Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Mearsheimer, Taiwan, and the future

The rift valley, morning.
Frozone: One more shot from his death ray, and I'm an epitaph. Somehow, I manage to find cover, and what does Baron von Ruthless do?
Mr. Incredible: (laughing) He starts monologuing?

Frozone: He starts monologuing! He goes into this prepared speech about how feeble I am, compared to him! How inevitable my defeat is! How the World! Will soon! Be his!

Mr. Incredible: Yammerin'!

Frozone: Yammering! I mean, the guy has me on a platter and he won't shut up!
Mearsheimer's Say Good-bye to Taiwan, which raised hackles among many of us who watch this island, collected a pile of responses, including one from TECRO(and also Ben Goren's)(also don't miss The Foreigner on Ukraine and China)(and Nat Bellocchi's)(and James Holmes). Zachary Keck over at The Diplomat observed of Mearsheimer:
Thirdly, I think Mearsheimer understates the degree to which other countries besides the U.S. might come to Taiwan’s aid. Foremost among these is Japan, which is already considering a Taiwan Relations Act of its own. This is a crucial difference between the situation the U.S. faced in seeking regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and one that China faces in the Asia-Pacific. Namely, Beijing is surrounded by powerful neighbors, all of whom are adamantly opposed to a return to Chinese regional hegemony. I don’t believe these countries will be weaker collectively than China for some time to come, if ever.
Keck advances the idea of an armed insurgency among the Taiwanese if China occupies Taiwan, an idea I find dubious. But more importantly, he says that Mearsheimer's piece is "thought-provoking and provocative." Actually, once you get past the veneer of realist theory at the beginning, it is the old inevitability thesis, which I've been hearing from ruddy-faced, thoroughly plotzed foreigners in Taipei bars now for twenty years, combined with a melange of PRC talking points and some real truths about Taiwan and East Asia -- not that "inevitability" isn't also a PRC talking point. Though well-written, Mearsheimer's piece is actually rather blandly abstract and not particularly insightful, as if there were no longer any possibility of saying anything new in the Taiwan context. Well, after the messes of Charles Glaser and Bruce Gilley, one can hardly expect too much, especially from the unreality of the realist school.

Some small points....

Mearsheimer writes:
It is also worth noting that the United States does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country, and according to President Obama, Washington “fully supports a one-China policy.”
Either way this is disturbing -- either Mearsheimer does not know that Washington's One China policy does not include Taiwan, or he withholds that fact from the reader.

Mearsheimer also uses the term "unification." The widespread use of this term to describe the annexation of Taiwan is a good example of the way PRC talking points have been incorporated into everyday use among US foreign policy commentators, one of Beijing's subtler and stronger forms of soft power. He repeats Beijing's "feelings" -- note that the use of Chinese propaganda to represent Beijing's point of view is also normalized in the US media and among US commentators:
For China’s elites, as well as its public, Taiwan can never become a sovereign state. It is sacred territory that has been part of China since ancient times, but was taken away by the hated Japanese in 1895—when China was weak and vulnerable. It must once again become an integral part of China.
Of course this position is nonsense; PRC leaders know perfectly well they are engaged in territorial expansion and annexation. Taiwan was not part of China in ancient times, a point which bears on the whole "inevitability" thesis: if it was inevitable that Taiwan would be incorporated into a Chinese state, why did it never happen in the whole of Chinese history? (the Manchus were not Chinese). Obviously because it is not inevitable. Moreover, this representation of China's POV without contextualizing it in terms of expansion and remarking that it is ahistorical helps to legitimate it. Please stop, commentators!

The article is full of little ironies and contradictions. For example, Mearsheimer writes:
Third, no state can know the intentions of other states with certainty, especially their future intentions. It is simply impossible, for example, to know what Germany’s or Japan’s intentions will be toward their neighbors in 2025.
If it is impossible to know the future intentions of states, why is Mearsheimer forecasting China's? Of course, I totally agree with Mearsheimer that China will attempt to dominate the region, and to cast the US out of it. Jes' sayin'...

Unlike so many other commentators, Mearsheimer does devote a whole entire sentence to noting that Japan and other powers facing China will likely form a coalition against it. Yet, having said this, he returns to Taiwan. Like most of the poor commentary on Taiwan, he turns the issue into a Washington-Taipei-Beijing triangle, with Taiwan in the middle, and shears away the real regional context. Yet this context is vital to understanding that all is not lost.

One of the key uses of the word "unification" is that it removes the context of Taiwan from the overall context of China's expansionist dreams. By using the term "unify" China's land grab becomes the mere repair of a breakage, the making of a wholeness, isolated from other actions of China in the area, and certainly not expansion. This covers up what Beijing is actually doing. That's why Beijing constantly uses that term to represent its goal of annexation, and that is why western commentators should avoid it. Taiwan is not being "unified" but annexed, and that annexation is part of a larger move to grab the Senkakus of Japan and eventually, Okinawa, as well as the South China Sea. The startling lack of this context in Say Good-bye to Taiwan represents a startling lack of concrete understanding. Having used the word "unification" to reduce annexation to a pleasing abstraction with no expansionist connotations, Mearsheimer can then go on to ignore China's territorial claims.

Thus, while Mearsheimer avers China will attempt to shove the US out of the region, he provides no real notion of its territorial dreams that go along with its dream of hegemony in Asia. That is why his piece is sounds more believable and sober than it actually is, because he waves away that ugly reality. These territorial dreams mean that the situation is more complicated than "Should Taiwan throw in the towel?" If China only aspired to hegemony, it might be greeted with resignation or even welcome, but since it aspires to the territories of neighboring states, it will only be greeted with defiance. Mersheimer does touch on resistance by neighboring states, but does not contextualize it in terms of PRC expansion -- when that expansion is omitted, you're looking at a PRC talking point.

I doubt Mearsheimer means to reproduce PRC talking points and PRC analytical stances, but in a way that makes his doing so even worse. As I noted, this is an example of the way PRC soft power hides in plain sight.

It is quite true that the US might not defend Taiwan forever, but at the same time, the US-Japan security treaty won't disappear for many years and it requires the US to defend Japan (that it is not mentioned, of course). US planners, unlike Mearsheimer's readers, know that once Taiwan goes, the Senkakus and Okinawa are next. Hence any US war planner will have to ask why he should give up Taiwan with its millions of people and military assets, and forego defending it, and then turn around and send his men out to die for a bunch of uninhabited islands in the ocean. For the next twenty years, whatever Mearsheimer may argue, that calculus will apply, and it will in fact apply more urgently as China grows stronger, because as it grows stronger, its neighbors will only push back harder as it moves on their territories.

This territorial aspect to China's rise also means that the issue of China's dominance and its territorial dreams isn't going to be settled by one war or campaign to take Taiwan, but likely over several wars, as hegemonic warfare often is -- see the rise of Germany in the 19th-20th centuries or the rise of France in the 17th-18th. Even if Taiwan is taken, it may well be subsequently liberated, or China may well stumble into defeat against some combination of Japan, Vietnam, or India, or other powers, one which will take it out of the running for many years. Once you restore the actual context of Chinese expansion, you can see why things, though grave, are not hopeless.

This means that in addition to three options (nuke deterrent, conventional deterrent*, hong kongization) Mearsheimer lays out, there is a fourth option, and that is regional alliance building with the US as broker and backer. Taiwan is of crucial importance to Japan and Japan is increasingly responding to China's expansionist challenge by expanding its own military. It is rumored to be currently mulling a TRA-style law. Other nations such as Vietnam, increasingly a manufacturing base for Taiwanese firms, suggest themselves. New issues will likely appear; this week Indonesia announced it was boosting its presence around Natuna Island, an island that fleetingly appeared on Chinese maps in the 1990s. China has only begun to piss its neighbors off; it will only get worse over time.

I note in passing that presented restricted options for Taiwan and ignoring Taiwan's diplomatic possibilities is a PRC talking point. We all know that the current government may not be into exercising Taiwan's diplomatic potential, but that may change as nations around China search for allies and as the people of Taiwan vote in candidates less interested in annexing Taiwan to China.

There is much else one could say, but I will stop. All is not lost, and I suspect in 20 years I'll still be sitting in Taipei bars listening to lectures from ruddy-cheeked drinkers on How inevitable our defeat is! How the World! Will soon! Be China's!

Despite the problems with the piece, those of Charles Glaser and Bruce Gilley, along with recent work by Amitai Etzioni and Joseph Bosco arguing that the US should clarify its Taiwan position, represent scholars grappling with the problem of Taiwan and groping towards solutions. Unfortunately the realist position is: when in doubt, sell it out! The real problem isn't even the mediocre thinking and writing of this crowd, but rather, the contradictions of US policy, whereby the US supports the pro-China party in Taiwan but will likely defend Taiwan against China, maintains that the future status of Taiwan is not determined but does not support independence, complains that the Taiwan military is full of pro-China sympathizers but supports the party that keeps them in, publicly supports Taiwan's democracy but supports the party that attempted to suppress it, and so on. Keep groping in the dark guys, eventually you'll feel around to the one position that resolves those contradictions: support for an independent and democratic Taiwan and the parties that espouse it.

...Yet I suspect in twenty years I'll be sitting in Taipei bars, wondering why that hasn't happened yet, and listening to US commentators complain about the same things they have been kvetching about for the last twenty years, unwilling or unable to face the solution....

* J Michael Cole has a good discussion of the nuke vs conventional issue over at the China Policy Institute.

UPDATE: Laorencha rants:
And it kind of horrifies me that while Beijing is decidedly losing the charm offensive, the soft-power push, to win over the Taiwanese people (which honestly is simply not going to happen, now or ever), they seem to be winning the push to brainwash expat and "foreign policy expert" bloviators.
East Asia Observer has a different view, good stuff in there.
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Anonymous said...

Thanks Michael, for your views from Taiwan. Where do the Chinese find guys like Mearsheimer to push their barrow.
So much like out of the wu mao" text book with terms like "unification" etc.
nice piece

Jeremy said...

Some great pieces and links today, Michael. Good work.

Jenna Cody said...

I've had so much trouble even insisting that instead of "reunification" people should use "unification" (I don't constantly beat that drum but I won't let "reunification" slip by unchallenged) - for the simple fact that there's no "re-", the two countries were never one.

I wonder what would happen if I started insisting on "expansion and annexation" instead. I think I'll try and find out. :)

I agree about the ruddy foreigners in expat bars. I've met more than a few. They get reeeeaaaaaaal condescending when you dare to disagree with their "educated, realistic" ideas about "foreign policy", especially if you're a young-looking woman (yes, I am implying their is sexism in their attitudes. Yes, I'll probably get eviscerated for same. I don't care - it's what I think is happening and I stand by that observation).

Which is why you will rarely find me in an expat bar, or talking to said ruddy foreigners.

In fact, your side of things has more supporters among expats than you may realize, it's just that those of us who agree with you on these issues aren't the ones you'll meet at the meat markets.

Iago de Otto said...

Bravo and kudos your way, Michael. Excellent stuff.

Anonymous said...

Mearsheimer's scribblings are run-of-the-mill smack penned by an academic drawing on circa 1980 textbooks and outdated Internet research. But at the end of the day, slop such as his is exactly what the KMT, oops, I meant the "government," wants to see published abroad. The less the international community knows about the real condition of Taiwan and strict adherence to former Vice President Lien Chan's Journey of Peace agreement, the better it is for those enjoying the spoils of surrender in the dying days of the ROC.

Nathan W. Novak (李漢聲) said...

Myself critical of Mearsheimer's "offensive realist" theory, I do have to state that, for the record, Mearsheimer, in _The Tragedy of Great Power Politics_, writes (in the concluding chapter, if you have the 2001 copy) that the United States, based on his theory, should work to contain China similarly to how it worked to contain the Soviet Union. So, "Anonymous," I don't think Mearsheimer is writing for the Chinese and I think he is actually quite critical of the U.S. strategy of engagement. In several articles, he's been quite critical of liberal institutionalism, which pushes from a theoretical perspective to engage countries economically in order to alter their behavior and bind them to the established international order in order to constrain "revisionist" activities. U.S. China policy has taken several pages from the liberal-institutionalist book and, as Thomas Christensen has written, potentially aided in the "creat[ion of] a monster."

I think Mearsheimer deserves criticism--what academic doesn't deserve that? What academic doesn't need that? What academic doesn't want that? But I do think some of the criticism should be fair. I didn't read his "Goodbye" in the sense that "goodbye" means one chooses to let go of a long-time lover due to some painful void in their otherwise fruitful relationship that for one reason or another could not be overcome; Mearsheimer's theory, which is what the article is about, really, is far too void of emotionally driven value judgments for such a conclusion. Instead, I took "Goodbye" here to mean the "goodbye" a child says to a parent while Mom and Dad are going through a separation and visiting time with that parent is up or the "goodbye" one says to a loved one after he or she has passed away--both experiences of which I've had (and actually all three, if you include the separation with a long-time significant other, above, as an third example); they are different. The former is based on a decision, and the latter is based on the lack of an ability to alter the situation--this latter is, I take it (based on my readings of several of Mearsheimer's other works), is Mearsheimer's real meaning. But perhaps my interpretation is erroneous?

Either way, it doesn't take an expert to realize that Taiwan's is a very precarious situation. And Mearsheimer's argument is quite different from those espoused by, among others, William Overholt, Michael Swaine, David Shambaugh, Bruce Gilley, Charles Glaser, and the like, who tend to argue that the United States should abandon Taiwan as a conciliatory gesture to quench Beijing's revisionist thirst. (I think developments, especially since 2010, have shown these arguments to be bunk, but then again, this is not Mearsheimer's argument. His approach is different from the liberals--Overholt and Shambaugh especially--and defensive realists--e.g., Glaser.) Just my two cents.

Michael Turton said...

Thanks Nathan, but as I said in the piece, Mearsheimer doesn't understand the problem, and thus this piece is not insightful and provocative. It's the same shit one usually hears....


Nathan W. Novak (李漢聲) said...

You're more than entitled to your own opinion and certainly at your own personal blog. My comment was directed more at the "Anonymous" commentator arguing that Mearsheimer was a PRC lackey or whatever. I do think it important to make distinctions between arguments even if their conclusions are similar. Call me a pedant if you want. I am a student of these arguments, so they are important to me. And I do see some glaring differences in Mearsheimer's theory from those of others even though certain aspects are similar. But again, he's a theorist interested in theory, as nauseating as that may be to some.

Good day.~

Jenna Cody said...

What worries me is that the more people who get on this "realist" (which isn't very realistic at all - or at least, it twists a lot of situations to fit the "realist" conclusion) bandwagon, the more it will be accepted as the obvious truth (more than it already is thought to be) and only possible future (which it definitely is not). You know, 三人成虎 and all that.

Michael Turton said...

. I do think it important to make distinctions between arguments even if their conclusions are similar

Youre right, I probably should have done that better...

Iago de Otto said...

"It is simply impossible, for example, to know what Germany’s or Japan’s intentions will be toward their neighbors in 2025." (from Say Goodbye to Taiwan)

Why Germany and Japan? Why not, oh, Vietnam and El Salvador? Or even Burkina Faso and Kiribati? Isn't everyone concerned with how simple the impossibility of knowing the intentions Burkina Faso will harbor toward Mali or Togo in another ten years or so, or what the hell Kiribati is gonna be up to in Nauru or New Zealand tomorrow, for that matter?

Iago de Otto said...

"No Americans, for example, worry that Canada or Mexico will attack the United States, because neither of those countries is strong enough to contemplate a fight with Uncle Sam." (from Say Goodbye to Taiwan)

There is of course the soft-power threat of moral corruption that Canada's existence poses to the United States, as evidenced by "Terrance & Phillip: Asses of Fire," so perhaps the US should not fret merely over hegemonic might and had best attack and decimate Canada, and Mexico too, why not, as soon as possible and before all is lost to a plague of American kids talking all naughty and stuff.

Nathan W. Novak (李漢聲) said...

Anyway, Michael, I too am quite critical of Mearsheimer's theory and his article. My point is just that a) in response to some, he is not writing for the PRC and is simply highly critical of U.S. engagement of China and b) his is a different argument from the "abandon Taiwan" crowd. His theory should argue that the United States strengthen ties with Taiwan to contain China, but since the United States hasn't, this is probably Taiwan's be option (according to his theory). Far different from, for example, Glaser's argument.

I've made several responses at my place if you or your readers are interested. I accept constructive and on-topic comments, so feel free to hammer away: http://eastasiaobserver.wordpress.com/.

Michael Turton said...

is theory should argue that the United States strengthen ties with Taiwan to contain China, but since the United States hasn't, this is probably Taiwan's be option (according to his theory). Far different from, for example, Glaser's argument.

Well, for me, as I noted in the text, all of these "arguments" engage the reader by shearing away the reality of Chinese territorial expansion. That was the link for me between all these writers. I'll put a link in the text to your blog piece.


Nathan W. Novak (李漢聲) said...

". . . shearing away the reality of Chinese territorial expansion."

I would agree with you if you were talking about the liberal institutionalists (of the Overholt and Shambaugh variety) and the defensive realists (Glaser especially), but Mearsheimer is arguing in his theory that Chinese territorial expansionism is inevitable and that the United States should do all in its power (that is, if the United States seeks to remain the most powerful state in the international system) to preclude that. Since America hasn't done this--his criticism of engagement--it is condoning Chinese expansionism. If America chooses to ignore his theory's logic, he argues, this is inevitable; and it seems that the United States has ignored his theory's logic at its own peril and at the peril of its allies and security partners. Asia, then, is ipso facto China's to do with as it wants.

Thanks for the shout. Happy to discuss this further with anyone who takes interest in it.

vin said...

The article is certainly, as Michael put it, “blandly abstract” and full of untruths and of key context sheared away. But Nathan’s points seem right, too; and on balance, Mearsheimer perhaps has done more good than harm with this article by loosening some of the remaining clinging to the economic-engagement perspective.

But I think he, too, gets economic matters wrong – and from a realist perspective, too --, with this paragraph:

"THERE IS one set of circumstances under which Taiwan can avoid this scenario. Specifically, all Taiwanese should hope there 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. If that happens, China will not be in a position to pursue regional hegemony and the United States will be able to protect Taiwan from China, as it does now. In essence, the best way for Taiwan to maintain de facto independence is for China to be economically and militarily weak. Unfortunately for Taiwan, it has no way of influencing events so that this outcome actually becomes reality."

The paragraph presents the idea of a slowdown in Chinese growth as happening in a vacuum; there could be a slowdown in Chinese growth and an even greater long stall in the American economy and other economies. And which country is least likely to halt increases in military spending in such a case?

More important, no one can say for sure that an extended economic slowdown in China won’t, for PRC domestic reasons, put Taiwan more, not less, at risk – and sooner than Mearsheimer thinks. The CCP will likely do whatever it takes to stay in power, and “focusing inward’ is, historically, more a tried-and-failed approach than a sound strategy for such purposes. Risking war would certainly be on the table as an option if the party feels its hold on power is in jeopardy.

For example, among other things, the push to ADIZ-ize the oceans around itself is likely designed for increasing options for dealing with domestic threats to CCP power: distracting military conflict could be initiated in any of a variety of places against a variety of foes. Less obviously, a further benefit of an ADIZ is the option of not enforcing it – of letting it become an empty concept (at least for a while) – in exchange for others’ de facto neutrality on China’s designs on Taiwan. In short, it appears that the PRC is creating a military menu of options for itself in part as insurance for the party’s hold on power specifically because of the possibility of extended economic slowdown; which could easily mean heightened, not lessened, danger for Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Michael Turton said...

it appears that the PRC is creating a military menu of options for itself in part as insurance for the party’s hold on power specifically because of the possibility of extended economic slowdown; which could easily mean heightened, not lessened, danger for Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Yes, good observation.

Readin said...

I think Mearsheimer provides a service by taking a very non-emotional amoral look at the situation. This is valuable not because it dictates what we should do, but because it tells us what many people (who don't share our morals) will want to do, and it gives a clearer understanding of what our options are.

That he did his job well is indicated by the weakness of Michael Turton's criticisms. The "small points" are really non-existent. He criticize the notion that "and according to President Obama, Washington “fully supports a one-China policy.”" Well so far as I can tell based on our refusal to recognize Taiwan, America does support "A" one-China policy. And even if you disagree with me, Obama has indeed said we do. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/nov/17/obama-affirms-one-china-policy/

Michael Turton complains about the statement that Chinese elites and the Chinese public hold Chinese oppression of Taiwan as a "sacred" duty. I tend to agree that at one time the Chinese didn't feel that way and that it is only through decades of training from their elites that they not feel that way. But today's elites were trained by yesterdays elites just like the rest of the Chinese public was. I'm sure a lot of modern Chinese elites see through the nonsense, but I'm just as sure that many more don't.

The complaint that Mearsheimer didn't contextualize that Chinese nonsense by providing the proper counter-argument is pretty weak too. I think Mearsheimer expected his audience to be educated enough that he could focus on facts that affect and effect his argument.

Readin said...

"The nuclear option is not feasible, as neither China nor the United States would accept a nuclear-armed Taiwan." Does Taiwan have to ask permission? Could they just secretly buy a nuke from someplace like N. Korea, India or Pakistan?

"They are wrong. By trading with China and helping it grow into an economic powerhouse, Taiwan has helped create a burgeoning Goliath with revisionist goals that include ending Taiwan’s independence and making it an integral part of China. In sum, a powerful China isn’t just a problem for Taiwan. It is a nightmare." I think he's very correct here. Perhaps a beginning of a solution is to recognize that a growing China isn't necessarily a good thing for anyone around them, including America.

"THERE IS one set of circumstances under which Taiwan can avoid this scenario. Specifically, all Taiwanese should hope there 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."
I think he's too pessimistic here. Taiwan could use its cultural influence to try to change attitudes in China. This would not be easy - and will remain impossible while Taiwanese keep choosing pro-China leaders and weak incompetent pro-Taiwan leaders. But given a strong good leader, willing to do things like enforcing laws against foreign (Chinese) ownership of local media and like promoting Taiwan abroad, Taiwan might have a chance to change opinions in both China and America.

Michael Turton said...

He criticize the notion that "and according to President Obama, Washington “fully supports a one-China policy.”" Well so far as I can tell based on our refusal to recognize Taiwan, America does support "A" one-China policy. And even if you disagree with me, Obama has indeed said we do. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/nov/17/obama-affirms-one-china-policy/

The "small point" that Taiwan is not part of China is the basis of US policy.


Nathan W. Novak (李漢聲) said...

Readin's first comment, beginning with "I think Mearsheimer provides a service . . .," is perceptive because it picks right up from Mearsheimer's actual theory (a projection of what would happen were the situation to continue to unfold as it has been unfolding) and goes off from my original statements about the theory in general.

However, I do think that, from the wording of the Shanghai Communique even to Clinton's "Three Nos," adding in the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. position is inherently ambiguous and is ambiguous enough to justify just about any conclusion about U.S. loyalties. We also have to remember that while the Chinese want Washington to continue to articulate such mantras, they all originated in a particular historical context (when Taiwan was still under Chinese KMT rule; to argue that Taiwan was separate from China in 1971, for example, would have pissed Chiang Kai-shek right off as well regardless of the millions of Taiwanese at that time who could not voice an opinion on the issue) even to 1997, in the middle of the growing independence sentiments and the scare that took place just a year or two prior. I don't think Washington takes any real position--just don't get us entrapped in a war. Hence, strategic ambiguity.

Nathan W. Novak (李漢聲) said...

Only because we're discussing this @Readin': http://cogitasia.com/china-must-cease-willful-distortion-of-u-s-policy-toward-taiwan/