Taiwan: The Tail that Wags Dogs

The Tail that Wags Dogs

by Michael McDevitt
October 1, 2005

This essay explores how Taiwan has been able to seize the political initiative from the three great powers in Northeast Asia—China, Japan, and the United States.

One of the fascinating aspects of the existing relationship between Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Japan, and the United States is the degree to which the Chen Shui–bian administration in Taipei has managed to seize the political initiative and put the three great powers of Northeast Asia in a reactive mode. Unfortunately, the way by which a small nation of only 23 million people has been able to accomplish this feat of diplomatic jujitsu is by stoking the coals of Taiwanese nationalism on the island to a point just short of crisis with the PRC. Washington and Tokyo have not been amused by the willingness of Taipei to play diplomatic “chicken” with Beijing because the stakes of a miscalculation by Taipei, Beijing, or both are so high for all concerned. The purpose of this paper is to explore this volatile situation and consider alternatives that could break the cycle of Taiwanese “provocation” eliciting great power response.

The main argument is that Taiwan’s leverage is derived from four interrelated factors, which are examined respectively in the first four sections of the paper:

  • Strategic considerations stemming from Taiwan’s geographic position in Northeast Asia lead Tokyo and Washington to prefer the status quo, while leading China to strive for reunification. The increasing power of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), however, is making both Japan and the United States nervous of China’s intentions to change the status quo.
  • Shared democratic values and the fact that the “democracy issue” has greatly prolonged the timetable for reunification give Taipei political influence in both Washington and Tokyo.
  • China’s constant threats of force actually empower Taipei in its relationship with Washington, and cause the United States to plan for the worst.
  • Taiwan is a litmus test of U.S. credibility as an ally, which in turn creates a perception on the island that U.S. military backing can be relied upon unconditionally. The United States should work to ensure that America’s position in the region and its value to Asian nations as the balancer against China would survive a Taipei–provoked conflict should the United States choose not to become directly involved. Washington can strive to achieve this by undertaking extensive consultations with Japan designed to ensure that Tokyo does not lose confidence in Washington and that the U.S.–Japan alliance remains strong.

While Taipei has been effective in drawing the United States into a de