National interests of the USA encompass a wide range of objects and countries in the world that in some way can affect the US internal and external market, well-being, citizens, economic stability, its geopolitical position in the world, integrity, and reputation. Since the country holds a unique position of one of the global leaders, it is usually tasked with overseeing a variety of international processes that somehow concern its national interests. One of such processes is an ongoing conflict between China and Taiwan that has been lasting for several decades now and is not expected to be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of the parties involved. Thus, Taiwan does not consider itself to be a part of mainland China and has resisted attempts of the latter aimed at reunification and integration of the island into the PRC. In turn, China refuses to acknowledge independence of Taiwan and strives to ensure reunification of the Republic of China with the mainland with a view to uniting the country. Respectively, China is going to have a negative view of international actors assisting Taiwan with its independence plans in any way. Under the pressure of the PRC, in the late 1970s – early 1980s, virtually all countries and international bodies severed official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, including the USA; however, the latter adopted the Taiwan Relations Act that envisioned unofficial cooperation with the island, especially through the arms sales. Since then, the tension between the USA, China, and Taiwan has not subsided, and the USA may have to choose one day which of the two countries is more important for its national interests. Although both countries may be deemed significant to the US national interests, taking into consideration the 4Ps framework, Taiwan does not seem more important in this respect than China.
Brief Overview of the Concept of National Interest and Its Application to the Issue Under Consideration
Prior to focusing on the reasons why the aforementioned statement is true, it seems necessary to provide a brief overview of the 4Ps framework. Under this framework, the following four goals need to be considered with respect to the US national interests: power, peace, prosperity, and principles (Jentleson, 2014). Developing a reasonable and well-balanced policy that would take into account the most important national interests of a country and envision ways of their ensuring both internally and externally is a highly complicated task. Moreover, the abovementioned four goals may be often in conflict with each other, and decision-makers need to define which of them are more important and topical than others. In an ideal scenario, the national interest would combine all 4 Ps, yet in the real life usually two or three goals are combined and balanced against the fourth one, which then becomes less prioritized (Jentleson, 2014). Hu (2016) further emphasizes that foreign policy analysts and scholars usually distinguish between two approaches to the national interest policy development, namely objective and subject ones. Objectivists claim that the national interest is an objective reality that is readily discoverable, while subjectivists consider it as “a series of diverse, changeable, and subjective preferences” (Hu, 2016, p. 145). From the latter perspective, which seems to be prevalent nowadays, the national interest becomes a basis for action in response to changing circumstances.
Irrespective of the particular approach selected, it is a highly complicated task to assess and clearly determine national interests as well as rank them in terms of priority for the country. With respect to priority, national interests can be subdivided into primary, secondary, and tertiary (Hu, 2016). Primary interests include vital and highly topical societal interests that the population of the country is ready to fight and die for. Secondary interests relate to the country’s overall development and are generally deemed to be important, yet not so important that the nation would be willing to use force and die for them. Finally, tertiary interests may be viewed as tangential to the society’s welfare; they either impact a small number of people in some major way or a larger number of people in some minor way. Although the division seems to be clear in theory, it is not that easy to rank national interests in reality. Thus, for instance, the issue relating to the conflict between Taiwan and China may be recognized as either a secondary or a tertiary national interest for the USA depending on the P from the 4Ps framework from the perspective of which it is considered.
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Hence, from the perspective of power, the issue does not threat independence and territorial integrity of the USA directly, which is why it is evidently not a primary interest. Nonetheless, applying the realist approach to international relations, the USA power on the international geopolitical arena in general and in the Pacific region in particular may be affected by its decision to support either Taiwan or China. Thus, if the country explicitly supports Taiwan and pledges to help it militarily in case China resorts to force in its reunification attempts or Taiwan decides to gain full independence with force, the US will be engaged into a war, the outcome of which will evidently impact its position in the world. On the other hand, if the US remains a third party observant in case of a military clash between Taiwan and China or diplomatic escalation of the conflict, its position on the international arena can also be affected depending on the outcome, and China might subsequent rise in power. It should also be noted that not all analysts agree with a view that Taiwan can and will become the main issue of dispute in the Pacific region and focus instead on potential armed clashes in the South China Sea involving other actors that may request US assistance (Glaser, 2012). Thus, Glaser (2012) believes that there are three possible and most likely contingencies in the region under consideration that may threat national interests of the USA more than the conflict involving Taiwan. These three contingencies include a clash caused by US military operations in the China’s EEZ that might lead to the armed response from the PRC, a conflict between China and the Philippines over natural gas deposits, and a clash between China and Vietnam over oil and gas drilling or seismic surveys (Glaser, 2012). Although the analysts prove that these contingencies are possible and may threaten the US national interests, they do not undermine negative impact of the conflict between Taiwan and China on the country’s interests. The same uncertainty can be traced across the three other Ps as well, which is why it is necessary to discuss in more detail which of the two countries has more importance to the US national interests.
Why Is Taiwan Not More Important to the US National Interests than China?
Taiwan is not more important to the US national interests than China from the perspective of power in the contemporary world. The main underlying justification of this view is the fact that the circumstances under which the TRA was concluded significantly differed from the current ones both with respect to China’s military capabilities and the position of the USA in the world. Hence, at the time the TRA was concluded, i.e. in 1979, the Cold War was ongoing and the USA enjoyed the status of one of the two existing superpowers in the world with the most developed economy and extensive military capacities that significantly surpassed those of China (Van Vranken Hickey, 2014). Even despite this evident superiority, the language of the TRA is extremely vague since there is no provision in the document that would explicitly guarantee that the USA would use force to assist Taiwan in case of its conflict with China. However, it was implicitly understood that US military assistance was possible, which performed a deterrent function for China in its reunification endeavors (Van Vracken Hickey, 2014). At the same time, ambiguity of the TRA deterred Taiwan from resorting to force in its fight for independence as the country could not be sure that its American unofficial partner would come to help in case of need.
Under the TRA, the USA was selling arms and weapons to Taiwan, which was considered the main reason for increased tensions in relations between China and the USA (Cole, 2013). However, arms sale is not the root cause of the issue under consideration as the main cause is “the incompatibility of the political systems that prevail in Taiwan and China” and the US attempt to promote democracy and restrict communism in the world (Cole, 2013). Still, it should be noted that the arms sale between the USA and Taiwan has significantly irritated the Chinese party and contributed to an increase in tension. In the 2000s, there was even a popular belief that the USA should increase arms sale to Taiwan and encourage other countries to do the same despite the potential risk of becoming engaged in conflict with China because of such decision (Carpenter, 2000). Such view was founded on a belief in the US superiority in the world and the fact that China would not be able to win the war against the USA in any case. This might have been true in 2001; however, a lot has changed since then, and US participation in two large-scale wars since then has undermined its military capacity to engage in the third protracted war, its financial capabilities to sustainably finance military operations without a detrimental impact on the national economy, and nation’s willingness to support this war. It should not be forgotten that “The security commitment to Taiwan outlined in the TRA is a product of a different time, when the United States enjoyed clear military advantages over China, and Taiwan could be defended on the cheap” (Gomez, 2016, p. 14).
The world balance of power has become more favorable to China than ever before, and the Chinese economy has developed at an unprecedentedly high rate despite the recent slow-down, which is why the country can finance a long-term large-scale military operation against Taiwan, while the USA cannot afford defending Taiwan. Moreover, Taiwan has decreased investment in self-defense, thus making any US security commitment to the country highly costly (Gomez, 2016). Besides, from the perspective of power, Taiwan belongs to tertiary national interests of the USA, while China is considered to be its primary national interest, which increases the willingness and readiness of the latter to fight for the island. In turn, the US will not lose much power by alienating itself from Taiwan in case of military escalation of the conflict and cause more important security concerns than a fight over the island, including the terrorist threat and its fight against ISIS. Furthermore, analysis of ten potential scenarios of conflict resolution conducted by Cliff and Shlapak (2007) shows that non-peaceful resolutions are highly likely to result in either reasonable amity between China and the USA in the best scenario or a protracted Cold War and confrontation that will be extremely costly for the USA in terms of its impacts on its economy and power position in the world. It should also be noted that most analysts agree that maintenance of the current status quo seems to be the most beneficial course of action for the USA (Kastner, 2015/2016). Besides, even though the Taiwan Strait still remains “a dangerous flash point for conflict,” maintenance of the status quo by the USA has promoted an improvement in relations between China and Taiwan (Kastner, 2015/2016, p. 54). Although peaceful resolution of the issue is unlikely in the near future, it has become possible in the long-term perspective partially thanks to the USs refusal to escalate the conflict and choose one particular side. Overall, from the power perspective, the costs of engaging in the military conflict between China and Taiwan are unreasonably high, hence making military support of Taiwan less important to the US national interests than maintaining peaceful relations with China.
Currently, China seems to be more important to the US national interest than Taiwan from the prosperity perspective as well. Under this aspect of the 4Ps framework, economic prosperity, well-being, and interests of the state are considered and appropriate policies are adopted to safeguard such interests against potential threats (Jentleson, 2014). Of course, Taiwan has always been an important economic partner of the USA as it is the 18th largest trader in the world according to the WTO, the 11th largest US trading partner as well as the 15th largest destination for export of US goods, most of which are arms and weaponry (Van Vranken Hickey, 2014, p. 4). However, it should be taken into account that China is also a vital trading partner for the USA. In fact, China is considered to have one of the most rapidly developing economies in the world, which has grown so quickly and significantly that it is now argued to be larger than the US economy. The modern world has become tightly interdependent economically, which is proved by the recent economic crisis, and good economic relations between China and the USA are of paramount significance for the economic development of the latter. China realizes this fact, and “As China strengthens materially and its international influence expands, Beijing has obtained more leverage to bargain with Washington” (Xinbo, 2011, p. 3). China enjoys close economic relations virtually with all countries of the world, being among the largest manufacturers of all kinds of goods as well as housing factories and production facilities of many US companies. Hence, in case of escalation of the conflict between the two countries, the resulting financial blow will be more pronounced for the USA than for China since the former has not recovered fully from the recent economic crisis, subsequent recession, and expenses on the global fight against terrorism and two wars waged in the past decade. In turn, to compensate for any loss of trade with the USA, China can foster closer economic ties with other countries, for instance, Russia, which will benefit the position of the latter on the international geopolitical arena and thus further undermine US power. Hence, it is economically unreasonable for the USA to choose a small island country of Taiwan over the huge economic power represented by China.
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Finally, China is more important to the US national interests than Taiwan from the peace perspective, under which world order and institutional relations are considered. Besides, China offers more benefits to the country than Taiwan in terms of cooperation possibilities on a wide range of issues, including international security, environmental protection, world economic stability and development, and others. Undeniably, retracting on its security commitments to Taiwan, the USA may suffer reputational costs, but it is necessary to balance interests of an island nation and one relatively small region of the world with the interests of the world in general. Therefore, cooperation with China promises more benefits relations with Taiwan. In fact, over the past decade “the common priorities between China and the United States have grown rapidly and generated greater impetus to closer bilateral ties, creating momentum for the two countries to manage and gradually resolve their differences” (Xinbo, 2011, p. 4). Although politically China remains a non-democratic country, its capitalism-oriented economic reforms have improved the situation with human rights in the country and have partially addressed fundamental ideological conflicts between the two countries. China is an essential partner for the USA in terms of global security and economic stability given the rising status and power of the former in the world. Therefore, for the purpose of international peace and stability, it seems more reasonable for the USA to maintain good relations with China, which may necessitate abandonment of security commitment to Taiwan. However, the most beneficial course of action for all stakeholders would be a peaceful resolution of the issue, which envisions maintenance of the current status quo until an opportunity for such resolution emerges.
Having analyzed the issue under consideration from the perspective of the 4Ps framework with a particular focus on power, peace, and prosperity, it can be concluded that Taiwan is less important to the US national interests than China in the contemporary circumstances. The USA adopted the TRA and could undertake security commitment to Taiwan in time when it was the superpower in the world enjoying obvious economic and military superiority over China. However, the situation has changed dramatically, and China has become a power than has to be reckoned with. Although the USA can win China in case of a military clash in Taiwan, this would be Pyrrhic victory entailing huge costs for the USA as well as undermining its global security and economic well-being. Therefore, maintenance of the existing status quo and prevention of the conflict escalation seems to be the most optimal course of action at present.