Mearsheimer on Taiwan: Fatalism, Appeasement, & Capitulation
Before I dive into the Taipei Times article on John Mearsheimer’s views on Taiwan, a little background info on Professor Mearsheimer sets the context:
John J. Mearsheimer born December 1947 is an American professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is an international relations theorist. Known for his 2001 book on offensive realism, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, Mearsheimer became better known for co-authoring with Stephen Walt the New York Times Best Seller The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007). His 2011 book Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics is described as cataloging “the kinds of lies nations tell each other.” According to an interview with Mearsheimer in The Boston Globe, the lesson of the book is: “Lie selectively, lie well, and ultimately be good at what you do.”
Mearsheimer is the leading proponent of what he calls ‘offensive realism’ in the neorealism school of international relations:
… offensive realism maintains that states are not satisfied with a given amount of power, but seek hegemony for security because the anarchic makeup of the international system creates strong incentives for states to seek opportunities to gain power at the expense of competitors.
Now let’s parse what he reportedly has to say about Taiwan.
The continuing rise of China will have huge consequences for Taiwan “almost all of which are bad,” University of Chicago political science professor John Mearsheimer says.
In a study to be published in a forthcoming issue of National Interest he says that while most Taiwanese would like their country to gain de jure independence, that is not going to happen.
Props here to Mearsheimer for recognising the fact that most Taiwanese want de jure independence at some point but it is sad to see such fatalism concerning whether that outcome is possible in the future. As a professor of international relations, I would have thought it a basic tenet of academic study to realise the great variability and contingency inherent in his field of study, and therefore the folly of arriving at such definitive and intractable conclusions.
Mearsheimer, described by the US Army War College as an “icon in the field of grand strategy,” says the worst possible outcome for Taiwan would be unification with China under terms dictated by Beijing.
According to a theory developed by Mearsheimer, China will try to dominate Asia the way the US dominates the Western hemisphere.
“There is a powerful strategic rationale for China — at the very least — to try to sever Taiwan’s close ties with the US and neutralize Taiwan,” he says.
“The best possible outcome for China, which it will surely pursue with increasing vigor over time, is to make Taiwan part of China,” he added.
I agree here that unification on Beijing’s terms would be the worst possible outcome for Taiwan (but not entirely for the deep blue KMT reactionaries). Looking at events in the South and East China Seas over the last three years I would modify that ‘will’ to ‘is trying to’. What is not discussed though is this idea that PRC annexation of Taiwan is naturally in China’s best interests. Perhaps to CCP hawks, ‘unifying’ the nation might be the salve to all of the PRC’s existential, economic, security, and political problems but I see very little discussion of how or why that might be. If there is one area of analysis that is sorely lacking it is what would happen if and after Taiwan was annexed by the PRC. What benefits would this bring China that are already not derived from current levels of cross-strait interaction? What economic, political, and environmental costs would annexation infer upon the PRC (e.g. the cost of constantly having to suppress the Taiwanese desire for autonomy and freedom of speech, movement, and political accountability)? Most debate takes the Chinese position on Taiwan for granted (they demand ‘unification’ as an unconditional goal) but little of it discusses why Taiwan is so important to the PRC aside from the obvious geopolitical and regional strategic implications. What for example are the domestic factors that might be pushing China towards this policy goal?
Mearsheimer says the US can be expected to go to great lengths to contain China and will have “powerful incentives” to make Taiwan an important player in its anti-China balancing coalition.
However, there are also reasons to think the US-Taiwan relationship is not sustainable over the long term.
“At some point in the next decade or so it will become impossible for the US to help Taiwan defend itself against a Chinese attack,” he says.
If US Taiwan policy continues on its current course then Mearsheimer’s projections are accurate enough. The US-Taiwan relationship will certainly not be sustainable if the US continues to slowly back out of its stated commitments to protecting Taiwan. It is US appeasement of China that has created the political vacuum that allowed the KMT to seize back and retain the Presidency in the last two elections. It is US appeasement of China that has seen arms sales falter and be radically downsized in a way that makes the Chinese military policy implementing a denial-of-entry military strategy both feasible and substantive.
“When it comes to a competition between China and the US over projecting military power into Taiwan, China wins hands down,” he adds.
In a fight over Taiwan, Mearsheimer says, US policymakers would be reluctant to launch major strikes against Chinese forces in China, for fear it might precipitate nuclear escalation.
“The US 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,” he says.
Mearsheimer is right to point out likely US reluctance to engage China in a conflict utilising more than just conventional weaponry. But nuclear escalation is not the only concern for US policy makers, many of whom are also, directly and indirectly, invested in the Chinese economy. Remember, US foreign policy has been historically predicated upon the principle of maintaining US global economic hegemony. The desire to avoid a M.A.D scenario might be the stated reason but, even for a country built and sustained on an economy of war, blowing up the manufacturing base that your largest corporations exploit domestically is probably viewed as cutting off your nose to spite your face. Interestingly here Mearsheimer makes a distinction between Taiwan and South Korea and Japan. Taiwan, according to Mearsheimer, with its 20th largest global economy and 52nd largest national population is clearly dispensable, especially when compared, unfairly, to South Korea and Japan. The comparison though is unbalanced by the fact that China does not covet annexing South Korea or Japan. In the case of the former the PRC seems content to help maintain the division between north and south to preempt the economic and political rise of a united Korea, and regarding Japan, the PRC is not allegedly aiming at a land war but a short sharp conflict that divests Japan of several key islands providing a strategic naval advantage and a humiliating symbolic victory. So, Taiwan is not Japan or South Korea, but it is packed with 23 million extremely conflict averse people who would suffer immensely if the US capitulated and let the PRC walk into Taipei with little more than a press release from the State Department outlining its ‘concerns’. As usual in all this Grand Chess strategic reasoning, actual people and their families and human rights are little more than footnotes. Oh, thousands arrested, tortured, and murdered by PRC forces? That’s a shame but you can’t stop history and it was bound to happen and the cost of intervention would have been too high etc etc It really is very easy to reduce and ignore other people’s pain, suffering, and loss when it has no direct impact on yourself.
He says Taiwan is an especially dangerous flashpoint, which could easily precipitate a Sino-US war that is not in the US’ interest.
US policymakers understand that the fate of Taiwan is a matter of great concern to China and there is a “reasonable chance” US policymakers will eventually conclude that it makes good strategic sense to abandon Taiwan and allow China to coerce it into accepting unification, Mearsheimer says.
“All of this is to say that the US is likely to be somewhat schizophrenic about Taiwan in the decades ahead,” he says.
A Sino-US war may not be in the US’ interests but then neither was WWII until Roosevelt allowed Japan to attack Pearl Harbour as a means to push the US to protect Europe from fascism and Asia from deadly Japanese nationalist exceptionalism and colonialism. Unfortunately I can actually see Mearsheimer being right about US policy makers capitulating on Taiwan, a mistake that might appear at the time as ‘good strategic sense’ but will likely be noted by historians later as a monumental mistake. Mearsheimer is bang on point though when he describes the US as ‘schizophrenic’ about Taiwan although I think that descriptor is unfair to sufferers of that disease. I think’ weak-willed’, ‘internally divided’, ‘compromised’, or ‘amoral’ might be better adjectives in this case.
He says Taiwan has three options: Develop its own nuclear deterrent, have a conventional deterrence strong enough to ensure China will pay a huge price if it invades, or pursue the “Hong Kong strategy.”
Only three? Again, Mearsheimer’s fatalism limits his options and funnels him towards a predestined conclusion. It is true that the US and the PRC will not allow Taiwan to develop a nuclear deterrent. The US is also doing the opposite of helping Taiwan develop a strong enough conventional deterrence, despite a plethora of academics and analysts who have advised that this is making Chinese aggression more likely. State’s implicit support for President Ma has been a major element in the entrenchment of the abandonment of Taiwan’s capacity to defend itself. Finally, ask Hong Kong people how they feel about their ‘return to the motherland’ and you might find that ‘Finlandisation’ comes into the conversation at some point. Taiwanese love Hong Kong but there is no evidence they want, or would accept, becoming another such satrapy of the PRC. Once again though, an economic angle is missing. Taiwanese companies have invested billions of dollars into the Chinese economy. Perhaps the US should look at providing Taiwanese with other cheaper and more profitable investment options or ways for them to quickly withdraw and relocate that investment. Perhaps the best way to counteract Chinese military adventurism would be to find a credible way to quickly hollow out the financial base of the Chinese economy and let them know that if they moved on Taiwan they would in effect be bankrupting themselves. But again, that is not going to happen when so many key figures in, and advisors to, the Obama administration (and on the Beltway) are invested in China. If the US were wise it would encourage a ‘rebalancing’ and ‘diversification’ of the economic interests US companies have in the PRC towards a range of other countries, perhaps India, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, and Taiwan. Taiwan will likely matter far more to the US when the US economy has a stronger and deeply co-dependent economic relationship with Taiwan.
Mearsheimer says that once China becomes a superpower, it probably makes most sense for Taiwan to pursue the Hong Kong strategy.
He says Taiwan could accept the fact that it is doomed to lose its independence and work hard to make sure that a transition is peaceful and that it gains as much autonomy as possible from Beijing.
First, China is already a super power. It is the world’s second largest economy and has arguably the largest, in personnel terms, land based military in the world. It is also a nuclear power. Secondly, pursuing a Hong Kong strategy will likely dampen PLA and PLAN adventurism over Taiwan but where would that aggression be displaced to next? India? Japan? Philippines? Imagining that Taiwan self-annexing itself to China will eliminate East Asian regional tensions is an exercise in self-delusion that ignores the complex matrix of domestic and international rationales for China’s ‘unpeaceful rise’.
“The 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,” he adds.
Mearsheimer says that 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 US will be able to protect Taiwan from China, as it does now.
Taiwanese don’t want either a drastic slowdown in Chinese economic growth or serious political problems across the strait because the Taiwanese economy has, especially as a result of encouragement from the Ma Administration, become more, not less, invested in China. Neither do they want political instability because that is also corrosive to economic growth and stability and it raises the spectre of a possible PLA, PLAN, and PLAA coup d’etat or unilateral military actions. Remember, when great states fail, they usually push outward to deflect attention from domestic problems. Nationalism after all is its most potent when it can be utilised to blame neighbouring foreign countries and peoples for manufactured evils as a means to secure the power and authority of failing and corrupted elites at home. Taiwanese certainly don’t want to be a little over 100 miles away from a failed PRC state collapsing in on itself and viciously striking out in all directions.
“In essence, the best way for Taiwan to maintain de facto independence is for China to be economically and militarily weak,” he says.
“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,” he says.
“A powerful China is a nightmare for Taiwan,” he adds.
Mearsheimer’s argument that a weak China is good for Taiwan appears to make sense on the surface but he makes it in the full knowledge of China’s currently strong and growing economic influence, and this then just serves to only feed into his central argument that Taiwanese should just annex themselves into the PRC and be done with it. It also overlooks another more plausible source of defence which would be a realignment of US Taiwan policy in a way that massively increases the cost of PRC action against Taiwan. The US needs not a symbolic and hollow ‘Pivot to Asia’ but a substantive declaration of its interests in maintaining Taiwanese de facto independence, and a clear warning that any moves by the PRC to strike at Taiwan or coerce it into ‘unification’ would be answered immediately and comprehensively with a range of non-nuclear responses.
Finally, Mearsheimer at least hits the nail on the head when he says Taiwanese have only helped make the threat from China to Taiwan’s independence more substantive by facilitating its economic growth. Perhaps this will be the Achilles Heel that eventually destroys the Taiwanese’ brief flirtation with democracy and self determination and locks it into another four hundred years of colonial occupation. Perhaps it will be the Chinese nationalists on Taiwan who are apparently more concerned about protecting Greater China and the Zhonghua Minzu, and who would rather collaborate with the CCP and and PRC than be ‘claustrophobically stranded’ on an independent Taiwan, who will bring their nationalist dreams, and Taiwanese nightmares, to fruition. And it will be catastrophically myopic US foreign policy that facilitates it.