Reader KM alerted me to a piece by Richard Halloran, the conservative commentator who appears often in the pages of the Taipei Times, in the Honolulu paper arguing that the US must defend Taiwan. The argument is entirely conventional, but it is important because of the clues it gives to the way people are thinking about the problem.

This turnabout has been several years in the making. Three years ago, Ted Galen Carpenter, of the Cato Institute in Washington, wrote an assessment in an echo of Neville Chamberlain:

“No reasonable American would be happy about the possibility of a democratic Taiwan being forcibly absorbed by an authoritarian China, but preserving Taiwan’s de-facto independence is not worth risking war with a nuclear-armed power capable of striking the United States.”

Those who doubt the willingness of the U.S. to defend Taiwan point to blood and treasure spent in the unpopular war in Iraq. Even though the U.S. could confront China with naval and air power, they argue, polls indicate that political support would be lacking.

Further, they point to China’s rise as a political and military power that must be reckoned with, and the fear of China in other Asian nations. And they point to the economic intertwining of the U.S. and China. In 2006, China was the second-largest source of imports into the U.S. (after Canada,) and the fourth-largest market for U.S. exports, (after Canada, Mexico, and Japan).

Political leaders in Taiwan, notably President Chen Shui-bian, have not helped their own cause. Chen stirred the wrath of both Beijing and Washington recently by announcing he would hold a referendum to build domestic support for a proposal that his government apply for United Nations membership using the name Taiwan.

While the application would be blocked by China, an affirmative vote in the referendum would underscore Taiwan’s drive for independence — and erode China’s claim to the island.

The State Department immediately reflected Bush’s displeasure: “The U.S. opposes any initiative that appears designed to change Taiwan’s status unilaterally.”

The department added: “Such a move would appear to run counter to President Chen’s repeated commitments to President Bush” not to press for independence.

Taiwan has also lost U.S. support by appearing to be unwilling to defend itself. Taipei has dithered over the purchase of a large arms package that Bush offered, and U.S. military officers have said that Taiwan’s forces, while improved, have been slow to modernize.

The consequences of U.S. failure to defend Taiwan would be profound. Said an experienced China watcher: “There is no upside to this.” Acquiescing in China’s takeover of Taiwan would:

# Damage, and possibly destroy, the U.S. reputation as a reliable ally in the eyes of treaty partners in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. The same would be true of friends in Singapore, Indonesia and India.

# Jeopardize U.S. naval supremacy in the western Pacific and give China control of the northern entrance of the South China Sea, through which passes more shipping than through the Suez and Panama canals combined.

# Undercut the ability of any administration in Washington, Republican or Democratic, to persuade other nations to become democratic.

It’s regrettable that Chen Shui-bian takes the blame, when the State Department is also in large part responsible for the problems in US-Taiwan relations, as former AIT head Therese Shaheen pointed out a few weeks ago. Halloran, like Minnick below, once again fails to note that the US is also hugely responsible for the arms package problems. Sadly, Halloran cites Ted Galen Carpenter, who usually gets everything either wrong or sideways when he writes on the island and its affairs. In general, there is nothing interesting or enlightening from the analytical point of view. Note that Halloran does not cite the Taiwan Relations Act or make any other case regarding US obligations to Taiwan, moral or political.

An article like this points up the contradictions on US thinking about Taiwan’s democracy. On one hand Halloran argues that Taiwan’s exercise of its democracy is a provocation to China. On the other hand, it is the one thing everyone identifies as the reason to defend Taiwan. The US can resolve this problem by correctly identifying the cause of the problem — China, not Taiwan. When the US stops blaming the victim, its discomfort with the situation will disappear.