Should Washington throw the Chinese dog a Taiwanese bone? That is the essence of a quiet but persistent undercurrent of US thought: that little Taiwan – with just 23m people – is too big an irritant in Sino-US relations. Instead of continually annoying China by pledging to defend it, the argument goes, the US should quietly drop its long-standing commitment.
US-Sino friction is most visible whenever Washington ships arms to Taiwan. When last year the US sold $6.4bn of helicopters and Patriot missiles to Taipei, Beijing’s ferocious reaction caught many by surprise. It accused Washington of “treating it like an enemy”. It also cancelled military-to-military contacts, leading Robert Gates, US secretary of defence, to accuse Beijing of holding US-Sino relations hostage to Taiwanese “political weather”.