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04/07/2011

The United States, China and Taiwan

In the March/April 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles Glaser, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, has an essay on China, its rise to power, and whether it will lead to war with the United States. I won’t get into the body of his work, but he does have the following to say about the critical issue of Taiwan.

“The prospects for avoiding intense military competition and war may be good, but growth in China’s power may nevertheless require some changes in U.S. foreign policy that Washington will find disagreeable – particularly regarding Taiwan. Although it lost control of Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War more than six decades ago, China still considers Taiwan to be part of its homeland, and unification remains a key political goal for Beijing. China has made clear that it will use force if Taiwan declares independence, and much of China’s conventional military buildup has been dedicated to increasing its ability to coerce Taiwan and reducing the United States’ ability to intervene. Because China places such high value on Taiwan and because the United States and China – whatever they might formally agree to – have such different attitudes regarding the legitimacy of the status quo, the issue poses specific dangers and challenges for the U.S.-Chinese relationship, placing it in a different category than Japan or South Korea.

“A crisis over Taiwan could fairly easily escalate to nuclear war, because each step along the way might well seem rational to the actors involved. Current U.S. policy is designed to reduce the probability that Taiwan will declare independence and to make clear that the United States will not come to Taiwan’s aid if it does. Nevertheless, the United States would find itself under pressure to protect Taiwan against any sort of attack, no matter how it originated. Given the different interests and perceptions of the various parties and the limited control Washington has over Taipei’s behavior, a crisis could unfold in which the United States found itself following events rather than leading them.

“Such dangers have been around for decades, but ongoing improvements in China’s military capabilities may make Beijing more willing to escalate a Taiwan crisis. In addition to its improved conventional capabilities, China is modernizing its nuclear forces to increase their ability to survive and retaliate following a large-scale U.S. attack. Standard deterrence theory holds that Washington’s current ability to destroy most or all of China’s nuclear force enhances its bargaining position. China’s nuclear modernization might remove that check on Chinese action, leading Beijing to behave more boldly in future crises than it has in past ones. A U.S. attempt to preserve its ability to defend Taiwan, meanwhile, could fuel a conventional and nuclear arms race. Enhancements to U.S. offensive targeting capabilities and strategic ballistic missile defenses might be interpreted by China as a signal of malign U.S. motives, leading to further Chinese military efforts and a general poisoning of U.S.-Chinese relations.

“Given such risks, the United States should consider backing away from its commitment to Taiwan. This would remove the most obvious and contentious flash point between the United States and China and smooth the way for better relations between them in the decades to come. Critics of such a move argue that it would result in not only direct costs for the United States and Taiwan but indirect costs as well: Beijing would not be satisfied by such appeasement; instead, it would find its appetite whetted and make even greater demands afterward – spurred by Washington’s lost credibility as a defender of its allies. The critics are wrong, however, because territorial concessions are not always bound to fail. Not all adversaries are Hitler, and when they are not, accommodation can be an effective policy tool. When an adversary has limited territorial goals, granting them can lead not to further demands but rather to satisfaction with the new status quo and a reduction of tension.

“The key question, then, is whether China has limited or unlimited goals. It is true that China has disagreements with several of its neighbors, but there is actually little reason to believe that it has or will develop grand territorial ambitions in its region or beyond. Concessions on Taiwan would thus risk encouraging China to pursue more demanding policies on those issues for which the status quo is currently disputed, including the status of the offshore islands and maritime orders in the East China and South China seas. But the risks of reduced U.S. credibility for protecting allies when the status quo is crystal clear – as is the case with Japan and South Korea – should be small, especially if any change in policy on Taiwan is accompanied by countervailing measures (such as a renewed declaration of the United States’ other alliance commitments, a reinforcement of U.S. forward deployed troops, and an increase in joint military exercises and technological cooperation with U.S. allies).

“Whether and how the United States should reduce its commitment to Taiwan is clearly a complex issue. If the United States does decide to change its policy, a gradual easing of its commitment is likely best, as opposed to a sharp, highly advertised break. And since relations between Taiwan and China have improved over the past few years, Washington will likely have both the time and the room to evaluate and adjust its policy as the regional and global situations evolve.

“The broader point is that although China’s rise is creating some dangers, the shifting distribution of power is not rendering vital U.S. and Chinese interests incompatible. The potential dangers do not add up to clashing great-power interests that can be resolved only by risking a major-power war. Rather, the difficulty of protecting some secondary, albeit not insignificant, U.S. interests is growing, requiring the United States to reevaluate its foreign policy commitments.”

Hot Spots will return in two weeks.

Brian Trumbore


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-04/07/2011-      
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Hot Spots

04/07/2011

The United States, China and Taiwan

In the March/April 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs, Charles Glaser, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, has an essay on China, its rise to power, and whether it will lead to war with the United States. I won’t get into the body of his work, but he does have the following to say about the critical issue of Taiwan.

“The prospects for avoiding intense military competition and war may be good, but growth in China’s power may nevertheless require some changes in U.S. foreign policy that Washington will find disagreeable – particularly regarding Taiwan. Although it lost control of Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War more than six decades ago, China still considers Taiwan to be part of its homeland, and unification remains a key political goal for Beijing. China has made clear that it will use force if Taiwan declares independence, and much of China’s conventional military buildup has been dedicated to increasing its ability to coerce Taiwan and reducing the United States’ ability to intervene. Because China places such high value on Taiwan and because the United States and China – whatever they might formally agree to – have such different attitudes regarding the legitimacy of the status quo, the issue poses specific dangers and challenges for the U.S.-Chinese relationship, placing it in a different category than Japan or South Korea.

“A crisis over Taiwan could fairly easily escalate to nuclear war, because each step along the way might well seem rational to the actors involved. Current U.S. policy is designed to reduce the probability that Taiwan will declare independence and to make clear that the United States will not come to Taiwan’s aid if it does. Nevertheless, the United States would find itself under pressure to protect Taiwan against any sort of attack, no matter how it originated. Given the different interests and perceptions of the various parties and the limited control Washington has over Taipei’s behavior, a crisis could unfold in which the United States found itself following events rather than leading them.

“Such dangers have been around for decades, but ongoing improvements in China’s military capabilities may make Beijing more willing to escalate a Taiwan crisis. In addition to its improved conventional capabilities, China is modernizing its nuclear forces to increase their ability to survive and retaliate following a large-scale U.S. attack. Standard deterrence theory holds that Washington’s current ability to destroy most or all of China’s nuclear force enhances its bargaining position. China’s nuclear modernization might remove that check on Chinese action, leading Beijing to behave more boldly in future crises than it has in past ones. A U.S. attempt to preserve its ability to defend Taiwan, meanwhile, could fuel a conventional and nuclear arms race. Enhancements to U.S. offensive targeting capabilities and strategic ballistic missile defenses might be interpreted by China as a signal of malign U.S. motives, leading to further Chinese military efforts and a general poisoning of U.S.-Chinese relations.

“Given such risks, the United States should consider backing away from its commitment to Taiwan. This would remove the most obvious and contentious flash point between the United States and China and smooth the way for better relations between them in the decades to come. Critics of such a move argue that it would result in not only direct costs for the United States and Taiwan but indirect costs as well: Beijing would not be satisfied by such appeasement; instead, it would find its appetite whetted and make even greater demands afterward – spurred by Washington’s lost credibility as a defender of its allies. The critics are wrong, however, because territorial concessions are not always bound to fail. Not all adversaries are Hitler, and when they are not, accommodation can be an effective policy tool. When an adversary has limited territorial goals, granting them can lead not to further demands but rather to satisfaction with the new status quo and a reduction of tension.

“The key question, then, is whether China has limited or unlimited goals. It is true that China has disagreements with several of its neighbors, but there is actually little reason to believe that it has or will develop grand territorial ambitions in its region or beyond. Concessions on Taiwan would thus risk encouraging China to pursue more demanding policies on those issues for which the status quo is currently disputed, including the status of the offshore islands and maritime orders in the East China and South China seas. But the risks of reduced U.S. credibility for protecting allies when the status quo is crystal clear – as is the case with Japan and South Korea – should be small, especially if any change in policy on Taiwan is accompanied by countervailing measures (such as a renewed declaration of the United States’ other alliance commitments, a reinforcement of U.S. forward deployed troops, and an increase in joint military exercises and technological cooperation with U.S. allies).

“Whether and how the United States should reduce its commitment to Taiwan is clearly a complex issue. If the United States does decide to change its policy, a gradual easing of its commitment is likely best, as opposed to a sharp, highly advertised break. And since relations between Taiwan and China have improved over the past few years, Washington will likely have both the time and the room to evaluate and adjust its policy as the regional and global situations evolve.

“The broader point is that although China’s rise is creating some dangers, the shifting distribution of power is not rendering vital U.S. and Chinese interests incompatible. The potential dangers do not add up to clashing great-power interests that can be resolved only by risking a major-power war. Rather, the difficulty of protecting some secondary, albeit not insignificant, U.S. interests is growing, requiring the United States to reevaluate its foreign policy commitments.”

Hot Spots will return in two weeks.

Brian Trumbore