China and US treat Taiwan issue as a casus belli

Chas Freeman

The regional vacuum the United States filled after World War II has long since ceased to exist. This is a sea change that demands a change in U.S. policy and the regional security architecture. Most East Asian states are now both prosperous and rapidly developing the robust self-defense capabilities that U.S. military dominance of their region long seemed to make redundant. But despite all the evidence – for example, the failure of the U.S. humiliation in Indochina to do anything other than mark a transition to a more peaceful and prosperous regional order – U.S. policy continues to presume that a large U.S. military presence is essential to sustain stability in Asia. Meanwhile, the nations of the region increasingly seek to ensure their independence by reaching out to each other and rearming as well as courting U.S. support. Only Taiwan continues to delegate its defense to Americans.
This is ironic. Self-reliant assumption of responsibility for self-defense is a fundamental attribute of sovereignty. Elsewhere in the region, nation-states whose sovereign independence is not in dispute are embracing that responsibility as the basis for their self-government and politico-economic independence. But seven decades of American protection have allowed both habits of dependence on America and aspirations for secession from China to take root in Taiwan. Many there now assert that the island is – or should be – a sovereign state separate from the rest of China. Rather than relying on its own efforts to secure or expand its autonomy, Taiwan prefers the comfort of assigning its defense to an ideologically sympathetic United States.
Others in Asia combine diplomatic dialogue, economic statecraft, and defense policies to cope with the return of China to wealth and power. By contrast, echoing its American protector, Taiwan has adopted a purely military approach to managing its relations with Chinese across the Strait, with whom it remains technically engaged in a civil war. In effect, Taiwan’s aspirations for a sovereignty distinct from the rest of China represent a gamble on its continued inclusion in a U.S. military sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan’s failure to develop a credible self-defense cap-ability manifests a hope that American soldiers, sa-ilors, airmen, and marines will be prepared to sacrifice themselves for an indepen-dence it is unprepared to as-k its own people to die for.
But the U.S. sphere of influence in Asia that Taiwan has chosen to rely upon is eroding. The United States has effectively ceded economic leadership in the region to China, Japan, and ASEAN. Doubts about American reliability have made most Asian countries less inclined to follow the U.S. lead. At the same time, a series of Sino-American crises over Taiwan have supplied a focus and rationale for China’s rapid military modernization. The balance of military power in the Taiwan area now favors China over the United States. Meanwhile, the island has become the focus of U.S. military planning in the Indo-Pacific region – the Schwerpunkt of U.S. strategy there and by extension – given the region’s increasing centrality in the global order – the world.
There are many drivers of Sino-American hostility, but Taiwan has long been the only one with the potential to produce a mutually devastating nuclear exchange between China and the United States. Until recently, Beijing and Washington honored diplomatic understandings that, backed by superior American military power, preserved the peace in the Taiwan Strait. More recently, as those understandings have withered and U.S. military supremacy has eroded, both China and the United States have come to treat the Taiwan issue as a casus belli. Ironically, since the purpose of any U.S. intervention in a war over Taiwan would be to preserve its prosperity and democracy, a war – whatever its outcome – would surely destroy both.
Destroying something “in order to save it” is perverse, if not insane. But it is not without precedent. And as George Kennan observed, “a war regarded as inevitable or even probable, and therefore much prepared for, has a very good chance of eventually being fought.” A war over Taiwan’s status is becoming ever more likely, despite increasing awareness that it would be catastrophic for Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the United States, and any country that invited Chinese retaliation by joining the U.S. in war with China. This explains why not a single country in the region has officially committed itself to support the U.S. armed forces in a war to determine Taiwan’s status. None wants to see Taiwan absorbed into the CPC-ruled mainland, but they all want someone else to ensure that this doesn’t happen.
For U.S. security partners in Asia, the primary strategic challenge is not to defend Taiwan’s separation from the rest of China, but to find the basis for an equilibrium that includes both acceptable relationships with an ever more wealthy and powerful China and continued support for their freedom of action by an engaged United States. They clearly prefer self-interested relationships with competing hegemons to any choice between them. But current U.S. policy privileges American concerns and preferences over theirs. It asks them to help defend a crumbling status quo in East Asia and the Western Pacific in wh-ich the United States rema-ins in charge and China plays no accepted role.
It is in this context that the United States has come to center its approach to Indo-Pacific stability on sustaining Taiwan’s place in a continuing American ideological and geopolitical sphere of influence. U.S. policy aims to exclude China from any significant role in managing the affairs of its own region. But Washington has chosen to rely on purely military means to accomplish this. The United States and its ‘allies’ and friends lack a grand strategy to sustain a stabile balance in a newly dynamic Asia. Such a strategy would link diplomacy, economic policy, and force structure to interlocking assurances and constraints that would together inhibit potential challenges to the region’s peace and prosperity.
Washington’s current approach ignores both the current and potential capabilities of the region’s independent states as well as their need to find a basis for coexistence with a reinvigorated China. The United States seeks to perpetuate a commanding U.S. role in the region’s security while disinvesting in its economy and asking next to nothing of the countries it has volunteered to protect. This places a hugely disproportionate defense burden on Americans. The U.S. approach aims to hold onto a degree of American strategic management of the region’s interactions with a continually strengthening China that is both increasingly unrealistic and concerning to China’s neighbors. This is a uniquely costly and inherently unsustainable approach to the management of Asian security. It increases rather than reduces the danger of war.
Here is why:
— Unlike the diplomatic framework Washington and Beijing worked out in 1971-1982 to manage the Taiwan issue, current U.S. policy now provides China with no reason not to pursue Anschluss with Taiwan as an urgent national priority.
— Instead, U.S policy now seeks to preclude Beijing’s embrace of Taiwan by threatening a war that American military planners recognize would be catastrophic for the U.S. as well as Taiwan and the China mainland.
— The evolution of U.S. policy toward ever more explicit commitments to defend Taiwan’s continued ideological and geopolitical separation from the China mainland is now the main factor driving Beijing’s rapid enhancement of both its conventional and nuclear capabilities. China views its major defense challenge as deterring and, if necessary, countering U.S. intervention in Taiwan contingencies.
— Sino-American interactions include no mechanisms for escalation control or the mitigation of current conventional and nuclear arms races.
— American. technological supremacy has visibly eroded. Many aspects of the U.S. qualitative edge over China may already be unrestorable.
— The United States is addressing the ongoing shift in relative power and prestige between it and China with sanctions and export controls directed at retarding China’s advance, rather than with a convincing effort at domestic self-strengthening and economic rejuvenation.
— The U.S. has opted out of participation in the crafting of global or regional trade and investment regimes. In East Asia, China – now the economic heavyweight – shares leadership with a politically resurgent Japan, formidably competitive south Korea, and prospering ASEAN.
— Washington expects cooperation and wartime support of U.S. forces against China from Asian security partners but offers no offsets to their increasing interdependence with China or effective protection from Chinese retribution if they facilitate a U.S. war with China.
— The United States has no answer to China’s neighbors’ need to live alongside a wealthy and powerful China, regardless of the status of Taiwan or the state of Sino-American relations.
— U.S. policy has no endgame or apparent strategy for resolving – rather than perpetuating – tensions with China. If an attempt by Beijing to bring Taiwan to heel were to fail, there would be every reason to expect a successor Chinese regime to regroup and try again. If a Chinese use of force were to succeed, a humiliated United States would have to deal with a wounded China animated by a desire for revenge.
— No Indo-Pacific order that excludes the region’s greater and lesser powers – including China, India, Indonesia, Japan, the two Koreas, Thailand, and Vietnam – can hope to be stable. But the United States continues to rely on a “hub-and-spokes” alliance system designed to deal with the threat of a long-vanished ‘Sino-Soviet bloc’ to equally long-gone Asian weaknesses.
In practice, Washington remains opposed to the creation of any inclusive security architecture it cannot lead or dominate. This approach effectively inhibits regional cooperation to balance China’s rise. It does not promote it.