This is Part 2 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. See Part 1 here.

I have previously argued that George Washington University Professor Charles Glaser’s rational theory has been misapplied to the case of Taiwan, and that the United States will do well to ignore Glaser’s call for a “grand bargain” with China, which requires the US to abandon Taiwan.

But even more importantly, Taiwan, or any state for that matter, is not simply a unitary actor subject to a set of predetermined laws of physics. Glaser’s rational theory, and the realist school of thought on which it is based, fails when it assumes away prior history, culture, and philosophy.

Rational theory can be irrational when it incorporates blind spots inherent in the realist tradition. Glaser calls himself a defensive realist. His theory draws from structural realism, which is a prevailing view within realism that the structure of the international system–meaning the distribution of material capabilities–forces great powers to behave cooperatively or competitively. As an academic approach, structural realism is ahistorical and state-centric. It does not focus on histories of states. It examines a state, not the individual, as the unit of analysis. With the state as the unit, the realist approach treats states as billiard balls that act and react against one another akin to Newtonian physics. These blind spots are severe.

Structural realism, which is the basis of rational theory, does not take into account the close friendship nor the cooperative partnership that the 23 million people in Taiwan have with the United States and its people. They are not simply billiard balls as described under realism. These academic theories inadequately describe Taiwan’s loyalty and close cooperation with the US before World War II, throughout the Cold War, and to the present day.

Let’s not forget that Taiwan was a US mutual defense treaty ally from the 1950s to the 1970s, that it previously held the China seat at the United Nations Security Council, and is a vibrant democracy today with a rich multiethnic culture and history. Realism ignores this valuable bit of history.

A decision by the US to support or abandon Taiwan could lead millions in Taiwan to flourish or become oppressed, and very possibly literally be a matter of life or death. The 23 million people of Taiwan match the population of Australia, which is a proud US mutual defense treaty ally with NATO+4 status. Taiwan has more inhabitants than many countries in Europe, larger than the Netherlands at 16 million, Greece at 11 million, Switzerland at eight million, as well as others. Realism misses the focus on the people.

The people of Taiwan are peaceable, highly educated, but fierce in their national defense. They possess submarines, the latest Patriot PAC-3 missiles, Black Hawk UH-60M helicopters, F-16 fighter aircraft, and much determination to fight for their freedom and values. They are not mere data points in a theory.

Furthermore, a unilateral US concession of backing away from Taiwan would return little benefit if China unilaterally continues to act provocatively in its cyber espionage, military modernization and territorial disputes in the South (China) Sea. Who says there must be a quid pro quo from China?

Will Taiwan’s future be Taiwan’s to decide?

I have frequently heard that China has been treating Hong Kong well since after the British handover (itself a debatable assertion) and that this would be how China would treat Taiwan as well. But with the US out of the picture, how China treats Taiwan would not be on Taiwan’s terms—and there would be nothing that any other state could do about it. China’s actions toward Taiwan could result in a best case scenario, or it could be a worst case scenario.

For instance, let’s consider China’s other autonomous regions Tibet and Xinjiang. Do those inhabitants like the way they’re being treated, and do they have much say? Is there anything that they or their outside supporters can do about it? If China gains control of Taiwan, it could treat Taiwan well or it could treat Taiwan cruelly. It’s impossible to know ex ante because intentions in the minds of leaders are hard to discern; even if they are discernible, intentions can change overnight. In fact, this is what the realists would say.

The concept of anarchy in international relations theory provides the rationale. States exist in anarchy, which does not mean utter chaos, but rather means that the world lacks an overarching world government to enforce agreements or promises. If the US backs away from Taiwan, international relations theory maintains that there is little to nothing that the rest of the world could do to prevent China from imposing whatever will it has toward Taiwan, despite any previous agreement or promise.

The United Nations, International Criminal Court and other institutions cannot effectively punish states or sitting heads of state as effectively as domestic institutions could with their full sovereignty to rule. A world government does not exist with jurisdiction to resolve disagreements or enforce rule of law; therefore China could promise one thing and do another.

Glaser’s theory simply assumes a grand bargain with China will, somehow, be kept by China. Neither does Glaser’s theory address the reverberating effects of the US abandoning Taiwan for US partners and allies in the region.

The safest course of action for Taiwan is to maintain its freedom to choose its own political, social, and economic future for the longest extent possible. The so-called 1992 Consensus has allowed both sides of the Taiwan Strait their respective interpretations of the cross-Strait status quo under the rubric of “One China”—with China saying One China is under the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan saying the two sides are unified under its Republic of China. This kind of ambiguous policy constructs have allowed the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang to sidestep the issue of sovereignty, while Taiwan has so far grasped onto enough leeway to choose its own direction. Taiwan’s political choices have allowed it to blossom into a mature democracy, which is something that is typically not allowed in China.

Taiwan’s future is its own to decide only if it continues to enjoy the US’s support and commitment. Though I highly respect and admire much of Glaser’s academic work, I cannot support his provocative conclusions. A more humanistic and historical theoretical framework would show the value of continued US support for a loyal partner, more than a rational theory that embodies much thinking but little heart.

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

(Feature photo by Lisa Tsai)


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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