The outcome of Taiwan’s presidential election in March is potentially the most significant single event affecting American security since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Most analysts have failed to address the fundamental dilemma that Taiwan now presents for the defense strategy of the United States. The issue is fairly simple: Are our overseas commitments permanent and immutable, in which case the future of this country and the rest of the world is at the mercy of some distant land’s electoral whims; or should those commitments be reexamined in the light of changing political circumstances abroad?

For over 50 years, Taiwan was ruled by the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), which retreated there in 1949 after Chiang Kai-shek was defeated by Mao Tse-tung’s Communists in the civil war. The KMT old guard regarded the island as an integral part of China, and for decades it clamped down on any display of Taiwanese particularism, let alone separatism.

By the early 1970’s, the claim of “the Republic of China” to represent the only legitimate Chinese government was no longer taken seriously by the rest of the world, and most Taiwanese appeared more interested in economic prosperity than in forcing the issue of their island’s ambiguous status. Until three months ago, however, Chiang’s successors in Taipei could agree with Mao’s successors in Peking on one critical issue: that reunification was desirable and inevitable. This accord provided the basis for an uneasy but manageable status quo.

For decades, the U.S. security guarantee to Taiwan was implicitly based on this key premise. But last March, the separatist Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), supported mostly by the native Taiwanese, won the presidential election (albeit with only 39.3 percent of the vote, due to an internal split within the KMT), and the equation is qualitatively different now. Although the new president, Chen Shui-bian, has toned down his pro-independence rhetoric, Peking is deeply and understandably unhappy with this outcome. From the mainland Chinese point of view, the KMT Chinese nationalists were schismatics—but the DPP separatists are heretics.

This outcome comes at a time when the Clinton administration’s inconsistent policies toward both Taipei and Peking— and especially its decision to sell sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan—have effectively demolished the Chinese-American detente built by Nixon and Kissinger in the early 1970’s. The incoherence of the Clinton/Gore team’s China strategy emboldened the outgoing KMT government to risk confrontation with the mainland. In addition, it has encouraged Taiwanese separatists to conclude that they would remain under an American security umbrella even if their actions present an intolerable challenge to Peking.

America’s allies in the region are very worried. Their fears were summarized by the Korea Times on March 20:

Given, on the one hand, the entrenched American mindset and its pattern of behavior with an ever escalating air of invincibility and self-righteousness, and, China, on the other hand, with its increasing irritation and frustration over Taiwan, reinforced by its growing economic power and nationalistic redemption, a war between the two will not be avoidable.

Other Asian countries understand that, while the United States has no vital interest involved in Taiwan, Peking does. This is an issue over which China will fight: If it is seen to waver on Taiwan, its hold over Sinkiang, Tibet, or even Manchuria may become tenuous, and its status as a great power compromised.

China’s determination is reflected in its pressure on its neighbors to scale down their relations with Taipei. Significantly, America’s allies along the Pacific Rim have responded. Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines have all given discrete notification to Washington that their “mutual defense” treaties with the United States do not cover contingencies in the Taiwan Strait.

In the next stage, the Chinese may present the United States with a clear-cut question: Would you be prepared to go to war against us if we act to prevent Taiwan from proclaiming independence? If the United States does not ponder this question soon it will paint itself into a corner and reduce its options to the choice between a humiliating retreat or an unpredictable military escalation that could lead to nuclear war. If that happens, not a single country in East Asia will side with America. Tokyo would declare neutrality, irrevocably altering the regional balance. As the Korean editorialist concludes:

[W]ithout good relations with China, the U.S. position will inevitably suffer a downward slide, and without resolving the thorny issue of Taiwan, there will never be good relations with Beijing. . . . Perhaps the U.S. leaders ought to re-read the golden advice of the Founding Fathers concerning the nation’s conduct of foreign relations . . .

Indeed, permanent American security guarantees to distant countries are a bad idea in principle. The fact that we don’t like the murderous commies who still run the show in Peking is simply irrelevant here: Risking an all-out war with the most populous country in the world—and a nuclear power capable of obliterating a few American cities—over the way one of its provinces is governed is plainly ludicrous. Persisting with the risk, even when the new rulers of that province want to turn it into a new country, is irresponsible and potentially disastrous.

The security of the United States must not be made dependent on the outcome of elections thousands of miles away. Only by disentangling itself from its many passionate attachments around the globe—from the Middle East to Korea, from the Balkans to the Baltics—will America regain its ability to define a strategic doctrine based on its genuine national interests. Then America may rediscover a foreign policy that balances rational objectives and the limited resources used in their pursuit.