Superpower Swap: Taiwan for N. Korea

From a purely utilitarian superpower perspective the East Asia conflict may well be eliminated by trading Taiwan for N. Korea.

I’m not advocating it, merely stating an obvious and likely eventuality.

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. isn’t under legal obligation to defend Taiwan in case it is attacked by China. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 merely requires the U.S. to provide Taiwan with “arms of a defensive character”. Even that commitment was made only in an effort to balance the moral unease of cutting off an old ally after diplomatic relations were established with China on January 1, 1979. In fact, the Act doesn’t even recognize Taiwan’s right to the name “Republic of China” nor even its claims to Jinmen, the Matsus, the Pratas or Taiping Island.

In short, the Act was created merely to preserve a shred of dignity for both the U.S. and Taiwan in the face of the PRC’s compelling claim for recognition by the world as the sole legitimate government of China.

The perception that the U.S. is obliged to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan in the event of attack by China results from the “strategic ambiguity” the U.S. has cultivated in hopes of discouraging such an attack. The actual language of the Act merely says that the U.S. will “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”. It could be read to argue for military intervention, or not.

On the other hand, the U.S.-S. Korea Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954 does create an obligation — albeit in somewhat evasive and indirect terms — for each nation to step in to defend the other in case any part of its territory is attacked. Even this treaty wasn’t willingly given by the U.S. but only as a grudging last resort after it became apparent that the precarious 1953 Armistice halting the Korean War would be quickly shattered without one.

These entanglements focus the geopolitical interests of the U.S. and China in East Asia. China has consistently asked the U.S. to disavow any intention to intrude into any action it may take toward Taiwan as being in the nature of a purely domestic matter. The U.S. would like an assurance from China that it would not intervene in Korea in the event of a war between N. Korea and S. Korea. But unlike the convoluted and awkward U.S.-Taiwan relationship, China and N. Korea are military allies — as amply demonstrated during the war that erupted when N. Korean troops invaded the South in June of 1950. If war were to break out again, China would be morally and legally bound to send troops to help N. Korea.

Yet China is no more eager to do so today than the U.S. is willing to step in to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China. That’s the crux of their major military conflict in East Asia. If that conflict were removed, the U.S. and China would have little cause to eye each other as likely adversaries in a conflict that could erupt practically any moment.

The removal of that conflict requires the U.S. and China to cut off relationships that are holdovers from a bygone era under the influence of an ideological conflict that has mostly evaporated. The practical benefit of either alliance owes mainly to the existence of the other. If China didn’t have to worry about the U.S. intruding into a war to take Taiwan, it would have little reason to use N. Korea as a stalking horse for the U.S. presence in East Asia.

Will the world’s two superpowers will put expedience before moral obligation and sentimental attachment in an era when they are each other’s most important trading partners? The likely answer can be found in history’s most recent examples. As S. Vietnam was collapsing before the Vietcong insurgence, the U.S. engineered disentanglement from that alliance under the name of “Vietnamization”. When China saw that the communist ideology would never hunt, it engineered a new system around the term “socialist market economy”.

It will be interesting to see what terms are coined to engineer away the last vestiges of the Cold War in East Asia.