Editor’s note: we thank Professor John J. Mearsheimer for giving us the permission of republishing his article. The article first appeared on http://nationalinterest.org/article/say-goodbye-taiwan-9931
Furthermore, why would a powerful China accept U.S. military forces operating in its backyard? American policy makers, after all, go ballistic when other great powers send military forces into the Western Hemisphere. Those foreign forces are invariably seen as a potential threat to American security. The same logic should apply to China. Why would China feel safe with U.S. forces deployed on its doorstep? Following the logic of the Monroe Doctrine, would China’s security not be better served by pushing the American military out of Asia?
Why should we expect China to act any differently than the United States did? Are Chinese leaders more principled than American leaders? More ethical? Are they less nationalistic? Less concerned about their survival? They are none of these things, of course, which is why China is likely to imitate the United States and try to become a regional hegemon.
WHAT ARE the implications of this security story for Taiwan? The answer is that there is a powerful strategic rationale for China—at the very least—to try to sever Taiwan’s close ties with the United States and neutralize Taiwan. However, the best possible outcome for China, which it will surely pursue with increasing vigor over time, would be to make Taiwan part of China.
Unification would work to China’s strategic advantage in two important ways. First, Beijing would absorb Taiwan’s economic and military resources, thus shifting the balance of power in Asia even further in China’s direction. Second, Taiwan is effectively a giant aircraft carrier sitting off China’s coast; acquiring that aircraft carrier would enhance China’s ability to project military power into the western Pacific Ocean.
In short, we see that nationalism as well as realist logic give China powerful incentives to put an end to Taiwan’s de facto independence and make it part of a unified China. This is clearly bad news for Taiwan, especially since the balance of power in Asia is shifting in China’s favor, and it will not be long before Taiwan cannot defend itself against China. Thus, the obvious question is whether the United States can provide security for Taiwan in the face of a rising China. In other words, can Taiwan depend on the United States for its security?
LET US now consider America’s goals in Asia and how they relate to Taiwan. Regional hegemons go to great lengths to stop other great powers from becoming hegemons in their region of the world. The best outcome for any great power is to be the sole regional hegemon in the system. It is apparent from the historical record that the United States operates according to this logic. It does not tolerate peer competitors.
During the twentieth century, there were four great powers that had the capability to make a run at regional hegemony: Imperial Germany from 1900 to 1918, Imperial Japan between 1931 and 1945, Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945 and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Not surprisingly, each tried to match what the United States had achieved in the Western Hemisphere.
How did the United States react? In each case, it played a key role in defeating and dismantling those aspiring hegemons.
The United States entered World War I in April 1917 when Imperial Germany looked like it might win the war and rule Europe. American troops played a critical role in tipping the balance against the Kaiserreich, which collapsed in November 1918. In the early 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt went to great lengths to maneuver the United States into World War II to thwart Japan’s ambitions in Asia and Germany’s ambitions in Europe. The United States came into the war in December 1941, and helped destroy both Axis powers. Since 1945, American policy makers have gone to considerable lengths to put limits on German and Japanese military power. Finally, during the Cold War, the United States steadfastly worked to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating Eurasia and then helped relegate it to the scrap heap of history in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Shortly after the Cold War ended, the George H. W. Bush administration’s controversial “Defense Planning Guidance” of 1992 was leaked to the press. It boldly stated that the United States was now the most powerful state in the world by far and it planned to remain in that exalted position. In other words, the United States would not tolerate a peer competitor.
That same message was repeated in the famous 2002 National Security Strategy issued by the George W. Bush administration. There was much criticism of that document, especially its claims about “preemptive” war. But hardly a word of protest was raised about the assertion that the United States should check rising powers and maintain its commanding position in the global balance of power.
The bottom line is that the United States—for sound strategic reasons—worked hard for more than a century to gain hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Since achieving regional dominance, it has gone to great lengths to prevent other great powers from controlling either Asia or Europe.
Thus, there is little doubt as to how American policy makers will react if China attempts to dominate Asia. The United States can be expected to go to great lengths to contain China and ultimately weaken it to the point where it is no longer capable of ruling the roost in Asia. In essence, the United States is likely to behave toward China much the way it acted toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
China’s neighbors are certain to fear its rise as well, and they too will do whatever they can to prevent it from achieving regional hegemony. Indeed, there is already substantial evidence that countries like India, Japan and Russia as well as smaller powers like Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam are worried about China’s ascendancy and are looking for ways to contain it. In the end, they will join an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise, much the way Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and even China joined forces with the United States to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
How does Taiwan fit into this story? The United States has a rich history of close relations with Taiwan since the early days of the Cold War, when the Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the island from the Chinese mainland. However, Washington is not obliged by treaty to come to the defense of Taiwan if it is attacked by China or anyone else.
Regardless, the United States will have powerful incentives to make Taiwan an important player in its anti-China balancing coalition. First, as noted, Taiwan has significant economic and military resources and it is effectively a giant aircraft carrier that can be used to help control the waters close to China’s all-important eastern coast. The United States will surely want Taiwan’s assets on its side of the strategic balance, not on China’s side.
Second, America’s commitment to Taiwan is inextricably bound up with U.S. credibility in the region, which matters greatly to policy makers in Washington. Because the United States is located roughly six thousand miles from East Asia, it has to work hard to convince its Asian allies—especially Japan and South Korea—that it will back them up in the event they are threatened by China or North Korea. Importantly, it has to convince Seoul and Tokyo that they can rely on the American nuclear umbrella to protect them. This is the thorny problem of extended deterrence, which the United States and its allies wrestled with throughout the Cold War.
If the United States were to sever its military ties with Taiwan or fail to defend it in a crisis with China, that would surely send a strong signal to America’s other allies in the region that they cannot rely on the United States for protection. Policy makers in Washington will go to great lengths to avoid that outcome and instead maintain America’s reputation as a reliable partner. This means they will be inclined to back Taiwan no matter what.
While the United States has good reasons to want Taiwan as part of the balancing coalition it will build against China, there are also reasons to think this relationship is not sustainable over the long term. For starters, at some point in the next decade or so it will become impossible for the United States to help Taiwan defend itself against a Chinese attack. Remember that we are talking about a China with much more military capability than it has today.
In addition, geography works in China’s favor in a major way, simply because Taiwan is so close to the Chinese mainland and so far away from the United States. When it comes to a competition between China and the United States over projecting military power into Taiwan, China wins hands down.
Furthermore, in a fight over Taiwan, American policy makers would surely be reluctant to launch major attacks against Chinese forces on the mainland, for fear they might precipitate nuclear escalation. This reticence would also work to China’s advantage.
One might argue that there is a simple way to deal with the fact that Taiwan will not have an effective conventional deterrent against China in the not-too-distant future: put America’s nuclear umbrella over Taiwan. This approach will not solve the problem, however, because the United States is not going to escalate to the nuclear level if Taiwan is being overrun by China. The stakes are not high enough to risk a general thermonuclear war. Taiwan is not Japan or even South Korea. Thus, the smart strategy for America is to not even try to extend its nuclear deterrent over Taiwan.
There is a second reason the United States might eventually forsake Taiwan: it is an especially dangerous flashpoint, which could easily precipitate a Sino-American war that is not in America’s interest. U.S. policy makers understand that the fate of Taiwan is a matter of great concern to Chinese of all persuasions and that they will be extremely angry if it looks like the United States is preventing unification. But that is exactly what Washington will be doing if it forms a close military alliance with Taiwan, and that point will not be lost on the Chinese people.
It is important to note in this regard that Chinese nationalism, which is a potent force, emphasizes how great powers like the United States humiliated China in the past when it was weak and appropriated Chinese territory like Hong Kong and Taiwan. Thus, it is not difficult to imagine crises breaking out over Taiwan or scenarios in which a crisis escalates into a shooting war. After all, Chinese nationalism will surely be a force for trouble in those crises, and China will at some point have the military wherewithal to conquer Taiwan, which will make war even more likely.
There was no flashpoint between the superpowers during the Cold War that was as dangerous as Taiwan will be in a Sino-American security competition. Some commentators liken Berlin in the Cold War to Taiwan, but Berlin was not sacred territory for the Soviet Union and it was actually of little strategic importance for either side. Taiwan is different. Given how dangerous it is for precipitating a war and given the fact that the United States will eventually reach the point where it cannot defend Taiwan, there is a reasonable chance that American policy makers will eventually conclude that it makes good strategic sense to abandon Taiwan and allow China to coerce it into accepting unification.
All of this is to say that the United States is likely to be somewhat schizophrenic about Taiwan in the decades ahead. On one hand, it has powerful incentives to make it part of a balancing coalition aimed at containing China. On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that with the passage of time the benefits of maintaining close ties with Taiwan will be outweighed by the potential costs, which are likely to be huge. Of course, in the near term, the United States will protect Taiwan and treat it as a strategic asset. But how long that relationship lasts is an open question.
SO FAR, the discussion about Taiwan’s future has focused almost exclusively on how the United States is likely to act toward Taiwan. However, what happens to Taiwan in the face of China’s rise also depends greatly on what policies Taiwan’s leaders and its people choose to pursue over time. There is little doubt that Taiwan’s overriding goal in the years ahead will be to preserve its independence from China. That aim should not be too difficult to achieve for the next decade, mainly because Taiwan is almost certain to maintain close relations with the United States, which will have powerful incentives as well as the capability to protect Taiwan. But after that point Taiwan’s strategic situation is likely to deteriorate in significant ways, mainly because China will be rapidly approaching the point where it can conquer Taiwan even if the American military helps defend the island. And, as noted, it is not clear that the United States will be there for Taiwan over the long term.
In the face of this grim future, Taiwan has three options. First, it can develop its own nuclear deterrent. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent, and there is no question that a Taiwanese nuclear arsenal would markedly reduce the likelihood of a Chinese attack against Taiwan.
Taiwan pursued this option in the 1970s, when it feared American abandonment in the wake of the Vietnam War. The United States, however, stopped Taiwan’s nuclear-weapons program in its tracks. And then Taiwan tried to develop a bomb secretly in the 1980s, but again the United States found out and forced Taipei to shut the program down. It is unfortunate for Taiwan that it failed to build a bomb, because its prospects for maintaining its independence would be much improved if it had its own nuclear arsenal.
No doubt Taiwan still has time to acquire a nuclear deterrent before the balance of power in Asia shifts decisively against it. But the problem with this suggestion is that both Beijing and Washington are sure to oppose Taiwan going nuclear. The United States would oppose Taiwanese nuclear weapons, not only because they would encourage Japan and South Korea to follow suit, but also because American policy makers abhor the idea of an ally being in a position to start a nuclear war that might ultimately involve the United States. To put it bluntly, no American wants to be in a situation where Taiwan can precipitate a conflict that might result in a massive nuclear attack on the United States.
China will adamantly oppose Taiwan obtaining a nuclear deterrent, in large part because Beijing surely understands that it would make it difficult—maybe even impossible—to conquer Taiwan. What’s more, China will recognize that Taiwanese nuclear weapons would facilitate nuclear proliferation in East Asia, which would not only limit China’s ability to throw its weight around in that region, but also would increase the likelihood that any conventional war that breaks out would escalate to the nuclear level. For these reasons, China is likely to make it manifestly clear that if Taiwan decides to pursue nuclear weapons, it will strike its nuclear facilities, and maybe even launch a war to conquer the island. In short, it appears that it is too late for Taiwan to pursue the nuclear option.
Taiwan’s second option is conventional deterrence. How could Taiwan make deterrence work without nuclear weapons in a world where China has clear-cut military superiority over the combined forces of Taiwan and the United States? The key to success is not to be able to defeat the Chinese military—that is impossible—but instead to make China pay a huge price to achieve victory. In other words, the aim is to make China fight a protracted and bloody war to conquer Taiwan. Yes, Beijing would prevail in the end, but it would be a Pyrrhic victory. This strategy would be even more effective if Taiwan could promise China that the resistance would continue even after its forces were defeated on the battlefield. The threat that Taiwan might turn into another Sinkiang or Tibet would foster deterrence for sure.
This option is akin to Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz’s famous “risk strategy,” which Imperial Germany adopted in the decade before World War I. Tirpitz accepted the fact that Germany could not build a navy powerful enough to defeat the mighty Royal Navy in battle. He reasoned, however, that Berlin could build a navy that was strong enough to inflict so much damage on the Royal Navy that it would cause London to fear a fight with Germany and thus be deterred. Moreover, Tirpitz reasoned that this “risk fleet” might even give Germany diplomatic leverage it could use against Britain.
There are a number of problems with this form of conventional deterrence, which raise serious doubts about whether it can work for Taiwan over the long haul. For starters, the strategy depends on the United States fighting side by side with Taiwan. But it is difficult to imagine American policy makers purposely choosing to fight a war in which the U.S. military is not only going to lose, but is also going to pay a huge price in the process. It is not even clear that Taiwan would want to fight such a war, because it would be fought mainly on Taiwanese territory—not Chinese territory—and there would be death and destruction everywhere. And Taiwan would lose in the end anyway.
Furthermore, pursuing this option would mean that Taiwan would be constantly in an arms race with China, which would help fuel an intense and dangerous security competition between them. The sword of Damocles, in other words, would always be hanging over Taiwan.
Finally, although it is difficult to predict just how dominant China will become in the distant future, it is possible that it will eventually become so powerful that Taiwan will be unable to put up major resistance against a Chinese onslaught. This would certainly be true if America’s commitment to defend Taiwan weakens as China morphs into a superpower.
Taiwan’s third option is to pursue what I will call the “Hong Kong strategy.” In this case, Taiwan accepts the fact that it is doomed to lose its independence and become part of China. It then works hard to make sure that the transition is peaceful and that it gains as much autonomy as possible from Beijing. This option is unpalatable today and will remain so for at least the next decade. But it is likely to become more attractive in the distant future if China becomes so powerful that it can conquer Taiwan with relative ease.
So where does this leave Taiwan? The nuclear option is not feasible, as neither China nor the United States would accept a nuclear-armed Taiwan.
Conventional deterrence in the form of a “risk strategy” is far from ideal, but it makes sense as long as China is not so dominant that it can subordinate Taiwan without difficulty. Of course, for that strategy to work, the United States must remain committed to the defense of Taiwan, which is not guaranteed over the long term.
Once China becomes a superpower, it probably makes the most sense for Taiwan to give up hope of maintaining its de facto independence and instead pursue the “Hong Kong strategy.” This is definitely not an attractive option, but as Thucydides argued long ago, in international politics “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
By now, it should be glaringly apparent that whether Taiwan is forced to give up its independence largely depends on how formidable China’s military becomes in the decades ahead. Taiwan will surely do everything it can to buy time and maintain the political status quo. But if China continues its impressive rise, Taiwan appears destined to become part of China.
THERE IS one set of circumstances under which Taiwan can avoid this scenario. Specifically, all Taiwanese should hope there is a drastic slowdown in Chinese economic growth in the years ahead and that Beijing also has serious political problems on the home front that work to keep it focused inward. If that happens, China will not be in a position to pursue regional hegemony and the United States will be able to protect Taiwan from China, as it does now. In essence, the best way for Taiwan to maintain de facto independence is for China to be economically and militarily weak. Unfortunately for Taiwan, it has no way of influencing events so that this outcome actually becomes reality.
When China started its impressive growth in the 1980s, most Americans and Asians thought this was wonderful news, because all of the ensuing trade and other forms of economic intercourse would make everyone richer and happier. China, according to the reigning wisdom, would become a responsible stakeholder in the international community, and its neighbors would have little to worry about. Many Taiwanese shared this optimistic outlook, and some still do.
They are wrong. By trading with China and helping it grow into an economic powerhouse, Taiwan has helped create a burgeoning Goliath with revisionist goals that include ending Taiwan’s independence and making it an integral part of China. In sum, a powerful China isn’t just a problem for Taiwan. It is a nightmare.