In his article “Out on a Limb: America’s Pledge to Defend Taiwan” (Vital Signs, December), Ted Galen Carpenter does not discuss whether it is in America’s national interest for Taiwan to fall under the control of the Beijing regime.  Instead, he argues that our Asian allies may not support our defense of the island.  To Carpenter, this makes the situation so “perilous” that the United States should cut and run before anything happens.

The successful military conquest of Taiwan by China would send shock waves through Asia.  Taiwan is a prosperous democratic country that has been governing herself for over half a century.  She sits across strategic sea-lanes, and her offshore economic zone encompasses potentially rich oil and mineral deposits.  She is the center of global computer-chip manufacturing.

Carpenter works for the libertarian Cato Institute, a group that purports to cherish freedom.  How can he accept the idea of a free people being brought under the heel of an aggressive dictatorship by armed force?  He admits that “younger Taiwanese . . . regard the mainland as an alien place and have little enthusiasm for reunification” but cites this as a justification for Beijing to move quickly to subjugate Taiwan before the spirit of liberty grows any stronger.

The rise of China will force other states either to form a coalition to contain Beijing or to board the Chinese “bandwagon” in hopes of gaining some spoils as an accomplice.

Singapore has attempted to draw American attention toward Southeast Asia by offering the use of her new Changi Naval Station, which includes a pier built to accommodate aircraft carriers.  Tokyo has worked to reenergize the U.S.-Japan alliance to counter China.  While North Korea provides the cover for cooperation on missile defense, Beijing is clearly the real concern.  Japan, South Korea, and Australia have sent troops to Iraq, not because they have any direct interests there, but because they value their alliance with the United States and responded to American leadership.  If there were a crisis much closer to home, they would again respond to Washington’s call.

Of course, our allies hope that no crisis will occur.  The status quo of a de facto independent Taiwan serves everyone’s immediate interests.  China is threatening violence but does not have the means to invade.  Carpenter cites a recent “D-Day-style” exercise by Chinese forces, but the units involved were very small compared with what it would take to invade Taiwan.  On the actual D Day of 1944, it took a massive logistic effort to move Allied forces to Normandy across only 25 miles of water with complete control of the air and sea.  Chinese forces would have to cross 100 miles of open water in the face of the U.S. Navy and against the most experienced air force in the world.  It would be the Marianas Turkey Shoot, not D Day.

If American allies show lukewarm concern for Taiwan, it is because Washington has not staked out is own position with clarity.  Deterrence is the best way to maintain peace, but it is weakened by ambiguous statements like those that too often emanate from the State Department.  Pyongyang’s attack on Seoul in 1950 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 were both examples of dictators mistakenly believing no response would meet their aggression.

Washington should proclaim its support for Taiwan while the military balance is in its favor.  Otherwise, allies may well be tempted to board the Chinese bandwagon.  No coalition is possible without American leadership.  An American retreat from long-standing commitments would send a signal that the balance of power has already shifted in Beijing’s favor, and not just in the Taiwan Strait.

        —William R. Hawkins
Washington, D.C.

Mr. Carpenter Replies:

Many of the criticisms expressed by Bill Hawkins have little to do with the thrust of my article.  The point that I emphasized was that, if the United States decided to defend Taiwan from an attack by the People’s Republic of China, she would probably have to do so alone.  I did not focus on the question of whether the United States should defend Taiwan (although I have done so elsewhere).  Nor did I discuss what a defense of Taiwan might cost America in blood and treasure—which would likely be far greater than Hawkins’ rosy scenario of a U.S.-executed “turkey shoot” in the Taiwan Strait.

His principal response to the central thesis of my article is the curious argument that Washington’s East Asian allies would eagerly support a more confrontational U.S. policy toward China: “If American allies show lukewarm concern for Taiwan, it is because Washington has not staked out its own position with clarity.”  That view is dangerously misguided.  The lack of support from East Asian nations for U.S. policy regarding Taiwan is the result of their growing economic and political ties to China, not because of an absence of U.S. resolve.  Those countries understand that China is fast emerging as the leading power in the region, and they see no gain for themselves in antagonizing Beijing.

Hawkins’ argument also is reminiscent of the illusion that advocates of a hawkish policy toward Iraq embraced during the Clinton administration.  They were confident that, if the United States adopted a clear, hard-line policy toward Saddam Hussein, such countries as France, Germany, Russia, and India would fall into line and support Washington.  Yet, when George W. Bush pursued such a policy, those countries stood on the sidelines and denounced U.S. actions.  Bill Hawkins and others who argue that East Asian nations would support a strong, explicitly pro-Taiwan policy by the United States are indulging in another comforting delusion.

Hawkins cites evidence that many of the East Asian allies want to strengthen their alliances with Washington.  That is true, but it simply highlights their self-serving and free-riding behavior.  They want the best of both worlds—a fruitful and ever-expanding relationship with the PRC combined with a U.S.-provided military insurance policy in the event that China turns aggressively expansionist and pursues goals beyond retaking Taiwan.  That is a terrific deal for them, since the United States incurs the bulk of the costs and risks of those security arrangements.  Whether it is a good deal for the United States is another question.

It is, of course, a sad prospect that a free and democratic Taiwan might someday be conquered by an authoritarian PRC.  But while Taiwan has some economic and moral importance, her continued de facto independence is not essential to America’s survival.  When less-than-vital American interests are at stake, wise policymakers must do a cost-benefit calculation.  The prospect of defending Taiwan—without allied support—against a China that will certainly become stronger militarily in the years ahead is a sobering one.  It certainly does not suggest a situation in which the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.