I argued in the first part of this series that the United States and China have relatively few direct foreign policy disputes, and even fewer that might conceivably lead to some form of military conflict. Taiwan is the big exception to this general rule. While I don’t believe that China is likely to launch an unprovoked attack on Taiwan anytime soon, I do think that the PRC will fight a war to prevent Taiwanese independence, even if that means fighting the United States. Moreover, I think that any clarification of the policy of ambiguity will serve to either make Taiwan more likely to declare independence or to make the PRC more likely to attack. In this part of the series, I discuss the diplomatic and political elements of the Taiwan problem. In the next section, I’ll discuss the military aspects of the cross-straight dispute.
A realist would not expect the United States and China to come to blows over Taiwan. Why? While realists expect irrational outcomes in the international system (security dilemma, for example), they don’t really expect irrational behavior. If you start from the premise that the three principles are unitary rational actors, each with a careful understanding of the costs and benefits of action, then no conflict occurs. The material gains for Taiwan following a declaration of independence are minimal compared to the losses China could inflict. The economic and material losses that the PRC might suffer in a war to regain Taiwan are similarly out of line with any potential gains. Finally, the value of Taiwan to the United States is probably exceeded by the blood and treasure that would be lost in any conflict with China.
This is a dangerous way to think about the conflict. As Budding Sinologist points out, we shouldn’t think of Taiwan, the PRC, or the United States as unitary actors who make decisions based on national cost-benefit calculations. The decision process in all three states will inevitably involve domestic considerations, the most notable of which is the need to hold on to power. So, rather than thinking about whether it is in the interests of the PRC to invade Taiwan, we should think about whether it is in the interests of the CCP to attack. Similarly, we can’t really expect any US President to make a cost-benefit analysis of a Taiwan intervention without considering the domestic consequences of a failure to intervene. In the parlance of international relations theory, we need to pay attention to the second level of analysis. This is why I find arguments suggesting that economic interdependence will prevent cross-straights conflict uncompelling.
On the question of whether or when Taiwan will declare independence I have no contribution. Even the DPP seems reluctant to press for formal independence in the short term, and the Guomindang seems to have no interest whatsoever in pursuing independence. Given that elections between the Guomindang and the DPP have tended to be very close, I would be quite surprised if Taiwan declared independence anytime soon. A US security guarantee, however, might change that. The electoral landscape might shift in response to PRC intimidation, or for some other cause.
What will happen if Taiwan does declare independence? I argued earlier that the legitimacy of the CCP depends on economic prosperity and national greatness. The holding of Taiwan is critical to the second of these pillars. I think that the CCP would be willing to spend an enormous amount of blood and treasure to prevent Taiwanese independence, because the loss of Taiwan would strike at the core of the CCP’s legitimacy. If the CCP fails to act decisively in the event of a Taiwanese declaration of independence, I think that its grip on power will be severely weakened. As we have seen recently with anti-Japanese demonstrations in China, nationalism is a double-edged sword, and can cause real problems for those in power. Nationalism is about support for the “nation” as an abstract concept, rather than for the state that holds power at any given time. When the state acts in “national” interests, it can gain the benefit of nationalist feeling. When it doesn’t, state legitimacy suffers. There are a number of examples of states that were severely constrained by nationalist attitudes on the part of the general population and of particular interest groups. Japan in the 1930s is probably the best example of a state whose foreign policy was severely constrained by nationalist feeling.
Could the CCP survive a decision not to fight Taiwanese independence? I don’t know. I suspect that the position of the CCP, at least in the short term, would be stronger if it fought and lost than if it didn’t fight at all. Long term, the economic suffering brought about by the conflict might do damage to the first pillar of CCP legitimacy, but survival is, after all, an arena in which short term concerns trump long term. Although there isn’t much in the way of really good data about Chinese national attitudes on the recovery of Taiwan, all the anecdotal evidence I have seen suggests that the idea of military intervention is extremely popular. A decision not to go to war would almost certainly spark nationwide protests, and these protests would soon serve as a vehicle for other discontent about CCP rule. In short, I believe that the CCP would commit itself to war even if it believed that the war was unwinnable. Demonstrating nationalist credentials would be more important than actually recovering Taiwan.
If China decides to go to war to conquer (or recover) Taiwan, the United States will face a difficult set of choices. The precise nature of these choices depends on the form which the conflict takes, as I’ll discuss in the next section. As I have argued previously, the debate over whether or not to intervene should focus on Taiwan’s intrinsic value to the United States, rather than on strategic considerations. Taiwan is in a unique situation, and I don’t believe that a failure to defend Taiwan would create a reputation for weakness or irresolution that might affect the behavior of other allies (and this is even if we take reputation seriously, which I don’t). The recovery of Taiwan would not open new strategic vistas for China, and indeed would probably have the effect of pushing other East Asian states into balancing postures, as well as making US defense commitments in East Asia more manageable. The PRC is not an ideologically evangelical state, and thus a victory for China could not be understood as a victory for Communism, Confucian civilization, or any other nebulous ideational threat. I doubt very much that the fate of democracy in Taiwan will have much of an effect on democratic movements anywhere else, again because of the uniqueness of the situation. Again, I deal with this question at considerably more length here.
This means that we have to consider whether Taiwan is worth defending by referring to Taiwan’s intrinsic value, rather than to its strategic importance. Even with this constraint, there are still good reasons for the United States to intervene. Taiwan under PRC occupation will not be democratic. Its people will not enjoy the political and social rights they have grown accustomed to. This is a relevant consideration, and the freedom of the Taiwanese people is, to me, worth the lives of American soldiers and sailors. That said, there is a limit to how much American blood and treasure I would spend on Taiwan. For example, Taiwan is not worth a nuclear exchange.
This all may seem a bit clinical. Fortunately, I’m not a policy maker, and I don’t have to make decisions about who lives and who dies. The obvious problem with the argument I have laid out is that any conflict may escalate beyond the parameters we set for it. On the one hand, I hope that cooler heads prevail in the case of actual conflict, and that the leaders of both the PRC and the US manage to limit the escalation. On the other hand, I hope that we can pursue policies that limit the chance that any war will take place.
A while ago, I called for a genuine and honest debate about the value the United States should place on Taiwanese independence. This was misunderstood in some quarters as a call for the end of the US policy of ambiguity towards the defense of Taiwan. In fact, I am a firm supporter of the policy of ambiguity, and think that it’s the best chance of avoiding war between the United States and China. The problem is that the United States must send different messages to Taiwan and to the PRC. The PRC must believe that the United States will intervene, and thus be dissuaded from unwarranted military adventurism. Taiwan must believe that US intervention is uncertain, and thus be dissuaded from a declaration of independence or from the development of nuclear weapons. A security guarantee to Taiwan might well convince the Taiwanese that independence was worth pursuing. A hands-off policy might convince the PRC that an invasion was worth pursuing. I believe that a more complex policy, guaranteeing the security of Taiwan except in the case of independence, would lead to Taiwanese efforts to “push the envelope” by taking, then consolidating, small steps toward independence. I suspect that Taiwan would creep towards independence, and that our limited security guarantee would creep toward being an absolute security guarantee. Incidentally, I also believe that any such guarantee would remove Taiwanese incentive to spend in their own defense, which remains crucial to deterring a PRC attack.
The issue of Taiwan is just about the only international security question that keeps me up at night and makes me fear for my physical safety. I think that the threat of war is very real, and that the policy of ambiguity is the best way to prevent the war. The question of Taiwanese independence will not actually be solved by a declaration of independence, because such a declaration will be meaningless until it is recognized by whatever regime controls the mainland recognize it. The Taiwan question is best answered by indefinite delay, with the hope that a friendly, reasonable, democratic regime will eventually emerge on the mainland.
Part III: China’s Growing Military Power
Part IV: China and the Republican Party
Part V: A New Cold War?
Part VI: Chinese Democracy