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The government-to-government talks between Wang Yu-chi, head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, and Zhang Zhijun, head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, are significant, but not for reasons many think. Indeed, the talks are most noteworthy because they happened at all. A key element of China’s Taiwan policy has been to isolate the island and get all countries to accept the Chinese position that Taiwan is not a country, but a province of China.
Now Taiwan and China have had government-to-government talks. China has moved a step closer to accepting Taiwan’s de facto independent status as a country with its own national government. The substance of the talks will be far less noteworthy as Taiwan does not want to make any concessions or agreements on political issues such as its international status.
U.S. policymakers should insist that this is now the precedent: China has to work out its differences with Taiwan on a government-to-government basis. The talks also provide us a chance to reflect on five faulty assumptions about Taiwan, many developed during and since the normalization process with China in the 1970s. Here they are:
1. Taiwan and China would reunify after a “decent interval.” This belief goes back to then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger in his meetings with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai during the early stages of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to China (It was Nixon’s opening: Kissinger thought Nixon odd for even suggesting an opening to China.) Kissinger told Zhou that the “political evolution” of Taiwan would proceed “in the direction” that Zhou wanted, meaning toward unification with the “motherland.” He also said that the United Stated would not stand in the way of that “evolution.”
Oops. Today Taiwan is standing tall as a de facto independent democracy with an elected president, a national legislature, and a national military. Kissinger and many of his successors were just wrong. The Taiwan example is a damning case of how misguided “realism” can be. A cacophony of supporters — a bipartisan group of congressmen, anti-communist groups, democracy supporters, and, foremost, the Taiwanese people themselves — banded together to make sure that the “political evolution” of Taiwan proceeded in a direction opposite of what Kissinger assumed. (There are still books to be written about how wrong Kissinger was about Asia and about how the sloppy normalization process created many of the problems in Asia that we live with today.)
Kissinger is a self-described realist. But his realism ignores important factors that drive international politics such as individual acts of leadership, beliefs in freedom and justice, and the importance of emotion and public desires.
2. Taiwan: Homo economicus. Related to No. 1, the unstated assumption in U.S. cross-strait policy after normalization has been that the Taiwanese are driven mostly by rational, material self-interest. The opening of China-Taiwan economic ties, a process that began two decades ago, was supposed to lead to some sort of political solution as Taiwan acted in its economic self-interest.
Well, Taiwan did invest heavily in China and in the process grew both the Chinese and Taiwanese economies. But as economic ties have expanded, the Taiwanese feel an ever stronger sense of uniqueness. Close contact did not make the heart grow fonder. The more contact the Taiwanese have with China, the more they feel different from the Chinese, including when it comes to the openness of their society and how modern and advanced Taiwan is compared with China. The other issue is a generational shift as fewer Taiwanese feel a historical emotional attachment to China. “Reunification” is now only possible for Beijing if it chooses to start a war.
3. Taiwan is dependent on China’s economy; it must eventually accept unification. This is a cousin of point 2 above. The truth is that Taiwan and China are dependent on each other (and on the United States, Japan, and South Korea) to design and produce high-tech products. They are both highly dependent on other countries to buy those products. Yes, Taiwan developed a very sophisticated China strategy that made the mainland a key link on its high-tech supply chain. But Taiwanese businessmen are arguably the most agile in Asia.
If China becomes too risky or costly, Taiwanese business will move production elsewhere. To some extent this is already happening as Taiwanese business is making large investments in Vietnam, Myanmar, and Indonesia. Taiwan has many options.
The sad irony is that the only country that can marginalize the Taiwanese economy is the United States. How? By not allowing it into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If Taiwan is excluded, other countries benefiting from lower tariffs will develop competitive advantages that could squeeze out high-end Taiwanese design and manufactures. Unfortunately, excluding Taiwan from the TPP appears to be the U.S. policy. Taiwan is not overly dependent on the Chinese economy. It is overly dependent on the political whims of Washington.
These three assumptions all have to do with how Taiwan got to where it is despite the exertions of our realists. The next faulty assumptions have to do with how to have a more realistic defense and deterrence policy in the Taiwan Strait that solidifies Taiwan’s progress:
4. Taiwan will have the defense policy we want. Actually Taiwan will have the defense policy it wants. The United States currently insists that Taiwan abandon its previous strategy of engaging its enemy away from its shores and instead focus on defense of its homeland. The former strategy made a great deal of sense given that Taiwan suffers from a lack of strategic depth and is a maritime island, dependent on trade.
Now the United States insists that Taiwan withstand a potentially blistering missile and air campaign, not hit back, and focus only on preparing for a possible invasion of the island. This is both unwise and unrealistic. No democratic president can simply ask his people to hunker down and take a missile salvo. There would be enormous public pressure to hit back, in order to bolster national morale if nothing else. But the ability to hit back even in a limited fashion can work strategically as well.
Consider a fairly recent example: After a devastating air campaign by Israel in 2006, the fact that Hezbollah was still able to fire even crude rockets into Israel was a source of great frustration among the Israeli military and of terror among Israel’s population. The belief among most observers is that Israel lost that war despite its superior military capabilities. Hezbollah was still able to reach out and touch Israel.
Taiwan’s military wants to retain some ability to show its population that it can hit back, even if such a capability would not be decisive. A show of force of this kind would also signal to China that it has to pay a higher price in blood and treasure to achieve its political goals. Remember, a failure in national security policy can be very threatening to the Chinese Communist Party. While it could mean a Chinese escalation after an initial tactical failure, it could also mean that China would cut its losses after “making its point” and call it quits.
But Taiwan’s military does not just want some strike capability to deter and embarrass China; it also needs the means to defend its airspace and break blockades. Here is how our faulty assumptions translate into policy: The United States insists that Taiwan does not need or cannot have an air force. But Taiwan’s main procurement goal is new F-16s. The Taiwanese know that they need some ability to engage Chinese fighters and provide some protection over Taiwan. Taiwan’s other big procurement goal is submarines. But after approving the sale of submarines to Taiwan, the United States has been sitting on Taiwan’s request for submarines for 13 years. Taiwan has an open request for submarines that has been collecting dust in the interagency decision-making process. This is a moral and strategic outrage. Taiwan needs a very robust undersea warfare capability that could cause China big headaches in trying to track that capability.
If the United States not provide Taiwan with the defense capabilities it needs, it will likely develop more dangerous options (as it did in the 1980s). The point is that Taiwan’s president will need to protect his people with any means he has, no matter what the Washington bureaucracy thinks.
5. We won’t act to help Taiwan. This may be the most dangerous assumption of all. There is a sense of fatalism and defeatism combined with a notion that “unification is inevitable” setting in among foreign-and defense-policy observers in Washington and around the world.
The argument is that Taiwan is indefensible and that the United States won’t risk its relations with China over Taiwan. But there is a credible argument that Washington gets into conflicts because potential adversaries underestimate U.S. willingness to abide by its commitments. It is worth remembering that the United States was not supposed to “die for Danzig,” that Berlin did not seem worth it either in the Cold War, and that South Korea was outside the U.S. defense perimeter before the Korean War.
The United States is hard to read because of the diffusion and openness of its policymaking. And it may seem and even be unpredictable. But a defensible reading of history is that when the global balance of power is at stake, the United States reacts forcefully. If China started a war over Taiwan, all previous assumptions would be quickly dispatched, and fear, anxiety, emotion, a president’s calculation over vital interests, and allied concern would all set in. It would be a mistake for China in particular to read too much into seeming U.S. complacency now. If Taiwan is under coercive threat, all calculations change. The United States wants to avoid a conflict; to do so, it cannot allow its benign negligence of Taiwan to be interpreted as a lessening of U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security.
The talks between the Mainland Affairs Council and the Taiwan Affairs Office prove that the supposedly master grand strategists, such as Kissinger and some his successors, were wrong about a major international issue. They simply did not factor in all the elements that drive international politics. When they assumed Taiwan away, they ignored Taiwan’s will to exist and thrive, as well as broad U.S. public support for Taiwan. Now, whether by design or not, China has taken a step toward recognizing Taiwan’s status in international politics. (It is sad and ironic that high-level Taiwanese officials can go to China but not the United States for high-level summitry). The talks will not lead to any substantive breakthrough, but they are a symbolic breakthrough. To avoid miscalculation and conflict, the United States would do well to fortify this gain and insist that the precedent has been set. Continued government-to-government talks between China and Taiwan should continue often and at all levels.
This is the road to a peaceful resolution of disputes between Beijing and Taipei. Meanwhile, the United States must keep its powder dry, read its own strategic history, and not self-deter by assuming the worst about the credibility of its own commitments. The United States must also realize that Taiwan will also continue to hedge by improving its defense capacity in its own way. The United States must be realistic about what a democracy must do to demonstrate its ability to defend itself and must stop the flights of fancy that have led to a current de facto arms-sales freeze. This sort of policy would serve U.S. interests and may even be realistic.
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