Monday, October 03, 2011

Arthur Waldron on Taiwan, China, the US, and the future

Waldron wrote the following for:
2011 TNSI International Symposium on the Regional Security of Asia Pacific and Peace in the Taiwan Strait.  Wednesday, September 7, 2011. 9:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Ambassador Hotel Taipei in Taiwan 
It was picked up by a local blogger who apparently typed it up; Waldron sent around this corrected version. I post it here with his permission and my pleasure. To make the font larger just hit CTRL+.

The product of forty years of observation, this letter has some useful and important insights.


Esteemed colleagues and friends,

I trust this finds you well.  You did me a very great honour by inviting me to your meeting in early September.  Sadly that fell exactly in the first week of classes at Penn so I could not possibly attend, which was a great disappointment.  Then I thought of writing a paper, but I am busy with a book so I finally decided that a more informal letter could nevertheless convey what I feel needs to be said.

Immediate Concerns:

Autocratic China’s ever-increasing entanglement with the free world is my chief source of worry.  We have now reached the point where freedom is being restricted in various places (e.g. in Indonesia, over the Falungong radio station) out of deference to China.  In the West we have “Confucius Institutes” and “Confucius Classrooms” where the tendentious P.R.C. version of Chinese civilization and history is taught.  These in turn endanger real scholars and their independence, as is increasingly clear on campuses where administrations, eager for money, tend to assume that anyone with a Chinese face knows more about that country than any Westerner, no matter how learned.  The leading Chinese-language newspapers in the United States are effectively controlled by China.  We have substantial inserts in English-language newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post paid for by Beijing.  Taiwan no longer speaks up robustly for freedom.  With people like Ambassador Chas Freeman and Admiral Owens now tied into the Chinese monetary rewards system, the Chinese government is increasingly influential in internal American decision-making processes.

Now the talk is whether or not to go on supporting Taiwan.  China threatens unspecified “fiscal measures” to punish the United States for Taiwan arms sales, though these are already substantially held up by officials in Washington who are worried lest the fa├žade of normal relations between China and the United States should begin to crack.  For the first time in thirty years, foreign policy commentators have begun to discuss whether friendship with Taiwan is an asset or a liability.

The thirty two years since the U.S. and China established relations have taken their toll on relations with Taiwan.  China may not be in any way genuinely wealthy, but the government has enough money to wield influence.  Furthermore, even as Taiwan studies have emerged as a distinct academic area (good news) the rising generation of Asian specialists is less likely to have visited or studied in Taiwan.  Many know only simplified characters.  The tendency is to assume that one way or another Taiwan will join China rather as Hong Kong did.

Finally we have the lesson of the Ma administration’s attempts to reconcile with China, and in so doing also follow pretty much the path that many in Washington have long wished a Taiwan government to follow.  Remarkable to me is how little concrete Taiwan has gotten out of this.  China is unwilling to make substantive concessions, but seeks rather to manage Taiwan more and more, while continuing her military build up and her attempts to cut Taiwan off from the world community and trade, unless mediated through Beijing.  China has not really reciprocated Ma’s efforts.  Perhaps more significantly, neither has the United States.  I do not suspect his efforts will be crowned with success over arms sales.  Both take him as a useful transitional figure, who will bring the two countries that much closer to merger.  Little sense exists that Taiwan has value in herself, as a democracy and as a strategic ally and that Taiwan’s president should be supported in the interests not least of better cross straits relations.

Nor is there much understanding of how intertwined are Japanese and Taiwanese interests.  Almost any attack on Taiwan would involve violating Japanese territory (in the north and east) while the loss of Taiwan would strip [[Japan] of a crucial buffer and constrict her strategic space.

For now Washington is focused on somehow salvaging a relationship with China, rather than on improving her relations with her proven and democratic friends in Asia.  This is most unwise, but not surprising.  “China” has a deep hold on the American subconscious.

If present trends are simply extrapolated, then, we all have much reason for concern.  That said, the situation is in endless flux and my own belief is that if Taiwan can focus on her own interests, avoid damaging political division, and keep on having elections, then she will survive.  I have often said that I expect in twenty years that an elected president and legislature will still exist in Taiwan, while what shape China will have no one can say.

Changing Medium and Long Term Trends:

Many people today are profoundly impressed by China: not only by her rebuilt cities with their forests of skyscrapers, luxury shops and fashionable restaurants, but also by her developmental model.  I find it astonishing how we are able to carry on routine relations with China even as that country is torturing dissidents and groups such as the Turks and the Tibetans, constraining the press ever more tightly, and still relying on a manipulated exchange rate to underpin her export advantages.  No question exists in my mind that the leadership in Beijing has been surprised by “their” success (more a product of getting out of the way and letting ordinary people get ahead).  This is reflected in their more confident and monitory tone in addressing the world; in the sense that it is time to make some waves, change some rules, acquire some more territory—and to discipline e.g.  the United States and Japan.

The seemingly impressive success is nowhere near so complete as it seems.  Growth and employment even in prosperous areas are increasingly sustained by the use of borrowed money to pay for “investment” that is counted as an increment of GDP.  More than fifty percent of China’s growth rate now has such a source.  Furthermore, much of this investment involves wasted capital.  Economic decisions are not made rationally but rather by fiat influenced by political needs and as I have argued elsewhere (in my lectures at Tokyo University last year) China’s actual production remains wasteful of resources and inefficient.  The artificially cheap currency is what sustains exports.

We know that substantial dissatisfaction exists with the system.  We have now reached the stage where named dissidents and regime critics are known in the outside world.  We know also that hundreds of millions of Chinese continue to live in abject poverty.  We know that demonstrations and riots against the authorities number something like 200,000 per year.  I believe that the present system cannot be sustained indefinitely and will have to change—either through planned reform, or through breakdown and disorder.  Both of these inescapable choices are highly unwelcome to the current ruling class, which is why I continue to maintain that China’s greatest challenges lie in the future.

The Chinese authorities have no plan for dealing e.g. with freeing of speech and establishment of responsible government.  As a Chinese writer put it so aptly after the horrible Wenzhou train crash, we Chinese are all passengers on a high-speed train that is going very fast, on unproven track, toward a destination that has never been specified.  No official in China has ever said where “reform” is intended to take the country.

Furthermore, elite opinion in China is clearly divided.  We saw that in the incident of the Confucius statue in Tiananmen Square.  First it appeared.  That meant that a long planning process had been followed, the statue designed, its placement determined (if it had been originally intended for the Museum, it could have been sent directly), a planning process that almost certainly involved the highest officials in the land.  That means there was a pro-statue faction.  But then the statue was removed.  That means that an anti-statue faction existed or emerged strong enough to reverse an original, carefully deliberated, and long term decision.

We may expect, then, a period of uncertainty and transition in China, with possible social unrest, political factionalism, and so forth, even including violence.  My fear is that Japan, Taiwan, and other countries will become so closely tied to China that they will be destabilized too when China is, rather than being buffered.

This period of transition will have effects around the world and across Asia.  These will be major but at present imponderable.  Few governments—certainly not that of the United States—have considered how they will react when the present shaky equilibrium gives way.  We still treat China as a monolith and put all too much credence in what the current leadership says, while ignoring obvious trends.  One of these days Washington will receive conflicting messages from different factions in Beijing.  No one, I think, has any idea what we will do.  Taiwan’s government, too, tends in my opinion to expect China to continue more or less as she is now, indefinitely.  What will Taipei do when like Washington they face conflicting demands and suggestions from China? All of this will lead to substantial disorder in Asia and the world.

In Tokyo and Taipei skyscrapers are designed to survive major earthquakes.  The policies of Taiwan and Japan should similarly be designed to survive whatever ripples of instability propagate out from China in the years ahead.

Recent Developments:

Last year I spoke of the “new conditions” existing in Asia as the result of a fundamental shift in Chinese policy to external activity, policing, enforcing claims, and so forth.  This year, I think, the existence of those “new conditions” will begin to be accepted by Washington—and I hope by the Taiwan government—no doubt unwillingly.  How the recognition that China has qualitatively changed her approach will affect Taipei and Washington is the single most important question to be followed in the years ahead.

For forty years American policy has been based on a conviction that when all was said and done China and the United States would be friends.  The only problem separating them, as China repeatedly insisted, was Taiwan—and a belief that this was the case led many policy-makers to marginalize Taiwan in the interests, as they imagined, of the China relationship.

Since the arrival of the Ma administration, Taipei has cooperated more closely with both Beijing and Washington than any previous Taiwan government.  The Ma assumptions have been effectively those of the United States: That China was fundamentally a status quo power destined for a “responsible stakeholder”[1] role in Asia, which meant that cross strait relations could be opened up and the military downgraded without any actual threat to Taiwan’s security and democracy.

Now in a little over twelve months all of that has changed and the so-called “Washington Consensus” is shambles.  From our point of view, the question is how long it will take Washington and Taipei to recognize this fact, for the roots of this policy are deep and go back very far.  Some quite literally can imagine no other.

No longer is Taiwan the only issue.  Instead the entire 648,000 square miles of the South China Sea have been claimed by China as a sovereign “core interest.” China has once again begun to interfere with American operations in international water and air space.  Already relentless pressure against Japan has been increased.  Vietnam is alarmed.  Even the Philippines, who without thinking broke their alliance with the United States decades ago, are now scrambling to defend themselves as China claims their offshore islands.  India is concerned about many things including the clear pattern of Chinese base building around her and the permission China has obtained for seabed exploration in the Indian Ocean.  Whether the United States, and China’s neighbours, and Taiwan like it or not, these actions represent a clear long term shift in China’s policies.

This change is already having effects.  Joseph Nye (b.  1937) published an article earlier this year in which, while acknowledging that China’s new policy was beginning to create a countervailing coalition against her, he nevertheless counseled continuing openness, trade, and engagement.[2] As a friend noted to me, the article effectively asserts that enmity between the United States and China is impossible: that she will be our friend whether she likes it or not.  This is not a tenable position.  If China wants to make trouble, she will and we cannot stop her.

At about the same time Henry Kissinger (b. 1923) published, On China, a book that, as I pointed out in a review in the Weekly Standard,[3] is permeated by a deep pessimism about the possibility of Chinese-American friendship absent the common enemy of the Soviet Union, indeed apprehensive about conflict.  This is remarkable coming from the pen of a man whose greatest achievement was the Chinese-American rapprochement of the 1970s, and who is personally very sympathetic to the P.R.C., which, among other things, has made him rich.

Kissinger’s pessimism, however, is supported by China’s rush to develop access denial strategies against United States forces and “assassin's mace” weapons to cripple U.S.  capabilities.  These developments, feeding into the consciousness of the United States governing establishment, will inescapably lead to changes in American policy.

Nor has any diminution been discernible in the ongoing Chinese build up against Taiwan.  I often reflect what a boost Ma would have received if China had pulled back her missiles upon his election (militarily not a very meaningful gesture, though it would increase warning time).  But China is incapable of making any gesture that actually reduces her coercive power; only symbolism and talk are acceptable.  Now, as Ma’s election chances look increasingly uncertain, rumours are that China is seeking to persuade the United States to offer visa-free access to Taiwan nationals, in order to help Taiwan’s president.  The big gestures she could make are never carried out, because her long-term policy is to make small gestures to keep Taiwanese happy, while undermining the country’s security position, by cutting off arms supplies from America and excluding her from trade.

Many in Taiwan see this as a “pro-blue” policy by China but it is not.  Their goal is to have their Chinese run Taiwan, as they do Hong Kong.  The blues are simply seen as the more useful interlocuters for now, to be discarded in favour of fully pro-China personnel when the situation makes it possible.  China has little use for a Ma, or a Lien Chan, or a James Soong, except as transitional figures, to be used and then discarded when the time comes.

As I see it, the greatest geopolitical danger right now to Taiwan is that she will be drawn into some sort of “cooperative” policy on behalf of the abstract “China” to claim the South China Sea and other disputed territories for the People’s Republic.  In her interests Taiwan is in fact no different from Japan or Korea or the ASEAN countries—she should not wish Chinese influence over her to increase.  But Chinese nationalism, and a self-deceiving belief that the P.R.C. will somehow recognize Taiwanese—especially those born in China or having Chinese parents—as somehow equal—are an intoxicating brew.  In fact China does not share any sort of power or recognition of status and rights with her own people, so how could one reasonably expect her to extend such recognition to people who are in some sense their adversaries?

My sense is that the tide of Chinese assertion and confrontational policy is now running faster than the attempts at self-deception in Taipei and Washington. What this means is that, perhaps in the course of the coming year, both capitals will begin to recognize the change in China’s policy and the need to react to it.  This has still not happened in the United States, where we pursue, like ardent suitors, meaningless military to military contacts with China, giving up real interests to get them.  Washington theorists are still full of ideas about U.S. Chinese cooperation.  Indeed, this is the first year in decades that serious talk has begun about Taiwan as an obstacle, an unwanted friend that should be discarded.  Worrying as I find such talk, I believe it will be overwhelmed fairly soon by the reality of e.g.  ever more tense Japanese-Chinese, Indian-Chinese, Vietnamese-Chinese, Philippine-Chinese, including American-Chinese relations.

To sum up, the international context of China-Taiwan relations is rapidly changing.  The question that follows is, what should Taiwan do?

How Should Taiwan Navigate?

Realistically I see no chance that Taiwan will be able to win, in the short run, over the increasing tendency to state that she is part of China—after all, a version of that view is espoused by her own government.  Nor do I think that the current flag of convenience, the Republic of China, can or should be changed abruptly.  My reasoning is as follows.  Every day that Taiwan remains in fact independent of China—and the elapsed time is now approaching seventy years—seems to me to increase the possibility that Taiwan will eventually emerge free.  The challenge is not to increase that international freedom now—the world situation will permit only small, symbolic moves—but rather to ensure that it is not compromised by unwise statements or actions by the current government.

I would urge strong action in two areas.  The first is in the redirection of international focus to the fact that Taiwan is a democracy and the only one in the world of huaren.  This is an enormous achievement, and although it is threatened every day by arbitrary government actions, such as the selective prosecution of some figures while the deeply corrupt Kuomintang escapes scrutiny, I believe it will be maintained.  Too many people see Taiwan only in a geopolitical way.  They have to see what has happened in Taiwan as part and parcel of the century old transformation that has made so much of the world democratic—and left China an outlier.  Taiwan must not be afraid to condemn human rights abuses in China, to provide support to democrats and dissidents, to speak out confidently in favour of a free system.  No delicacy must be entertained about “not hurting China’s feelings.”

Second, Taiwan must continue to prepare to defend its sovereignty without American help.  I believe that the U.S.  will not abandon its Asian alliance system, with Japan as the keystone, and of which Taiwan is in effect a part.  But support for that system in the United States is being undermined by rivers of Chinese money and the emergence of a generation of China specialists who do not know Taiwan, as my generation did, having been trained entirely in China.  This means that Taiwan must push ahead with her indigenous systems, her development of a non-nuclear decisive weapon and delivery system, and so forth.  The military budget must increase if this is to be achieved.

To these two major concerns I would add the need constantly to diversify trading partners, particularly in the Asia of which Taiwan is a part, and to eliminate needless obstacles to good relations with the United States (beef, for example).

I would stress in particular the paramount importance of relations with Japan.  On these the Ma administration has spoken in contradictory ways.  We must recognize that the Okinawa area and the islands to the south, with Yonaguni only sixty miles from Taiwan, are critical to the security of both countries, even as they are increasingly challenged by China.  Every level of cooperation with Japan, including joint security consultations and intelligence sharing, must be widened and deepened.  The more closely Taiwan is involved in Japan’s security, the closer she is to the United States, for I do not expect any change in the words of the Tokyo-Washington alliance.

With the United States, as I suggested last year, intelligence cooperation is Taiwan’s strongest card. It must be played carefully, but in fact what the U.S.  learns through working with Taiwan is essential to both countries and cannot be replaced, easily or at all.

The Immediate Political Future:

How to explain all of this in the coming electoral campaigns is a great challenge.  The current opposition must appear to be reasonable and capable and competent.  One can stress the desirability of good relations with China without accepting a “one China framework”—whatever that means—but self-possession, sweet reason, and openness are the traits to stress.

Many Americans still view the Kuomintang as the “natural party of rule” in Taiwan.  The opposition must so position itself that it will be seen, both by Taiwanese voters and by the U.S.  as a plausible and entirely trustworthy alternate party of government.  Satisfying theatrical gestures, if they are to prove unsuccessful or counterproductive, must be avoided.  Confidence in the judgment and competence of the opposition is the chief requirement.  This requires, at least for the U.S., what my late grandmother called the “ice cream treatment”—sweet and cool.

Taiwan is no more divided politically than is the United States.  But because Taiwan is not an acknowledged legitimate member of the international community, division is far more dangerous.  That is because rather than occurring within an agreed national constitutional framework, debate is rather about what that constitutional structure and international status should be.  Such an argument is like a game played on a field without foul lines and goals.  It is a game about what those lines and goals should be.  As such it can be extremely volatile.

I would urge the opposition to stress the need for prudence in dealing with China, as well as focusing on the bread and butter domestic issues that are likely to be the key to the election.  I know a certain amount about China and Taiwan internationally, but would not presume to say much about Taiwan’s domestic affairs.  The goal should be to build stronger and stronger democratic political and fair legal institutions.

Remember that by late winter and early spring of next year the regional situation may well be in flux.  China is over-extending herself and provoking hostility from states that long sough to be her friends.  I am not sure that everyone in China supports this policy—it comes in waves (such as the ramming of the Japanese coast guard vessels) followed by troughs during which little happens and diplomatic mending is attempted.  This dangerous foreign policy is furthermore matched by a policy of repression at home that threatens to make China herself increasingly unmanageable.

In other words, medium and long term trends favour Taiwan, even if short term setbacks are regular.  No one can upend Taiwan’s democracy except internal players in Taiwan.  In this election I hope that stress will be laid on what a substantial and solid achievement this democracy is, and on the need to defend it.  It can be defended, and Taiwan can prosper into the future, provided her government keeps a steady course and focuses on national interests.  No arrangement with China will be worth the paper it is written on, as China herself is headed for change, and effort should not be wasted seeking one.

In closing may I express my deep admiration for the responsible and patriotic work that all of you do.  I wish very much that I could be with you—nothing energizes me more than a visit to Taiwan, which has changed so much and so positively since my student days forty years ago.  I wish you the very best of luck.  If I can be of any use in any way, do not hesitate to be in contact.

With my deep and sincere good wishes to all.

Sincerely yours,
Arthur Waldron
Lauder Professor of International Relations
University of Pennsylvania


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Dixteel said...

Wow, long and impressive work. This is a rare gem from the US academia.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Dr. Waldron. Sometimes, it is better to get a clearer view from a third party. Of course, it depends whether the insiders are willing to accept or understand the views from the outside.