theory, p. 272-277).

So far so good. However, though Glaser’s theory is elegant, it is lacking when it comes to practical application. Furthermore, according to his book, “A full assessment of the impact of China’s rise depends on a couple of still more specific issues that lie further below the sweeping view of grand international relations theory yet could be consequential. At the top of the list is Taiwan, which is currently the most dangerous point of potential conflict between the United States and China” (Ibid, p.280).

Therefore, he argues, China can be accommodated by a unilateral US action of backing away from Taiwan.

Nevertheless, Glaser misses on several points. First, while avoiding conflict is a worthy pursuit, a strategy predicated on giving up support for Taiwan, and therefore limiting the US’s own options in the region, ultimately constrains its utility.

Second, Glaser is new to China and Taiwan issues. Having been a US-Russia nuclear expert, and Europe hand for most of his academic career, he has recently shifted his attention to Asia, and specifically China. His new yet controversial remarks come at a time when most lifelong East Asia scholars are calling for the opposite recommendation: to contain China rather than appease it. Andrew Browne’s Wall Street Journal article, “Can China be Contained?” published recently on June 12, 2015, draws from a range of China experts—Michael Pillsbury, former US deputy national security advisor Robert Blackwill, Ashley Tellis and Michael Swaine both of the Carnegie Endowment, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and many others—to advocate for “a policy of containment against China. The once solid Washington consensus behind the benefits of ‘constructive engagement’ with Beijing has fallen apart.”

Third, Glaser seems to use Taiwan as no more than a convenient rhetorical specimen for illustrating his theory, than a serious case study. Why just Taiwan? Rational theory’s logical implication of the US backing away from a single smaller partner to prevent conflict with that partner’s adversary is also analogous of Israel versus Arab states. Why didn’t Glaser make the bold claim that the US should abandon Israel, and thereby improve relations with the Arab states, based on the logic of his rational theory? I am not advocating for this course of action, but merely pointing out that such an idea is borderline taboo since it would be career suicide to pick a fight against Israel and its backers. His colleagues John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt caught much flak for examining what they concluded was an overly influential Israel lobby in the United States, far less than suggesting that the US break off support for Israel.

Instead, Glaser targets Taiwan.

In short, Glaser, himself not an expert in the intricate histories and personalities of the China and Taiwan conflict, tries to fit the case of Taiwan neatly into a theory that has traded applicability for elegance. American policymakers and academics should find that there is no need to think about giving up support for Taiwan, because doing so will incur grave implications in exchange for little to no benefit of possibly improving US-China relations.

(To be continued)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions of the author expressed herein does not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government.

David An

David An was formerly a tenured US diplomat who covered China, Taiwan and East Asia in the State Department, Political-Military Bureau between 2009 and 2014. He helped coordinate several US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogues and worked out of the US Embassy in Beijing andthroughout East Asia.

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