November 16th, 2005

Statesmanship vs. Brinksmanship on Taiwan

As a speech (see video below), received first prize in the Young Professionals Speak debate (Center for Strategic and International Studies) on November 16, 2005. As an essay, received third prize in the Cato Institute’s intern op-ed contest in December 2005.

During his recent trip to Asia, President Bush praised Taiwan as “free and democratic and prosperous.” Why then, if the Taiwanese already have it so good, should the U.S. rock the boat?

For instance, writing in the Asian Wall Street Journal, Gary Schmitt and Dan Blumenthal recently argued that the U.S. should “encourage” Taiwanese politicians who are independence-minded. During a recent hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute protested that Taiwan spends more on defense per capita than does U.S. ally Germany. What’s more, as Justin Logan of the Cato Institute notes, these neoconservatives advocate very provocative measures, such as sending senior U.S. officers to Taiwan to coordinate with Taiwan’s military.

The problem with these proposals is that international relations is not an academic exercise. It’s not about grandiose abstractions or righteous platitudes. On the contrary, international relations is a cost-benefit analysis, behind which lie death and destruction. To wit, when China issues threats over Taiwan, as it does repeatedly, it’s not bluster. Its leaders mean it when they say that Taiwan is part of China and that reunification—as polling data invariably confirm—is the will of the Chinese people.

Why are 23 million Taiwanese so important to 1.3 billion Chinese? Beijing has invested its very identity in Taiwan. Its national destiny, its pride and its rage are inextricably bound up with this little island. On the Taiwan question, the stakes don’t get any higher for the People’s Republic, so it would be willing to incur massive economic and military losses in order to save face.

As a Chinese general told an American diplomat in 1995, “In the end you [Americans] care more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei.” Indeed, ask any Chinese citizen what he thinks about Taiwan, and the overwhelming odds are that he’ll respond with deep-seated passion. By stark contrast, ask an American about Taiwan, and he’ll respond with indifference.

Moreover, in matters of national security, Americans should care more about our own freedom, fortunes and futures than those of the Taiwanese. We should be, like all countries, self-interested.

Nonetheless, suppose that we follow the advice of the Free Taiwan crowd. What then?

Militarily, Beijing has made it clear that it would launch a war if Taiwan were “separated from China in any name.” Even assuming that we would win, it is unjust to ask Americans to shed the blood and treasure that war with another nuclear power would entail.

Diplomatically, we need China’s cooperation in the United Nations, which includes not only voting with us but also abstaining. But as a permanent member of the Security Council, China can veto any resolution it wants. One example: we’re engaged in talks with North Korea over its nuclear ambitions. On this issue, China’s regional influence is indispensable. Regarding Iran, provocation would give China an excuse to abandon its restraint on selling arms to the ayatollahs.

Economically, pressuring China would destabilize Taiwan. After all, prosperity requires stability; stability gives investors the security to invest. Indeed, past conflicts between China and Taiwan have caused volatility and uncertainty. In 1996, after the U.S. issued a visa to Taiwan’s president in order for him to give a speech at Cornell University, China lobbed a series of missiles over Taiwan. One result: prices in the computer market jumped dramatically.

Finally, even if China annexed Taiwan tomorrow, reunification would not spell disaster. As various Chinese officials have said, a reunified Taiwan would enjoy even greater autonomy than Hong Kong. In theory, Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. In practice, Hong Kong retains its own legal system, currency and customs. A major international center of finance and trade, it is also an economic dynamo. For these reasons, Taiwan’s reunification would occur more in name than in substance. It would amount to new letterhead on a government memo, not serfdom.

To be sure, the U.S. should not support reunification. Instead, we should continue the current course of strategic ambiguity—which, after all, has resulted in the affluent democracy President Bush hailed two weeks ago. The status quo isn’t perfect, but it’s been painstakingly, skillfully crafted over the past 60 years. Let’s not turn statesmanship into brinksmanship.

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