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Rules of the Game

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Matt refers to a Richard Bush and Michael O’Hanlon discussion of the potential “rules” for a war between China and the United States over Taiwan. I think that this is a really interesting idea; antagonists often agree, if only informally, to limit forceful interactions to particular channels that avoid the possibility of larger, more destructive conflict. Sometimes these rules stick, and sometimes they don’t, but that they ever matter is a reason for making the effort to limit war geographically and technologically.

Given that this April is the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, it’s worth thinking about some parallels between the UK-Argentine conflict and a potential fight over Taiwan. There are some obvious surface similarities, including most notably the situation of a small island linked to a great power off the coast of a foreign country maintaining claims to the island. More interesting to me, though, is the fact that both sides in both conflicts had goals that were intelligible, defensible, and that I can have some sympathy with. In the case of the Falklands, the Argentines do have a compelling historical claim, even if (as I believe) that claim should yield in the face of the plain reality that no one in the Falklands wanted to be part of Argentina. China also has a fairly compelling historical case, although perhaps not as compelling as the Chinese would like to make it. The US case for defending Taiwan, at least today, rests on the entirely reasonable belief that we ought not to allow a large authoritarian country to eat a small democratic one. Situations like this, in which the claims of both sides are plausible and appeal to an intelligible sense of justice, can be quite dangerous; neither side feels that it ought to back down.

Specific to the question of US intervention in defense of Taiwan, I’m interested in what people on the progressive side of the blogosphere think of the practical and theoretical case for a US defense. On the theoretical side, I think it’s a slam dunk; whatever Taiwan was 30 years ago, it’s a liberal democracy now, and whatever China may be in 30 years, it’s an authoritarian state today. Protecting a liberal democracy from a large authoritarian state is worth a sacrifice of blood and treasure on the part of the United States. The practical side, as it concerns difficult to answer questions about Chinese and Taiwanese military capability, is harder to answer, but I think that if China launched an assault tomorrow I’d be on the intervention side. Obviously, if China ever achieved prohibiitive superiority in the Straits that assessment might change. Anyway, it’s a question that bears some thought; just because a US-PRC war over Taiwan would be insane doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Cross-posted to TAPPED.

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