A trio of pieces out this week shed light on the evolving US position towards the China-Taiwan mess. First, longtime US government Taiwan expert Robert Sutter gave a paper this week on the US-Taiwan-China mess, which was duly reported in the Taipei Times this morning.
Robert Sutter, a professor at George Washington University, said many people in Taiwan favored what they “erroneously see” as a “status quo” in which the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) enjoys independence of action.Sutter's thinking is straightforward, and he is critical of President Ma for letting Taiwan's defense spending slide. (All part of the plan, of course). But a key point in his presentation is his perception of a growing reluctance among US decisionmakers to support Taiwan.
However, in reality, he told the conference at George Washington University’s the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, Taiwan’s “weak self-strengthening” and a marked decline in US support for its freedom of action further bound it to accommodating China.
Sutter said that US allies and friends in Asia — notably Japan — would require “extraordinary reassurance” that the US government’s encouragement of conditions leading to the resolution of Taiwan’s future and reunification with China does not foreshadow a power-shift in the region.
“The United States’ ability to intervene militarily in Taiwan contingencies remains strong, but the reluctance of US leaders to do so is growing,” he said
This in reinforced in the next piece on my list today, Richard Bush's piece on Taiwan and East Asian security. Like Sutter, Bush is a longtime US government Taiwan specialist, an acutely intelligent, articulate, and inscrutable observer of affairs involving The Beautiful Isle. It is easy to read Bush's piece as a very conventional Establishment presentation of the issues, complete with the "DPP provokes China" nonsense and "my, it's a puzzle that China still points missiles at Taiwan", but I think that would be a mistake. There is much to dislike in this piece -- it carefully avoids facing the problem that no one in Taiwan wants to be part of China -- and blames the DPP for stirring up sentiment against annexation to China. Interestingly, Bush connects Taiwan with Okinawa's security in a single short sentence. But the final page seems to recognize that Taiwan has the potential to keep muddling through. Provided it has good leadership. Bush's review of the policy choices facing the US is excellent. Well worth the time spent.
I do wish that analysts in DC would do more than follow the Beijing line in dismissing the DPP as a "troublemaker". Perhaps, if your longterm policy is to ensure security and stability in East Asia, it might be better to have the party that cares about Taiwan and is friendly to Japan in power, rather than one that shadows Beijing's territorial claims and is allied to your Communist opponent. Granting Bush's argument that the KMT's pro-China turn represents a stabilization of the Taiwan-China issue, it would behoove policymakers to observe that as China feels better about Taiwan, it flexes its muscles more elsewhere. Tensions are not reduced, folks -- they are just displaced.
Last, and very different, are some excerpts from dinner remarks by Ambassador Chas Freeman at the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute Annual Conference on Monday, entitled: "Beijing, Washington, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige: Remarks to the China Maritime Studies Institute". These were flung around the intertubes and wound up in my mailbox. Freeman and his family have been involved in various China businesses -- you may recall the controversy sparked when he was nominated for the NIC chief by Obama a couple of years ago. I summarized a while back:
Note how it describes Freeman, who was the object of a intense debate earlier this year over his thinking on Israel after President Obama nominated him for the NIC. The knee-jerk reaction to his appointment from the AIPAC noise machine on the right and its opponents on the left completely overshadowed what should have been the real topic of discussion, Freeman's business links to China (once again proving that the most important territory Israel occupies is American foreign policy debates), and beyond that, the business links with China so common in our foreign policy class. The WaPo presentation is a perfect example -- Freeman is represented as an expert and former diplomat, not as someone who sat on the Board of a PRC State-owned oil company, who also has other, prior business links, and whose son does business with China. Sad.Given his background, it is fairly obvious that this is going to be a profoundly pro-China presentation. I put it up because it is a textbook example of how the sell-out discourse is conducted.
Freeman opens by recalling the 1971 Kissinger accommodation with China......
To reach an accommodation with China, the United States had to choose between our longstanding politico-military commitment to Taipei and the imperatives of our national interests as affected by the Cold War. Then, as now, the Taiwan issue constrained our relations with Beijing. It threatened an eventual, bloody rendezvous between Chinese nationalism and American military power. Then, as now, war would have been disastrous for both sides. Washington and Beijing crafted our rapprochement by deferring to later resolution the casus belli between us - the question of Taiwan's relationship with the rest of China. Both this issue and the American role in it remain unresolved. Neither Chinese nationalism nor the Taiwan issue has gone away.Note how Freeman has completely adopted the Chinese frame for presenting "the Taiwan issue." Beijing is pursuing "national unity", not national expansion. Note also the false dichotomy he proposes -- the Taiwan issue is a choice between the shackles of the past and American long-term strategic interests. As rhetoric this is top-notch but as an argument it is a heap of emotional bollocks.
China has been patient for four decades, but it is now actively pondering how best to remove the United States from what is - from its point of view - our very unhelpful residual military role in cross-Strait relations so that Beijing's negotiators can settle the Taiwan issue with their counterparts in Taipei. That, I take it, is a principal focus of the national review of policy toward the United States that China is reportedly poised to launch. Americans cannot safely assume that China's recent objections to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan or other military actions on our part are pro forma or "just more of the same." It's at least as likely that we will soon once again confront the necessity to choose between the self-imposed shackles of longstanding policy and the imperatives of our long-term strategic interests.
The underlying issue today is at root the same as forty years ago - the contradiction between U.S. policies designed to frustrate China's achievement of its core objective of national unity and our need to reduce enmity and increase cooperation with China. But the context in which we must wrestle with this contradiction today is radically different. The balance of prestige, if not yet the balance of power, between the United States and China has shifted.
Freeman then reviews the mess that elites -- well, elites like Freeman! -- have made of the US economy and its foreign policy -- the massive debt, the floundering at all levels, the lack of rule of law, and loss of prestige. The stupidities of Afghanistan and Iraq are mentioned merely to example the limits of American military power -- not as a root cause of our decline. Our foreign policy analysts seem unable to grasp that every dollar spent in Afghanistan not only makes China stronger but ensures that Americans and Afghans are getting killed solely to pacify central Asia for Chinese expansion.
That reality -- Chinese expansion -- is entirely missing from Freeman's presentation. He ends this section....
To our creditors, America now looks like a huge, insolvent insurance company with a mostly military workforce living on credit rollovers. Washington can't even pass a budget, let alone devise a credible plan to pay down our debt. Increasingly, America's creditors see the United States as a bad bet, not a safehaven for their money. This is not good. And it is not smart, in such circumstances, to enter a race with the People's Liberation Army, as we did with Soviet armed forces, to see who can spend whom into the ground.The opening of the second paragraph is absurd. Ask the Tibetans, Uighurs, and Taiwanese if China operates an empire. Ask the nations bordering the South China Sea, India, and Japan about China's "traditional frontiers". The South China Sea, all of which China claims, was never a part of any "traditional China" and neither were the Senkakus or Taiwan or Arunachal Pradesh, all currently claimed by China. This presentation is highly slanted in favor of China, the victim. Sad.
Unlike the Soviet Union, China has a highly successful economy that is widely seen as a model combination of industrial policy with market economics. Not everybody likes China, but it has a reputation for coherent strategic vision. China does not operate an empire of captive satellite nations, have a history of global power projection, seek to export an ideology, or propose to expand beyond its traditional frontiers. It has not configured its forces for an attack on our homeland, even if it has made provision for retaliation against us in the event we strike its homeland. China has begun, however, to object to American naval operations in its near seas that it considers hostile to it. By its attempts to deny our right to carry out such operations, China jeopardizes our exercise of at least a portion of the global hegemony to which we have recently become accustomed. And the Chinese seem bent on developing defenses we cannot easily overwhelm.
These are threats to our omnipotence even it they are not threats to our homeland.
After observing some parallels between the Cold War and the current competition with China, but also noting that the situation is not in the US' favor, Freeman moves on to the matter at hand:
The subject you are discussing - China's strategy for its near seas - is very relevant. The Chinese have begun to make it clear that they will not be prepared indefinitely to tolerate the long-term menace of provocative foreign naval operations near their homeland's coasts. So it is in its near seas that China's determination to carve out an exception to America's global dominion is finding its clearest expression. This determination does not make China a threat to the United States, but it reinforces the point that China is a threat to U.S. military supremacy in Asia and possibly beyond it.The idea that the US is "provocative" and poor China is the helpless victim of Washington's provocations is, again, absurd in two ways. First, since China determines what is "provocative", by making strategy based on the fear of provoking China, you essentially hand off control of your foreign policy to Beijing. Second, Freeman elides the whole problem of how China provokes the US -- in these pro-China presentations China is always the victim and its agency is limited. In fact, there is no "ineluctable asymmetry" at play. China threatens our allies in Taiwan and Japan as well as friendly nations which are now looking to the US for support all along China's borders. Note that all of this is missing -- Japan isn't mentioned, and neither is India. When China's territorial claims go AWOL, you know you are looking at an artificial reality created to make the US look bad. Not to mention the technology theft and espionage.... I'm skipping several paragraphs to get to the ugly heart of this presentation....
In this context as in others, it would seem wise to minimize activities that increase rather than diminish China's perceived need to prepare itself for future combat with the United States. To the extent that the U.S. and PLA navies come to confront each other in China's near seas, the stimulus for China to focus on ridding these seas of foreign threats simply increases. There is, after all, an ineluctable asymmetry at play. The United States can cease to patrol China's near seas if it chooses, but China cannot cease to abut them.
Antagonistic encounters in China's near seas are a significant factor in worsening Sino-American military relations but they do not have the impact of U.S. moves to shore up Taiwan's resistance to reunion with the mainland. The Taiwan issue is the only one with the potential to ignite a war between China and the United States. To the PLA, U.S. programs with Taiwan signal fundamental American hostility to the return of China to the status of a great power under the People's Republic. America's continuing arms sales, training, and military counsel to Taiwan's armed forces represent potent challenges to China's pride, nationalism, and rising power, as well as to its military planners. These U.S. programs appear to reflect judgments by the American elite that the Communist dictatorship on the mainland is fundamentally illegitimate and should be prevented from extending its sway to other parts of China even by peaceful means. U.S. interactions with Taiwan and Tibet belie the lip service American officials pay to the notion of "one China." The message China's civilian and military elite get from these interactions is that the United States wants "one China in name but not in fact - not now, and perhaps never, if America has anything to say about it." The Chinese don't think we should have anything to say about it.Because Freeman has made Japan disappear, he can now claim that the Taiwan issue is the only issue that can ignite a war between the US and China. One wonders, after the US hands Taiwan over to be annexed to China, how much time will pass before people like Freeman start writing: "the Senkakus are the one issue over which China and the US could go to war..."
Freeman also misrepresents the US "One China" position by once again presenting China as the helpless victim of American duplicity -- actually Beijing knows perfectly well that Taiwan is not part of One China in the US policy. In the remaining paragraphs Freeman once again adopts Beijing's point of view -- annexation of Taiwan to China is a "reunion" and Taiwan is part of China. In the finest realpolitik manner, Freeman never once mentions the people of Taiwan -- because the greatness of a realpolitik decision is measured by the number of one's friends it betrays.....
The kind of long-term relationship of friendship and cooperation China and America want with each other is incompatible with our emotionally fraught differences over the Taiwan issue. These differences propel mutual hostility and the sort of ruinous military rivalry between the two countries that has already begun. We are coming to a point at which we can no longer finesse our differences over Taiwan. We must either resolve them or live with the increasingly adverse consequences of our failure to do so.On the surface it looks as if Freeman is posing some obvious, stark questions. However, this presentation makes sense only because it treats Taiwan in isolation from other problem areas in the region. Restore the context: as I've noted with similar proposals to sell Taiwan out, it won't work because Taiwan is not the issue, Chinese expansionism is. I'll simply observe, as always, that giving Taiwan to China does not solve the problem of the Senkakus, the South China Sea, and other places Beijing covets or will soon covet, which will bring it into conflict with the US. Indeed, it hands China a massive strategic asset for zero gain except Chinese "happiness." Oy ve.
For Chinese, the Taiwan issue presents an increasingly stark choice between national pride commensurate with rising prestige and continuing deference to America's waning power. With Taiwan and the mainland integrating in practice, China sees the policies of the United States as the last effective barrier to the arrival of a ripe moment for the achievement of national unity under a single, internationally respected sovereignty. Dignity and unity have been and remain the core ambitions of the Chinese revolution. China may, for now, continue to emphasize the avoidance of conflict with the United States. But the political dynamics of national honor will sooner or later force Beijing to adopt less risk-averse policies than it now espouses.
For Americans, the Taiwan issue presents an unwelcome choice between potential long-term military antagonism with China and the perpetuation, despite rapid cross-Strait economic and social integration, of Taiwan's de facto political separation from the mainland. So far, the United States has in practice given priority to Taiwan, in what is now best described as an effort to retard the speeding tilt of the cross-Strait military balance against Taiwan. Given the huge stakes for the United States in our strategic interaction with China, this choice might well strike someone looking afresh at the situation as oddly misguided.
American priorities look all the more inverted when one considers that Beijing has offered to negotiate what amounts to purely symbolic reunification with Taiwan, forgoing any political or military presence of its own on the island. This offer cannot be dismissed as incredible. China's willingness to tolerate amazingly different politico-economic orders on what is nominally its territory has been amply demonstrated in both Hong Kong and Macau. Its proposal to Taipei offers far greater autonomy than either of these city-states enjoy. Is it worth a war with China to prevent such an outcome? If not, why are we behaving as if it were?
I hope the attendees listened with the proper skepticism.
For a more thorough critique of Freeman's position, see my remarks on Charles Glaser's article and on Ted Galen Carpenter.
In one way Freeman appears to be correct: the time is approaching when US policy will need clarification. The US can put off this time for many years, however, by giving up its obsession with the Middle East, and by investing in an expansion of the Navy and Air Force while reducing the Army (we have 80,000 troops in Europe because....?). We don't have to match the PLA, just the PLA navy. We should also be beefing up our relations with the nations bordering China and engaging in greater mil-mil cooperation with them. Some Presidential visits might be nice too....
Meanwhile the State Department media release on the recent US-China Strategic Dialogue contains no mention of Taiwan at all. Go figure.
- FT column: is Taiwan's answer China?
- The NSC had to way in on the stupid "prophet" who said Taiwan would be destroyed on May 11 by a magnitude 14 earthquake. As if that were possible! My students told me today that some poor soul killed himself over the coming Apocalypse.
- WSJ: Taiwan's demographic time bomb
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