Monday, January 20, 2014

Clarifying the Cross Strait Situation, Redux: Etzioni in The Diplomat

A Yanshui Street corner.

Amitai Etzioni, longtime international affairs expert, writes on the strategic ambiguity of the US commitment to Taiwan in The Diplomat....
True, even if the restraint both sides imposed on themselves (and on their respective hawks) is made more explicit, either side could violate it. However, the more explicit the agreement the less likely is that it will be subject to misunderstandings and the more likely it is to survive. It may well be impossible at this stage to turn the implicit understanding, such as there is – if there is one – into an explicit one; however, the more than it can be clarified and solidified, the more this important simmering point of conflict can be assuaged.

I am quite aware of the theories of the merits of “creative ambiguities”; they can enable one to squeeze extra leverage out of the relatively small amounts of power. In East Asia, however, they are much more likely to produce miscalculations and conflicts than significant gains.

Finally, reducing the tension on this issue would help to narrow the differences between the U.S. and China, especially if integrated into a more general policy of mutually assured restraint. That would encourage both states to focus on the many issues in which they have shared or complementary interests.
This is a common argument, and if the reader feels like searching the internet, many iterations of the call for clarifying or removing the ambiguity in the US commitment may be found over the years. The reason that such a move has never been made, however, is obvious: it's a really bad idea. Ambiguity serves the needs of all three governments and defuses tension, whereas clarity would lead inevitably to confrontation and increased tension.

To understand what would really happen, one only needs to look at other (bogus) territorial claims of China, such as Arunachal Pradesh, the Senkakus, and the South China Sea. In each of those cases, the sovereignty of the current possessor and the demands of China's manufactured claim are both clear, meeting Etzioni's demand for clarity. The result is that each claim is a zero-sum game which China treats as non-negotiable, meaning that each of these claims is in a state of permanent tension which cannot be resolved. Indeed, in the South China Sea violence has already occurred, most notably in the 1970s when China annexed 24 Vietnamese islands. It seems sometimes that IR theorists like Etzioni are unable to see China for the belligerent, intransigent, expanionist power that it is, and are thus unable to see the consequences of its positions clearly. Instead their theoretical frameworks fog over the grim reality.

In the Senkakus the situation is crystal clear: we have an exact analogy for Taiwan, a foreign territory, Japan, backed by the US with strong and periodically renewed clarity. Everyone knows that the Senkakus are currently Japanese, that China wants to annex them, and that the US will defend them.

Note first that the Senkaku situation is one marked by massive and escalating tension, one which increasingly appears will lead to war within a few years. Clarity has not lead to relaxation of tension; quite the opposite. It has lead to an increase and a polarization of tension.

The Senkakus also make clear another issue with clarity of commitment. Etzioni argues...
So this might be seen as a basis for an implicit agreement. We oppose a declaration of independence; China forgoes the use of force.”
...except that Etzioni doesn't make clear the clearly scary corollary of clear commitment: if China does use force, the US has to respond with force. D'oh. Last year China promulgated an illegal ADIZ over Japanese territory. This compelled the US to take action, to fly B-52s into the airspace to show Beijing that the US commitment remained and that its claims were bogus. Once the US clarifies its position on Taiwan, it no longer has wiggle room. The President's hands are tied. And what President wants that?

Clarity on the Senkakus also raises another issue: once you have clear lines, they are subject to the relentless nibbling that characterizes China's long-term strategy. The ADIZ is a good example of China constantly pushing, little by little, at the edges of the policy, forcing Japan to respond, which in turn enables China to label Tokyo "provocative" (astonishingly, Tokyo's PR campaign is even more inept than Beijing's). In the Taiwan situation Beijing does not have the leverage of clear lines. It has no idea what might happen and nothing to grab onto. This is one factor among many that leads, ironically, to restraint.

Finally, Etzioni fails to see why Beijing would never agree to such a deal, because something is missing from his writing: the people of Taiwan. Like so many in Washington, Etzioni imagines that the Taiwan issue is a Washington-Beijing issue, and can be addressed by joint action among the High and Mighty without paying any attention to the people of Taiwan, who, in the kind of realpolitik calculus that drives Washington thinking, exist, at best, merely to be betrayed. But of course this is rank nonsense. The starting point to any discussion of Whither Taiwan? has to be how the locals will react. Beijing understands this very well, Washington, not at all, as Etzioni's omission shows.

To accept a clear situation in which Beijing agrees not to use force if Washington doesn't back independence is, in essence, to accept an independent Taiwan. Taiwan doesn't want to be part of China; the only thing keeping Beijing in the local discussion is its threat to murder and maim the people of Taiwan if they don't annex themselves to China. Without the threat of war, Taiwan will simply (continue to) go its own way and will never voluntarily annex itself to China. Even Ma's pro-China policies are made possible only by the understanding that Beijing is underpinning Ma's strategies with its own threat of force. Beijing understands this perfectly, and thus, would never accept such a commitment. This whole discussion is pointless.

Further, the US already doesn't support Taiwan independence. What exactly does Beijing gain from a promise for the US to do something it is already doing without any horse trading?

No, the current lack of clarity suits everyone. It gives all three sides space to present to their domestic populations that everything is ok: Beijing can promise its rabid nationalists that annexation of Taiwan is, like fusion power, inevitable and always just around the corner, Taipei can promise its people that big brother in DC is going to watch over them, and the US can promise its people that confrontation is minimized and we haven’t promised to send good US boys to die in Asia again. It also permits both Beijing and Washington to pretend they are not in confrontation over Taiwan, relaxing tensions.

A little.
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nostalgiphile said...

I really fail to see how the "current lack of clairity suits everyone." It probably suits the US and it may suit China, but I seriously doubt it suits Taiwan.

It's almost like you're saying 'be like that girl who's such a tease and flirt with both boys (China/Taiwan).' Boy A can go tell his buddies, yeah, 'she likes me the most' and Boy B can do the same. Meanwhile, Ms. Strategically Ambiguous can go on stringing the boys along, saying, "oh, you're both delightful, I love you both!"

Unfortunately, as in real life there will come a day when the boys get fed up and say look, which of us do you really like? And then what? Taiwan gets a bloody nose or a broken heart. Maybe both.

Also, you really jump the gun when you say "the US already doesn't support Taiwan independence", as if that's written in stone or is some bedrock of US policy toward Taiwan. Well, it isn't, far from it, and that's exactly the problem. Nobody knows what the US will do if Taiwan declares independence (or, more likely, signs up for unification) and that's why Etzioni thinks "strategic ambiguity" is a dangerous game to play with our allies.

Also, the current "ambiguous" situation makes it very easy for the KMT to make a push for unification since it increasingly appears the US doesn't really give a damn (due to its "strategic ambiguity"--easily misinterpreted as "carefully not giving a damn"). And why shouldn't they? If, as you say, independence is really off the table, then why isn't it in the interest of Taiwan to unify w/China?

Michael Turton said...

The beauty of ambiguity is that it restrains everyone, since consequences are unknown. The KMT could easily push for unification anyway -- ambiguity or clarity won't top them, it is the bedrock of their faith.

Anyway, who would believe a Chinese promise?