Photo by:  Steven Hung

Relinquishing Taiwan: The Sino-American Grand Bargain

by Andrew Ma       
          July 20th, 2020

Though the US is not treaty-bound to come to Taiwan’s defense, Taiwan’s strategic, economic, and political importance has led the US to maintain close relations with Taiwan since the Cold War. However, with the continued rise of Chinese regional power in East Asia, what should the US do if there comes a day when it can no longer defend Taiwan with conventional weapons?

The United States and Taiwan

As the world continues to cope with COVID-19, the United States (US) and the People’s Republic of China (China) must continue to deal with conflicts over strategic interests in East Asia. Among many diverse issues, including China’s wide-reaching territorial claims in both the South and East China Sea, the future of Taiwan, and America’s commitment to protect it, is perhaps the most critical for the Chinese regime. 

Though the US is not treaty-bound to come to Taiwan’s defense, Taiwan’s strategic, economic, and political importance has led the US to maintain close relations with Taiwan since the Cold War and establish a security partnership with Taiwan to prevent its annexation by China. However, renowned international relations scholar John Mearsheimer believes that this current status quo will come to an end when America can no longer reasonably defend Taiwan with conventional forces. 


In his writings on Taiwan, Mearsheimer asserts that the balance of power in East Asia is bound to shift away from the US and towards China. He categorizes American options in the distant future into three types: the US could continue its defense commitment to Taiwan and practice extended deterrence, withdraw its commitment and let Taiwan fend for itself, or withdraw its commitment and work with Taiwan to strike a grand bargain with China. Of the three options, the first two are far riskier for the US. When the time comes and the sleeping giant has awoken in Mearsheimer’s supposed distant future, the best course of action for the US is to withdraw from Taiwan while it still holds significant leverage to gain favorable concessions from China and completely avoid being dragged into nuclear war. 


The Defense Commitment

Before examining the different possibilities for the future of Taiwan, we must first understand the nature of the US defense commitment to Taiwan, and how it has changed. In the aftermath of the communist victory in mainland China, the US signed a treaty with the government of the Republic of China, which had fled to Taiwan. The agreement was called the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, and its purpose was to prevent a takeover of the island by the People’s Republic of China and the spread of communism through establishing a defensive pact between the US and Taiwan.

However, one year after the US officially recognized the People’s Republic of China, it terminated this agreement with the government of the Republic of China residing in Taiwan. In its place, the United States established the Taiwan Relations Act, which forms the basis for the American defense commitment to Taiwan. Specifically, while the Taiwan Relations Act does not require the US to defend Taiwan, it does explicitly specify the following in Section 2b:

It is the policy of the United States

3.  to make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means;

4.  to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;

5.  to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and

6. to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.


In addition to these provisions above, former president Ronald Reagan also agreed to the Six Assurances, which mandate that the US will not force Taiwan into negotiations with China, reconsider the status of Taiwan, or alter the meaning of the Taiwan Relations Act, among other points. In total, these provisions commit the US to sell arms to Taiwan for the purpose of its sovereign defense, and also continuously maintain the ability to protect Taiwan militarily. Whether the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances obligate the US to engage in direct confrontation with China has yet to be seen.


Ronald Reagan arrives in Taiwan (1971)

Source: Stars and Stripes

As it currently stands, the US is able to defend Taiwan with conventional forces. This enables it to avoid the complications involved with nuclear deterrence. By maintaining a stronger conventional force for the defense of Taiwan, the US can feasibly claim that it is willing to fight a defensive war against China on Taiwan’s behalf. However, what should the US do if one day, due to shifts in the balance of military power between the US and China, the only way it can reasonably defend Taiwan is with nuclear weapons?

Continuing the Defense Commitment
The first strategy for the US is maintaining its defense commitment to Taiwan and protecting the island with extended deterrence. Currently, the US maintains the military status quo because it can defend Taiwan with conventional forces. However, in Mearsheimer’s future, when the shift of the balance of power in East Asia makes this almost impossible, the only way of deterring China’s invasion of Taiwan is by threatening the use of nuclear weapons. It might appear that fear of nuclear war would be enough to preclude China’s takeover by force, yet the extreme disparity in the balance of resolve, China’s willingness to risk everything for Taiwan and the US’ willingness to only risk the minimum, suggests
the US would be naive to count on intimidation to stave off China’s aggression. After all, a nuclear deterrent against another nuclear power is only effective if the defending state demonstrates a willingness to actually fire the weapon and risk conflict. Given China’s determination to reclaim Taiwan—as seen through its anti-secession law which states that “the state shall employ nonpeaceful means and other necessary measures” in the face of Taiwan moving towards de jure independence—the US must fully prepare for China to call its nuclear bluff. China would proceed to invade Taiwan, knowing that the US would not risk trading Los Angeles for Taipei in a nuclear conflict.

Playing a game of nuclear bluffing is not in the US’ best interest; risking nuclear war with China, whose resolve to win Taiwan over far exceeds the US’ resolve to protect, would be imprudent, not to mention that defending Taiwan may be a lost cause to begin with, given the power shift in Mearsheimer’s future East Asia. Since the US is betting on its extended nuclear deterrence in this scenario, it may end up empty-handed for the loss of Taiwan simply because China cares too much about Taiwan to let it go. 

Helping Taiwan Help Itself
If the US cannot successfully constrain China with extended nuclear deterrence, another strategy is to suspend the defensive commitment and let Taiwan defend itself. Within this strategy, there are three different categories of options. First, the US could withdraw its military commitment to Taiwan without providing nuclear weapons. Second, the US could withdraw while providing nuclear weapons. Third, the US could plan to withdraw, but protect Taiwan until it acquires nuclear weapons. Each situation entails an equally undesirable ending so long as the US remains in the picture.

Option 1: Getting Out
The most obvious problem with withdrawing military commitment to Taiwan and not providing Taiwan with nuclear weapons is that it is tantamount to an invitation for China to invade. With the major obstacle of American defense out of the way and Taiwan receiving no defensive compensation, the island’s independence is entirely in China’s hands. In the event of invasion from the mainland, no matter how hard a fight Taiwan would put up and how horrifically bloody the fight would be, China would eventually subdue Taiwan due to the stark contrast in resources and military size

Option 2: Providing Taiwan with Nuclear Weapons
Following the previous scenario, one may deduce that providing Taiwan with nuclear weapons upon American withdrawal may thwart China’s plan for invasion, but this option is dicey. First of all, it is unclear if this option would be favorable to the US, considering that providing nuclear weapons to Taiwan could encourage Japan and South Korea to seek nuclear weapons, disrupt the balance of power in East Asia, and drag the US into a nuclear war with China. In the past, the US strongly opposed nuclear proliferation, and even
pressured Taiwan to stop nuclearization in the 70s.


From the Chinese perspective, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Taiwan not only poses a direct and immediate threat to the security of the mainland, but also complicates plans of conquest. China would have to accept no less than Taiwan’s absolute political and military docility, either through destroying all of Taiwan’s nuclear forces, or preventing any and all Taiwanese nuclear weapons from reaching their targets in the mainland, before launching an amphibious assault with conventional forces. For all the pride China may take in its deep intelligence penetration within Taiwan, such precision and certainty is never a guarantee in battle. Additionally, destroying all of Taiwan with nuclear weapons to prevent a retaliatory strike would harm China’s own interest of unifying the island with the mainland. 

Furthermore, it would be a tall order for China to count on its own missile defense to block all incoming nuclear missiles provided by the US. Even in Mearsheimer’s world, where the balance of power in East Asia has shifted, the military technology of the US’ is certainly still formidable. Finally, a US covert installation of nuclear weapons in Taiwan is unrealistic because of China’s prevalent intelligence network on the island and in the US. Even if nuclear weapons were snuck onto Taiwan, China would decisively strike before Taiwan could make its nuclear weapons ready for action. In essence, attempting to bolster Taiwan’s security with the ultimate defensive mechanism could unwittingly end Taiwan’s existence as an independent island.  

Option 3: Providing Safe Haven
The third option, protecting Taiwan until it can acquire nuclear weapons of its own, runs into similar problems. For the duration of Taiwan’s nuclear development, the US can become entrapped in nuclear conflict, since China will face the same security threat, thus necessitating the same forceful measures
. Then, due to the imbalance in resolve, it is likely that the US will relent and China will carry on with an invasion. This disastrous result shows that the approach of allowing Taiwan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons on its own is just as nonviable as extended nuclear deterrence. Of the possibilities considered so far, all either risk nuclear war with China, give up Taiwan for nothing in return, or both.


The Grand Bargain
The only strategy left is to strike a grand bargain with China, which is also the best option for the US. Should the US be unable to defend Taiwan with conventional forces and since the balance of resolve favors China, it will inevitably lose Taiwan. Instead of conceding Taiwan for free or risking nuclear war with China, the US ought to try and get as much as possible in return for Taiwan, and soon. If the US realizes that it is unwilling to defend Taiwan, or if American intelligence even suspects an inability to defend Taiwan conventionally, the US should negotiate with China for the best possible terms for Taiwan’s reunification with China. Since all of the US’ leverage is dependent on its ability to defend Taiwan conventionally, the negotiation timing is critical; once China senses the US cannot or will not defend Taiwan conventionally, it will no longer feel compelled to deal with the US. 

To gracefully exit this entanglement, the US must secure Taiwan’s autonomy within China, and the preservation of its democracy and institutions, further expanding on the One Country, Two Systems policy that China applies to Hong Kong. Because it has always been China’s desire for Taiwan to accept the One Country, Two Systems model, China is likely to welcome the negotiation. It is highly likely that China would grant Taiwan autonomy in exchange for bringing it into its fold early and peacefully. This would provide China with an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” across the Strait and further shift the balance of power in Asia, while also solidifying the legitimacy of the communist government in the mainland.

Taiwan Map.png

Map of Taiwan

Source: Onero Institute

Taiwan’s Attitude and Future

Of course, currently 80% of the Taiwanese population favor independence if China does not respond with force and 90% prefer trying to maintain their de facto independence indefinitely. Taiwan may want to remain independent for as long as possible, but ultimately will realize that de jure independence is impossible and even de facto independence and autonomy may be out of reach if its leaders do not come to the negotiating table quickly. This will be a bitter pill to swallow, but the reality of a shift in the balance of power should help the government, if not the people, to understand that an all-out conflict against China without American support is asking for destruction. In Mearsheimer’s distant future, Taiwan will have to change its attitude when it realizes the US can no longer preserve the status quo. If the window of opportunity where the US still can and is willing to conventionally defend Taiwan passes by, Taiwan may never receive favorable terms of integration with the mainland. 


One major concern about this strategy is that the US will have no control over China’s infringement on Taiwan’s future democracy, should the mainland interfere as it did with Hong Kong’s internal affairs. Especially after China’s response to the protests against the proposed extradition bill and increased Chinese control over Hong Kong, the US and Taiwan should be more than aware of the fact that whatever agreement is reached is unlikely to be implemented without controversy and deep mistrust from all parties. In fact, the plight of Hong Kong in 2019 brought this point to the attention of the Taiwanese public, who voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party. Her strong stance against China and assertion of Taiwan’s refusal to give up its sovereignty and unwillingness to accept a “one country, two systems” arrangement with the mainland were crucial in her victory.


Tsai Ing-Wen Speaking with Dr.  Jane Goodall  in 2016

Source: Office of the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan)

In light of lessons learned from Hong Kong’s decades of experience as a special autonomous region of China, US legal scholars should help Taiwan to improve upon the Hong Kong model by creating a more exhaustive framework to curtail China’s meddling in Taiwan, though it will be difficult nonetheless. In the event of extensive Chinese infringement despite added legal measures, the US should not go to war on Taiwan’s behalf. This is simply a possibility that must be accepted because the US has no favorable military options to deal with such an infringement. Since the US would likely be unwilling to go to war over Taiwan’s sovereignty, it would be absurd to risk nuclear war over Taiwan’s autonomy. 

Other US Allies

Another concern of this strategy is that it will disconcert America’s Pacific allies, notably Japan and South Korea, and shake their faith in American resolve to defend them in difficult times. However, in its negotiations with China over Taiwan’s autonomy, the US may reasonably push China for other concessions that will please its allies. Again, propitious timing for the negotiation is critical, as the US’ leverage is hinged upon its ability and willingness to defend Taiwan with conventional forces. Simply put, the US will be proposing a trade where if China is allowed to reclaim Taiwan sooner and in peace, it has to concede on other issues. Though specifics can be debated depending on exactly how early the negotiations begin, the areas where the US may ask for concessions from China include disputed territorial claims on the Senkaku Islands, Socotra Rock, and in the South China Sea, as well as allowing an American military presence in these regions. For China, though other issues are not easily shrugged off, Taiwan is the ultimate prize, both politically and strategically. It is not too difficult to imagine many of these concessions being seriously considered and even agreed on.

While South Korea and Japan may get some benefits from this grand bargain, there is no denying the negative precedent of an American retreat for other US allies around the world. This, however, is not necessarily a harbinger of what is to come. Taiwan is a unique case for two reasons, and the course of action that the US takes in this instance is not indicative of how it will act towards other allies in the future. First, the balance of resolve is skewed so far in China’s favor that the US is left with very little room to maneuver. Second, Mearsheimer’s future has invalidated the original base on which America’s commitment was designed. The vast majority of other allies, perhaps only excluding the three Baltic States, are in much less dire situations that afford the US a much greater selection of viable strategies of defense.



In conclusion, if the US can no longer defend Taiwan with conventional forces, the choice to make is indisputable. Though the US’ previous commitment to Taiwan was imperative in the context of the Cold War, it must be reevaluated to avoid overextension and unwarranted risks leading to nuclear conflagration. As Mearsheimer put it, “the benefits of maintaining close ties with Taiwan will be outweighed by the potential costs, which are likely to be huge.” The US should not pursue the impossibility of having its cake and eating it too, but rather the best possible reality given the circumstances. 


Zhongxiao Road, a major bouelvard in Taipei, Taiwan

Photo by: Derrick Brutel

About the Author:  ​Andrew Ma is a native of Seattle, Washington, and a third-year student at Williams College. He is majoring in Political Science and concentrating in International Relations. After graduation he wishes to attend law school and eventually pursue a career in international law.

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