Home / Robert Farley / On Selling Taiwan…

On Selling Taiwan…


So you’ve probably seen something about Paul Kane’s “Sell Taiwan” op-ed in the New York Times; effectively, Kane’s suggestion would mean that the US would guarantee non-intervention in any PRC-ROC dispute in exchange for forgiveness of a portion of the Chinese held US debt.  I’m not sure exactly how the economics would work out, other than to say that the effects would probably be minimal.  But “selling” Taiwan would also relieve the US of the (self-imposed) responsibility of defending Taiwan from China, potentially creating the conditions for a more stable strategic framework in East Asia.

Kane argues that the op-ed was intended as satire, designed to force us to think through our foreign policy values and commitments. While the attempt seems somewhat clumsy to me (and the rejoinders to his critics even more clumsy), I think there’s considerable value in these exercises.  As I’ve mentioned before, I always assign David Brin’s Thor Meets Captain America to my National Security Policy course, along with Arnold Wolfers’ National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol and Charles Lindblom’s The Science of Muddling Through. The Brin brings the process of choosing between values into relief, and opens the door to questions such as “under what circumstances would we exchange Florida for peace and security?”  And so the responses to Kane’s hypothetical about Taiwan could range widely between discussions of Taiwan’s direct military value, of its reputation value, and of the intrinsic value of defending a democracy from an authoritarian state. These then could lead to productive conversations about the relation between military, reputational, and intrinsic value, how they interact, and so forth. These are not bad conversations to have, even if you doubt the wisdom of selling out the ROC.


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  • shah8

    nb: The bonds are long absorbed into China’s economy, so it’s a nonstarter as actual policy.

  • What would that be called? It’s not exactly extortion, but it is asking to have a portion of one’s debt owed to a country forgiven in exchange for allowing that country to take over another foreign country with which it has had a long-standing conflict over ownership, without an argument, fight, or backhanded attempt to thwart a take-over or overt manipulation of that third party.

    It’s certainly not beneath us, but would it be something that we’d do openly? Publicly?

  • ploeg

    Well, I don’t think that any presidential candidate is stupid enough to run on a superhero gap. This idea, on the other hand….

    The whole premise of the idea is not to think about the value of the ROC. The premise of the idea is that the PROC holds some undue influence over the US by purchasing US government debt (“The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”) and that we need to come up with something anything to get ourselves out from under that. The ROC just happens to be the concession of choice in this matter. Indeed, it soon becomes apparent that the author does not value the ROC at all, that the ROC is a burden that could cost us trillions of dollars in a hypothetical war and that is going to be reunited with the PROC eventually in any case.

    • Well, we do sell them the plastic they use to make that junk, and we sell them more chopsticks than they manufacture, because they don’t even have a lot of bamboo forests anymore. Methinks the GOP worries too much about our trade deficit with China. When China gets a little richer it’ll be able to afford more of the really expensive stuff we manufacture, and that will be a huge demand.

  • Xenos

    People neglect to mention that the PROC ‘owns’, as it were, about 10% of our debt. Most of the debt is held by other americans, and/or is traded as a fungible security on the market so that who owns it is not very strategically important.

    • ploeg

      There is also the saying that, if somebody owes you $200,000, you have some influence on that person, whereas if somebody owes you $1 trillion, well, the influence works both ways then, doesn’t it?

  • wengler

    There’s a prestige argument at work here, but as the US economy declines, the US government will inevitably have to make decisions on security commitments.

  • Mike Schilling
    • firefall

      brilliant, thank you

  • Missing from this argument is the fact that the US does not own Taiwan and the people living there are not chattel slaves of the Federal Govt. in DC. The US can not “sell” or “give” Taiwan to the govt. of the PRC. We can cancel the TRA which requires us to sell defensive arms to the ROC. But, we can not actually give Taiwan to the PRC without any resistance from the people living there to the PLA. The most the US can do is to pledge not to provide any military support to the PRC. The ROC is free to acquire weapons from other countries or even manufacture them locally. They are also free to resist any attempt to “reunify” China by force. I suspect that the US would look very bad if it did renege on the TRA and the PRC did invade and Taiwan became an island version of Tibet in the 1950s and 60s.

  • Also as far as encouraging stability a total reneging of US support for Taiwan’s defense is likely to be destabilizing. The worst possible case would be an immediate Chinese invasion. But, this is probably unlikely. It is very likely that the decision, however, would result in Taiwan going nuclear. During the 1970s and 80s they had people working on it and with training in the US and South African assistance there is little doubt that they acquired the knowledge to assemble working nuclear weapons. It is also likely that during the reign of CCK (son of CKS) that their alliance with South Africa allowed them to obtain enough uranium for two or three bombs.

  • Bill

    I’d feel somewhat better about the racial aspects of this if I thought there was a remote possibility of the NYT running a “satirical” article about the benefits to US policy of selling Israel.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks



  • DrDick

    Satire or not, it is a very dangerous thing to propose arguments like that, as some conservative politician (they do not understand sarcasm/satire) will latch onto it and move it forward. I am still waiting for Gingrich’s “modest proposal” to deal with poverty.

    • witless chum

      The Newt’s “put poor children to work” thing didn’t qualify? Geez, you’re a tough grader.

  • mpowell

    It is perfectly reasonable to talk about whether we should be committed to Taiwan or not. I think it’s an immensely tough question. It’s a decent sized economy and a lot of people. Do we believe in self-determination? How much are we willing to commit for someone else’s? But the idea that our debt is a liability is foolish. The fact that we have a lot of debt is what allows the dollar to be used as a reserve currency. Our debt is a huge asset because this is actually pretty convenient if you want to do international business in dollars. If China tried to dumb dollars or debt the most likely effect would be a weaker dollar which would provide some nice stimulus to the economy. The only downside would be more expensive foreign goods. But I think this economy is likely to be suffering on the consumer demand side for a long time moving forward so that’s not a big deal.

  • David B.

    “under what circumstances would we exchange Florida for peace and security?”

    all of them.

    • Hogan

      Oddly enough, that’s also the answer to “under what circumstances would we exchange Florida for a shiny nickel?”

  • allium

    A Colder War explores the security policy implications of the Lovecraft mythos.

  • MikeN

    Even if the US abandoned Taiwan there’s no possibility of the country developing nukes. The KMT, which will probably win the presidential election in January and certainly hold onto its majority in the Legislatve Yuan, is gung-ho for reunification, and even if Tsai Ying-wen pulls it off for the DPP, there’s no way she could gear up such a policy.

    One thing to keep in mind is that while the military, like militaries everywhere, wants shiny new toys, the higher echelons are resolutely pro-China, and would absolutely not allow a DPP government to get its hands on nukes.

    In fact, in spite of American conservative’s accusations of selling out Taiwan, I bet Ma Ying-jiou is deeply grateful to Obama for refusing to sell the F-16CDs to Taiwan- it gets him off the hook with Beijing.

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