Taiwan and its friends are becoming more powerful together.
By Gordon G. Chang
The National Interest
October 19, 2016
The National Interest
October 19, 2016
Fortunately for the twenty-four million people living in Taiwan, almost everything Mearsheimer thinks about the island’s future is wrong. Mearsheimer gets one thing right, however: the People’s Republic of China will try to make Taiwan its thirty-fourth province.
Mearsheimer relies on standard realist theory to explain Taiwan’s predicament. “The only way to predict how a rising China is likely to behave toward its neighbors as well as the United States is with a theory of great-power politics,” he writes. Applying this theory, he tells us there are two “logics,” China’s nationalism and the country’s imperative to security. “Both logics,” he continues, “lead to the same endgame: the unification of China and Taiwan.” Mearsheimer believes the United States, working to prevent China from dominating its periphery, will at first try to make Taiwan a part of its “anti-China balancing coalition.” Eventually, however, Washington will decide to let go of Taiwan because the prize is more important to the Chinese than to the Americans. From there, it is all downhill for Taipei.
There is an elegant logic to Mearsheimer’s argument, even if it comes off as deterministic at times, but there are two main reasons why Taiwan will prove to be far more resilient than he thinks. First, China during the coming decades will not resemble the country that inhabits Mearsheimer’s imagination. Second, even if China becomes the dominant regional power, as he believes, its neighbors will block it from taking over East Asia. Mearsheimer, perhaps the leading realist thinker today, isn’t all that realistic about Taiwan’s future.
At the core of “Say Goodbye to Taiwan” is the assumption that China will continue its extraordinary rise. But will it? In 2014, when the piece appeared, Mearsheimer’s prediction appeared sound. Today, it does not.
China’s economy is sputtering. Beijing has given up on reform. Instead, it is moving to close off the country’s markets, targeting multinationals and recombining already monopolistic state enterprises. At the same time, Chinese technocrats have reacted to a slowdown in growth by piling on debt at alarming rates. The rapid buildup—debt is growing at least four times faster than gross domestic product—has enlarged underlying imbalances in the economy and postponed a natural downward adjustment, making the crash, when it comes, far more severe than it ever had to be. EvenPeople’s Daily, the ruling elite’s mouthpiece, appears anxious. In May, a front-page feature warned about a “systemic financial crisis.”
And while this is occurring, the country’s political system is fracturing, its social fabric fraying, its environment deteriorating, its people emigrating, its demography beginning a century-long decline. China is held together only through the Communist Party’s increasingly coercive governance, unsustainable in a fast-modernizing society. “China has hit the ceiling” is how Gerrit van der Wees, former editor of Taiwan Communiqué, characterizes the situation across the Taiwan Strait.
China, unfortunately for the party, has passed not just an inflection point but also the point of no return. A prolonged period of regressive moves on almost all fronts—well into its second decade—indicates there are no solutions possible within the context of a political system that leaders will not change.
Mearsheimer is not unaware of China’s difficulties. He notes at the end of “Say Goodbye” that Taiwan’s only hope is “a drastic slowdown in Chinese economic growth in the years ahead and that Beijing also has serious political problems on the home front that work to keep it focused inward.” Yet the line is an afterthought, no more than a passing comment at the end of a lengthy essay, and not integrated into his argument.
Mearsheimer’s fundamental premise—that China’s extraordinary rise will continue indefinitely—is unlikely to hold true. Yet even if he is right on this score, his application of realist theory to Asia is deeply flawed. In his telling, there are only two powers in East Asia that count: China and the United States. As Jon Meacham wrote in Time within months of the release of “Say Goodbye,” we should be thinking “in kaleidoscopic terms, not binary ones.” And with regard to both the world—Meacham’s topic—and East Asia, he is right. There is, in short, more to the region than just China and the United States.
As an initial matter, China does have friends. Beijing can almost always count on Cambodia and Laos to support its efforts to block the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from issuing resolutions it does not like. When prompted, the pair will put out statements of support on issues of the day. That, however, is about the extent of the help they could give China on Taiwan. Thailand, in a region without America, would likely gravitate into China’s orbit. Washington’s criticisms of prolonged military rule have already pushed Bangkok toward Beijing.
There is always the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China’s only formal ally. Pyongyang’s support on the Taiwan issue—if Beijing could attain it—is worth nothing in international councils. If anything, the North Korean regime, by mere association, further tars China’s image. The only utility Pyongyang provides in regards to Taiwan is on the battlefield. The North could, if it wanted, create an excellent diversion by sending armor over the Demilitarized Zone as Chinese ships sailed toward Taiwan’s shores. Yet Kim Jong-un, who has done his best to alienate his horrific regime from Beijing, is unlikely to jeopardize his position to help China, especially given the decrepit state of his conventional forces.
Moscow, more than Beijing’s other friends, could be a factor. Today, China and Russia appear to be coordinating actions in East Asia. In early June, for instance, they looked as if they were acting in tandem in pressuring Japan. Then, vessels from both navies intruded, at about the same time, into Japan’s “contiguous zone,” the band of international water between twelve and twenty-four nautical miles from a state’s shore. The incursions occurred around the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as its own. In September, the Chinese and Russian navies jointly practiced an “island-seizing mission” in the South China Sea.
The partnership between the dragon and the bear has grown closer in recent years as they have knitted their external policies together. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are particularly close. They refer to the “uniqueness” of relations, and their ties, as both perceive them, are truly one of a kind. They view themselves in the same terms and see their interests converging; they are, in short, like-minded. Their partnership could survive their passing—in June, Xi said his country and Russia should remain “friends forever”—but new leaders could define their interests in different ways. Some speculate that a post-Putin Russia will return to a more adversarial stance toward neighboring China.
And yet, Russia failed to announce its full support for Beijing’s boycott of Philippines v. China, even though lining up endorsements was one of China’s most zealously pursued goals of recent years. Kremlin analysts can read Mearsheimer just as well as others and undoubtedly do not want the fast-expanding People’s Liberation Army (PLA) dominating that strategic body of water. And if that is the way the Russians feel, it would make sense for them to prevent Taiwan from falling into Chinese hands, giving Beijing control of the strategic intersection of the South China and East China Seas. Mearsheimer, applying his theory of great-power politics, believes Russia will eventually move to contain China.
And China has far more adversaries than friends. Even as Chinese power seemed to be growing inexorably, Beijing was losing support along its southern and eastern peripheries. The Chinese have seen friendly leaders go down in a string of elections, most notably in India in 2014, Sri Lanka and Burma last year, and Taiwan this January.
The electoral losses are a part of the trend of states coalescing against the region’s strongest power. And some of these states actually matter in the struggle between China and Taiwan. Take Japan, whose Self-Defense Forces are among the most capable conventional military of any East Asian state, especially if the Chinese ships and planes deployed outside the region are excluded from consideration.
As China historian Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania is fond of pointing out, on a clear day you can see Taiwan’s mountains from Japan’s soil. In fact, the westernmost inhabited Japanese island, Yonaguni, is actually south of Taipei and only fifty-eight nautical miles from Taiwan’s east coast. The Japanese, not surprisingly, are keenly aware of the geography and know that a Taiwan in Beijing’s hands would be a mortal threat to their country. “Taiwan and Japan are a single unit strategically,” Waldron told me. “Japan will simply not let China have it.”
The Chinese know of Japan’s determination—and its impressive self-defense capabilities—and appear to have been deterred for decades. After all, it would be difficult for the PLA to attack Taiwan without passing through Japanese waters or airspace, so, as Waldron notes, China, by taking on Taiwan, would be buying “two wars for the price of one.”
And should China take on Japan, it will probably have to confront a good part of the region as well. Thanks to Chinese provocations, Tokyo is developing military ties around East Asia with Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Moreover, Japan has other friends just beyond East Asia’s periphery—Australia and India, for instance. Poked incessantly by Beijing, New Delhi is increasingly becoming involved in the region. And India matters. Alone among Asian nations, it has a credible claim of becoming the owner of the twenty-first century, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi often reiterates. New Delhi has thrown in its lot with Tokyo and Hanoi, two capitals also directly threatened by Chinese actions. Indian vessels exercised with their Japanese counterparts, most recently in June in the Malabar drills. The region is coalescing around Japan, and at this rate it is more likely to become Nipponized than Sinicized. The acceptance of Japan’s new role is remarkable. In the first keynote ever delivered by a Japanese prime minister at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Shinzo Abe spoke of the “new Japanese” providing security around the region. In a few words at East Asia’s premier security conference, Japan’s leader staked out a position that could become the basis of the region’s security architecture.
Tokyo’s time has come. In late 2006, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Aso talked about the region building an “arc of freedom and prosperity.” The concept was years too early. Then, nations were optimistic about China adhering to the international system’s rules, treaties and norms. Few outside Japan thought the region needed a plan B.
Now, however, nations realize the dangers of Chinese assertion and are scrambling to build defense networks. In Asia’s new kaleidoscope, even the weak, with friends, can hold off the strong. Among the weakest regional actors is the Philippines. Manila was not able to prevent China from grabbing Mischief Reef in 1995 or Scarborough Shoal in 2012. The loss of Scarborough was especially consequential, as the feature, located just 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, guards the strategic Manila and Subic Bays.
After seizing the shoal, Beijing then went on to increase pressure on Second Thomas Shoal, off the coast of Palawan. There, Manila in 1999 grounded a World War II–era landing ship, the Sierra Madre, and placed a small detachment of marines on board to preserve its sovereignty. The Chinese, employing their so-called “cabbage strategy,” have stepped up efforts in recent years to prevent resupply.
The Philippines, which could not hope to compete with China ship for ship even in its own waters, turned to lawfare. In 2013, Manila instituted an arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in The Hague. At first, Beijing did not grasp the significance of the case. In early July, the arbitral panel issued a sweeping award against China, and Beijing reacted with anger, provocation and belligerence—what the Asia Society’s Orville Schell called a policy of “no acceptance, no participation, no recognition, and no implementation.” Beijing found itself isolated and, inadvertently, curried international favor for Manila. The Philippines has yet to recover Mischief or Scarborough, but China is facing a formidable coalition spread across four continents.
The Philippine case suggests that, contrary to Mearsheimer’s analysis, America’s departure from the region will not create a vacuum. In America’s absence, Japan will, in all likelihood, anchor a new security architecture. By focusing only on China and the United States, Mearsheimer ignores the possibility of regional actors defending Taiwan. He does, it is true, acknowledge that Taiwan is part of a U.S.-led coalition, yet does not discuss the grouping after the predicted American withdrawal. Nor does he give the coalition any agency, as if states in the region could not protect their interests if the United States were not around.
That coalition could end up the dominant factor in East Asia. China, unfortunately for the region, is insistent on using forceful tactics to dismember the Philippines, four other South China Sea claimants, South Korea and Japan. Those threatened will naturally draw together, as they are now doing. And Taiwan will be critical to that alliance. It is “the cork in the bottle,” the landmass in the “First Island Chain” that helps trap the Chinese navy close to shore. Japan and other Asian states, therefore, will have every reason to believe that defending Taiwan is defending their own territory.
Of course, the existence of such a coalition substantially decreases the possibility that the United States exits the region. After all, Mearsheimer thinks Washington will leave because Beijing will push it out. Nonetheless, the Chinese state, no matter how strong it may become, is unlikely to be so powerful that it will be able to match all the regional actors and the United States together in heft. As is becoming evident, in East Asia today, there is a divide between China and weak friends on one side and just about every other state on the other. In fact, regional diplomats for years have been pulling Washington into more active involvement in the region, precisely because they seek a counterweight to Beijing.
Apart from Mearsheimer’s flawed application of realism to the region, there are three other aspects of his argument deserving special mention. First, he makes unsubstantiated statements on Chinese public opinion. He tells us “the legitimacy of the Chinese regime is bound up with making sure Taiwan does not become a sovereign state and that it eventually becomes an integral part of China.” Furthermore, he writes, the “unification of China and Taiwan is one of the core elements of Chinese national identity.” Taiwan’s fate “is a matter of great concern to Chinese of all persuasions.” His argument is that the Chinese public will be instrumental in making sure the regime absorbs Taiwan.
It is beyond question that the party’s legitimacy is tied to taking territory because its leaders have made it so, but it is not clear what Chinese people feel and, more importantly, how strongly they feel about it. In authoritarian societies, it is extremely difficult to gauge public sentiment on issues important to the regime.
There are hotheads in China demanding immediate action to “reunify” the country, but there are those who fully appreciate why Taiwan does not want to be absorbed by an undemocratic state. My wife and I were living in Shanghai when Chen Shui-bian was elected Taiwan’s president in 2000. Many Chinese, especially those from younger generations, were inspired by his election and awed by the constitutionally mandated transfer of power from one political party to another. It is unlikely that these same people would ever push their leaders to destroy that society, especially because people in China view those in Taiwan as compatriots and “Chinese should not kill Chinese” is a sentiment often heard outside official circles.
Most Chinese people, due to relentless indoctrination, would probably like to see Taiwan join the People’s Republic. But they are unlikely to lend this issue much importance in a time of growing economic hardship. In any event, there is little evidence that public sentiment on Taiwan drives Beijing’s policy—or that it has the potential to do so.
Second, Mearsheimer tells Taiwan to look to Hong Kong for its future political arrangements. “Once China becomes a superpower, it probably makes the most sense for Taiwan to give up hope of maintaining its de facto independence and instead pursue the ‘Hong Kong strategy,’” he writes, referring to the “one country, two systems” (1C2S) model that Beijing employs to run the former British colony. “This is definitely not an attractive option, but as Thucydides argued long ago, in international politics ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’”
Since “Say Goodbye” went to press, it has become obvious that 1C2S has completely failed. In the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic, calls for independence are steadily growing. Beijing has completely spent its popularity, so evident at the time of the “handover” in mid-1997, and the wave of anti-China sentiment has changed most every political calculation there.
Hong Kong’s former colonial master, once unpopular in many quarters, is now viewed with fondness and nostalgia. The most visible evidence of this complete reversal in thinking is the sight of the Union Jack. It is seen flying during moments of protest and frequently displayed proudly on clothing. Many people in the city no longer consider themselves “Chinese,” and those in the People’s Republic are not just foreigners but “locusts.”
The Taiwan public sees the failure of the Hong Kong strategy; the framework has absolutely no resonance in Taiwan. “Democracy is our way of life and the people of Taiwan cherish their hard-earned freedom,” Brian Su, deputy director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, told me via e-mail. “We are determined to uphold our democratic system and our sovereignty, anything less is unacceptable.”
Third, in large part due to such determination, Taiwan’s political arrangements and civil society have become extraordinarily resilient. Mearsheimer, to his credit, acknowledges the strong desire of people in Taiwan to remain free, but small societies ultimately do not count for much in his great-power thinking.
Taiwan, however, has been unexpectedly hardy, withstanding great-power machinations. It is often forgotten that it survived Richard Nixon’s abandonment after his historic meeting with Mao Zedong in 1972. Then, Henry Kissinger and other American policymakers assumed a powerful China would inevitably absorb small Taiwan.
It did not work out that way because, among other reasons, Taiwan democratized, creating constituencies around the world in order to garner support for itself. As Gerrit van der Wees remarked to me, “The fact that Taiwan is now a full democracy means that the United States has one more reason to stand by its friend and ally.” In a world of depredation by authoritarian states, people in democracies are beginning to understand the importance of supporting other free societies, and newly inaugurated Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen understands her endangered state must build those relationships in the region and beyond.
Yet Taiwan, with or without the help of others, can stand on its own. It has done so under even more trying circumstances. There is every reason to believe it will be able to maintain its independence indefinitely.
“Goodbye Taiwan” tells us “power is rarely static.” Mearsheimer is right, of course, and trends change all the time. At this moment—and for many moments to come—current trends suggest that Chinese power, having already reached its highpoint, will diminish. Meanwhile, Taiwan and its friends are becoming more powerful together. Soon enough, realists like Mearsheimer may have to say “hello” to Taiwan.
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