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Strategic Clarity

Robert Farley's post on Taiwan and a conversation last night with Justin Logan reminded me that I've been meaning to say something on this subject. I feel that the traditional policy of "ambiguity" on this subject is largely obsolete and has shaded into a dangerous kind of drift that could easily result in a worst-case scenario outcome involving a costly war and massive devastation to Taiwan. Better would be a policy of clarity. We have every reason to come to Taiwan's assistance on the off-chance that China decides to attack the ROC in an unprovoked manner, and ever reason to say so clearly which would make it exceedingly unlikely that any such thing would occur. At the same time, it would be well worth our while to clarify to the Taiwanese electorate that this is not an open-ended security guarantee come what may. Our position should be that while re-integration with the mainland is something we would only countenance in a manner acceptable to the Taiwanese electorate that eventual reintegration is the long-term goal and if the Taiwanese want to follow a policy of seeking independence they'll be on there own. The United States has no particular stake in the metaphysical status of Taiwanese sovereignty and a large interest in maintaining generally good relations with Taiwan.

Similarly, we need to address the problem of Taiwanese defense spending that Justin highlighted along with Ted Galen Carpenter in March. Taiwan as a small, wealthy country facing a large, poor, potentially hostile neighbor is the sort of country that ought to be devoting a very large proportion of GDP to defense. Instead, it's smallish and declining. If this is what the Taiwanese want to do, then that's their business. But the United States has no good reason to be offering guarantees of any sort to a country that wants to behave in that manner and we should, again, say so clearly. If the U.S. and Taiwan have our acts together, there's every reason to think peace can be maintained across the Straights until such time as China either experiences political reform or (to my uneducated guess more likely) one of those periods of total-and-catastrophic collapse that tend to recur now and again in Chinese history. If not -- a Taiwan that continues to follow a policy of provocative gestures toward formal independence while neglecting its defense operating under a cloud of ambiguous statements and substantive neglect from Washington -- something very, very, very bad could happen.

April 24, 2005 | Permalink


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I agree with Matthew Yglesias on the need for strategic clarity with Taiwan. As much as many might not like having us in wars of words with other countries, the Chinese will do what they do no matter what, and... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 24, 2005 11:18:37 PM


We (the US) have already successfully integrated with China and we don't want no stinkin' Taiwan in our union. Fu*k off, Taiwan.

Posted by: abb1 | Apr 24, 2005 3:05:33 PM

What a gong show! Matthew is looking forward to the time that China experiences "reform" or a "total collapse". Based on what we know, that choice seems more appropriate to the U.S. than China.

In his first graph, Matt refers to Taiwan as the Republic of China, highlighting a central ambiguity. As China becomes more powerful, the Chinese in Taiwan will lean more towards becoming part of China. The Chinese, generally, are a very conservative people, and do not believe that a government long established should be overthrown for light or transient reasons.

In the past, American foreign policy has followed the prostitute-and-john model. As long as our money could control parts of their behavior, we didn't care if they were brutal anti-democratic fundamentalists. As long as we only asked them to do a few distasteful things, that didn't cost them any money out of pocket, they didn't care if we intended to use and discard them.

In Taiwan this got all mixed up- the whore we thought we hired, Chiang Kai Shek, represented the Chinese, brutally oppressing the native Taiwanese, the Taiwanese being the only residents who actually didn't want to be ruled by China.

What seems most likely is that the U.S. "policy" will consist of a mix of saber-rattling, loud ignorant bellicose statements, and deals trying to buy one side or the other by trade agreements. Having watched us support their Chinese dictators for 30 years, the Taiwanese will affect some reserve in evaluating our promises that we love liberty and cherish theirs.

Ironically, we could share a flag with Japan- theirs could be the rising sun, and we could use the same flag for our setting sun.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 24, 2005 3:10:17 PM


Posted by: Picky | Apr 24, 2005 3:14:19 PM

Most say that there is no ROC, but a few disagree.


Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 24, 2005 3:25:48 PM

Our position should be that while re-integration with the mainland is something we would only countenance in a manner acceptable to the Taiwanese electorate that eventual reintegration is the long-term goal and if the Taiwanese want to follow a policy of seeking independence they'll be on there own.

Isn't this just a bit bullshit? Either we support the Taiwanese right to self-determination or we don't. We can't likely tell Taiwan, "Reintegrate with your hostile totalitarian neighbor only if you want to... but oh, by the way, we really want you to reintegrate with your hostile totalitarian neighbor." This hardly counts at all towards "strategic clarity."

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Apr 24, 2005 3:28:16 PM

Most say that there is no ROC, but a few disagree.


China is bugfuck crazy whenever it comes to Taiwan, and the current approach of pretending that there exists one China with two utterly separate governments controlling utterly separate territory amounts to little more than humoring the regional giant. A pat on the head and a big ice cream cone would probably be a healthier approach to this than tacitly encouraging China to steamroll over another neighbor.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | Apr 24, 2005 3:34:07 PM


No more ambiguity! Here's our new policy, set out clearly. We'll protect you if China invades. Unless you've declared independence first. Then you're on your own. Oh, and you have to increase your defense spending, too. If you don't, and China invades, we won't defend you.

Posted by: nj nj | Apr 24, 2005 3:50:09 PM

I think the whole "one China" claim is pretty dubious. China has a historical claim to Taiwan, but one only a little stronger than Portugal, the Netherlands, or Japan. Of course, the people with the strongest claim to Taiwan are the Taiwanese.

That said, in this fallen state of the world, Matt sounds right. My only question is, would putting these policies in words make them more credible than just vaguely implying that we'll fight for Taiwan if China invades, but stand by if they declare independence? Of course, perhaps it might be slightly harder to weasel out of defending Taiwan if we promise to do so, but not that much harder (we could come up with some way of saying the Taiwanese did something wrong, or something). Would making these clear, declarative statements really improve our credibility?

Posted by: Julian Elson | Apr 24, 2005 3:50:37 PM

> facing a large, poor, potentially hostile
> neighbor

When it comes to military strength, the PRC is poor only in a relative sense, because their absolute size is so large. They currently have something like 5000 combat aircraft in their inventory, and with Russian, Ukranian, and Israeli technology now availble on the open market they are rapidly upgrading those airplane. They are developing AWACS and air-to-air refueling capability as well, plus adding dozens of ultra-silent diesel electric subs which are very hard to defeat in coastal waters.

In short, the US has long assumed it can hold the PRC back from Taiwan with a couple of carrier battle groups. If the PRC is willing to throw 1,000 or so aircraft away that is no longer the case - the US could easily find itself on the losing end of such a conflict, with our perception of power broken forever. The excellent Iraq adventure hasn't helped in this regard.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 24, 2005 3:52:15 PM

Until about 20 years ago, the government of Taiwan was also adamant about a one-China policy. Diplomatically, as far as I know, every nation has a one-China policy (and also accepts that Tibet is simply a Chinese province and a strictly internal affair).

There may be diplomatic exceptions I don't know about. But the economic and military power of China is so great, and the determination of the very solid Chinese government is so strong, that it's unlikely that they'll ever be challenged if they decide to go for it.

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 24, 2005 4:14:09 PM

Matt, your "clear" policy seems not much different from the current "ambiguous" one, and worse in at least one regard. The United States has already stated that it does not support Taiwanese independence, that it believes there is "one China", and that it supports the eventual re-integration of the two parts of this one China.

What is lacking in both your own prefered position and the US governemnt position is a clear statement of our understanding of the current political status of Taiwan. In one repect, your position eliminates an area of ambiguity, only to move in the direction of outright inconsistency. You believe it should be our stated policy to support eventual re-integration, but only on conditions acceptable to Taiwan. So I guess the idea is that Taiwan, while not an independent state, is a sovereign, self-governing, self-determining polity. But what is the difference between a sovereign polity that is self-governing and possesses a right of self-determination, and one that is an independent state?

Taiwan is either an independent state or it is not; if it is a part of China, then China possesses the sovereign right to subject Taiwan to central government authority. On the other hand, if only Taiwan can decide whether to seek political union with China, then it is an independent state, whether we choose to call it so or not.

The view that there is "one China" and that we support "eventual reintegration" between these two parts of the one China adds little of legal, diplomatic substance to this basic fact. On may as well say that there is "one Anglo-America" and support the eventual "reintegration" of Canada and the United States. That doesn't change the fact that they are independent states. And recognizing that it is the right of each of these states to seek, or decline to seek, re-integration with the other is to acknowledge their independence.

So, this seems to be the actual policy, muddied though it is by ambiguous and inconsistent formulation: The people's Republic of China is an independent state; Taiwan is an independent state; we would prefer Taiwan not advertize that fact and call its independence "independence"; we hope someday Taiwan will seek to relinquish that independence and seek political union with the PRC, which is the other part of a larger, supra-statial cultural entity called "China"; but we recognize that only Taiwan has the right to determine whether to seek that political union.

OK, these legal and diplomatic issues aside, what exactly is the US interest in Taiwan?

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Apr 24, 2005 4:47:59 PM

However you manage it, you do not want someone like John Bolton, who is contemptuous of China's ability to mount an attack on Taiwan, involved in any way, shape, or form.

Posted by: Bob H | Apr 24, 2005 5:34:44 PM

OK, these legal and diplomatic issues aside, what exactly is the US interest in Taiwan?

It's yet another way to spread democracy throughout the world. Since Taiwan now holds meaningful elections, they are the democracy standing against an undemocratic regime that hates us for our freedoms. Supporting Taiwan against the Mainland protects democracy, and inspires its growth in China itself. That is why the Bush administration is getting tough with China, and is openly backing Taiwan's independence, regardless of MY's strange take on things. Irritating one of the primary funders of our ever-growing national debt is a small price to pay.

Posted by: mds | Apr 24, 2005 5:36:08 PM

Oh, yeah, I can see right away how maintaining bases and fleets off the coast of China would inspire their rulers to seek more democracy. The only thing I don't understand is why we made the Soviets pull the missiles out of Cuba when they tried to do the same thing to us.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 24, 2005 6:51:45 PM

Shoot me down if I'm wrong, but I think everyone's misunderstanding our policy of ambiguity. I make two inferences:

(1) The U.S. gov't doesn't wish to see China invade Taiwan.

(2) The U.S. gov't doesn't have any serious intention of going to war with China to protect Taiwan's autonomy.

Given those two, a policy of clarity is a big loser. If we clearly say "yes, we'll go to war for Taiwan," and do so, then we're AT WAR WITH CHINA, which should strike anyone with a brain as a Really Bad Thing.

If we clearly say "yes" as above, but then don't follow through when China attacks, then our already impaired credibility takes another stab in the gut.

If we clearly say "no, we won't go to war with China to defend Taiwan," then we basically invite China to take Taiwan when it likes, though one would hope that our declaration would scare the Taiwanese into capitulation.

If you like the last-described outcome, then you can argue for clarity, but see (1) above.

Ambiguity sometimes has its diplomatic uses, and given our conflicting principles re: Taiwan, I think this is one of those times.

(You can see that I disagree with Matt that "we have every reason to come to Taiwan's assistance"; in fact, I have no idea what he's talking about, & suspect "every reason" to be a rhetorical cover for "no good reason." Will someone please supply these good reasons for war with China?)

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 24, 2005 7:07:29 PM

CrankyO, how would the PLA get the million or two grunts it would need to take Taiwan, plus AFV and artillery to support them, across the straits? They would have to take losses in the attempt, and even if enough survivors disembarked on the island, the battle proper would yet to be begun -- and then, Long Live the Victory of People's War! How could Peking sell the loss of a million or two in a failed invasion to the Chinese masses?

Posted by: Dabodius | Apr 24, 2005 7:07:37 PM

How could Peking sell the loss of a million or two in a failed invasion to the Chinese masses?

I see Dabodius's point, and yet, such things have been done before. Exhibit A, World War One; exhibit B, World War Two.

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 24, 2005 7:32:06 PM

"Taiwan is either an independent state or it is not"

Fortunately, political and diplomatic history provides plenty of models for someone who wants to obfuscate.

"How could Peking sell the loss of a million or two in a failed invasion to the Chinese masses?" What Anderson said. Beijing has a pretty good propaganda machine, and they've been hammering the Taiwan issue for 50+ years.

I've lived in Taiwan and it would be a terrible loss for it to be occupied by the mainland, even the way Hong Long is. It's a great place.

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 24, 2005 7:45:29 PM

I think exhibit A should be the Civil War...or War of Northern Aggression.

Lose the war to China...but in a hundred years or so, put the most violent, greedy and ignorant Taiwanese in charge of the Chinese government. Revenge is sweet!

Posted by: monkyboy | Apr 24, 2005 7:50:46 PM

I guess you will have to talk to Donald Rumsfeld about that. He has this theory about what can be done when you have absolute air and navel supremacy over the battlefield...

I am not saying it would be easy. I am saying that if the PRC gets pissed off enough to do it, the US won't be able to stop them. And I don't think it would cost as much as many commentators think. As to how to sell it to the public of the PRC, see Rove/Fleischer for a current example; Goebbels for a classic one.

Now, the question as to whether the ROC has a few nuclear weapons stashed away in one of their deep armouries is quite interesting.


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Apr 24, 2005 8:06:06 PM

I don't quite understand the comment concerning Taiwan's defense budget. It appears to me, that currently, both China and Taiwan (and the US) tacitly acknowledge that talk is cheap and that everyone is content to make the obligatory noises once in a while, while leaving things more or less as they are.
If Taiwan were to seriously increase its defense spending, that would for one be a more serious symbol of souvereinity, but moreover, it would establish facts on the ground which (in contrast to the ritual noises) would actually present a substantial barrier to a potential chinese invasion. Which in turn might prompt China to invade now, rather than wait until it eventually becomes near impossible. Which IMHO wouldn't be good.

Posted by: markus | Apr 24, 2005 8:18:27 PM

Peking can wish for the moon; let them try to take it. As Comrade Lin Piao reminded us, "in the final analysis" the enemy must seize the ground. The PRC might be able to shock-and-awe the media covering an invasion or even the Taiwanese, but bombard them into submission? In a debacle that cost Peking most of its expeditionary force, you would hear more than Siegfrieds Trauermusik on the radio afterwards. And any large-scale prepatory bombardment of the people the PRC claims as citizens would cost their international standing much more and for longer than the Tien An Men massacre did. Peking likes to rattle the saber. They surely have contingency plans on how to use it if they draw it, but are probably not crazy enough to do anything but rattle on. Turn up the Wagner.

Posted by: Dabodius | Apr 24, 2005 8:42:33 PM

Wouldn't war with China be a good thing? We could immediately renounce our debt to them. Economically, that's huge.

Posted by: I'm Just Saying | Apr 24, 2005 9:04:55 PM

Wouldn't war with China be a good thing? We could immediately renounce our debt to them. Economically, that's huge.

You're kidding, right? Pardon me if I've failed to discern your irony ... we send how many Americans to their deaths to keep from owing China money? Yikes.

Not that I can't actually see the White House contemplating this.

Posted by: Anderson | Apr 24, 2005 9:30:23 PM

Thinking back to Douglas McArthur's contemptuous disregard for the PLA in the 1950's, and what happened when the PLA started pouring over the Yalu River crossing into US occupied North Korea, perhaps the PLA deserves some respect.

China has invested heavily into three technologies that would make it harder for the US to be effective in defending Taiwan:

- a modern, large and growing submarine fleet to make it dangerous for US aircraft-carrier based battle groups to enter the straits, forcing the US groups to fight from afar.

- a huge land-based air force to contend for air supremacy against carrier-based US forces some distance away.

- a growing number of landing-craft-type ships capable of ferrying a substantial land army.

And lets not forget that China has sufficient nuclear weapons to deter a potential US atomic threat, and the missles to deliver them at medium range (1500 miles).

In the face of a Chinese ultimatum, I really doubt that Taiwan would actually resist, and I fail to see how US forces could demand a retraction of such an ultimatum with credible resistence or retaliatory effect.

Taiwan is really independent, as has been pointed out above. More military forces in their hands can't ensure that independence against China's forces, since an US vs China military conflict would quickly be escalated by whatever side was losing, but neither want a nuclear war.

I think the smartest suggestion would be for Taiwan and China to sign treaties affirming that Taiwan is part of China (with US support for the treaties up front), but will remain self-determining for like a 100 years or so.

Push the problem into the distant future. Both China and Taiwan could live with that type of settlement. China gets sovereinty, Taiwan gets 100 years of self-determination.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 24, 2005 10:15:30 PM

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