Saturday, March 26, 2005

Armed Conflict

Although the Schiavo case has already led to a figurative war between the two ever-separating cultures in America, there's a growing chance of a non-figurative war, which is getting almost no news coverage. The possibly of armed conflict in Taiwan has been mostly overlooked, probably because there haven't been any significant events. Well, the million-strong Taiwanese protest of new Chinese legislation could be counted as an event, although I doubt it will be significant. (Here's a non-subscriber article.)

The protest came in response to March 14th legislation passed by China, allowing the use of "non-peaceful means" in response to any Taiwanese movements to declare independence. I suppose putting the threat of force in legal writing is a blow to the Taiwanese supporters of independence, but it shouldn't be a shock. China has repeatedly publicly kept the option of force open; in a policy speech in 1995 President Jiang Zemin reminded the world that military force would be used if necessary. With the American pledge to "do whatever it takes" announced by Bush in 2001, we could have a problem.

The solution offered by Ted Carpenter in a 1998 CATO institute report, and embraced by a December 2004 Atlantic Monthly article, is to take back the pledge but sell Taiwan whatever arms it needs to defend itself. Trevor Corson of the Atlantic Monthly explains:
Bereft of American protection, however, Taiwan would be forced to face the consequences of upsetting the status quo. The immediate result would be a dramatic reduction in China's political fears, thus removing the incentive for a pre-emptive strike and buying both sides some time to move toward a peaceful solution. For Taiwan and its supporters in Washington, the idea may sound like a betrayal. But the best way to help Taiwan mature into a full-fledged democracy might simply be to ask its people to take responsibility for their actions.
In fact, the CATO report shows that Taiwan can already do a fair job of defending itself. While the United States security pledge could put us in direct opposition of China, we remain in the delicate position of trying to please our economic ally. Our promised support only causes problems -- We get put in an awkward political situation, Taiwan can't be truly independent, and China is forced to build up more military in case we do go head-to-head over the island.

Of course, just because something is the best policy doesn't mean that it'll happen. With the current value of protecting and creating democracy, it would be political suicide to "abandon" this fledgling democracy. On the other hand... perhaps only Bush could go to Taiwan? Things are slowly reaching a boiling point, but I doubt anything short of launched missiles will put Taiwan on front pages any time soon.

2 Comments:

At 11:58 PM, Anonymous Tencia said...

First of all, speaking from a personal viewpoint, the viewpoint of someone with relatives living and ancestors buried in Taiwan, I hope for more than rational reasons that it never comes to war. So maybe what I say is a little too optimistic, but this is what I see.

First of all, I find it extremely hard to believe that China would actually use any sort of force on Taiwan. The consequences for China in terms of trade sanctions and international relations, especially with the importance that relations with the West will play if China is ever going to become a world power, would be far greater than any lasting gain that unification with Taiwan would bring. While it's always true that countries such as the U.S. and Japan could simply not do anything if China makes a move towards using force, I wouldn't bet on it.

Actually, I don't really understand why China wants Taiwan to begin with if force could possibly be involved. Peaceful unification would obviously bring in a nice rich little prize, but the truth is Taiwan isn't big, its population is concentrated in the bits that aren't rice fields or mountains, and any coercion by force will obviously cause them to fight back. It wouldn't be too hard to significantly damage Taiwan's infrastructure using missiles or bombs, but doing so to the point where they are forced to concede would obviously damage the economy a lot.

At the same time, I read the CATO report and selling Taiwan arms doesn't seem to have any negative effects. I just don't believe it will ever come to force - the law seems to be more a discouragement towards Taiwan declaring independence, then a promise of force should that eventuality occur. If they actually did, surely the Chinese would not be so shortsighted as to rush into a useless fight in which, even if they win, they gain something worth less than the effort it took to get it.

I hope you'll excuse me for not citing sources, and please do correct me if I'm wrong in any statement. I feel stupid reading you guys' entries because I almost never research my own arguments so thoroughly. Anyway, Jesse, you were on AIM and I was going to talk to you but then you left. I'm off to NYC tomorrow, catch up with you later :)

 
At 1:38 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Nice post, Jesse. Cross-strait tensions aren't anything new, but they certainly look as intractable now as they have at any point in the past half century. One point I think is worth bringing up is that regardless of the approach we take toward Taiwan and China, every day war does not actively break out between those two countries is a day the future likelihood of war decreases.

China's ruling class is today caught between two issues they percieve - perhaps rightly - as existential. On the one hand, the centerpiece of Chinese nationalism (which, since the implicit abandonment of Marxism as a state ideology by the Chinese government, is the biggest unifying force in China) has for the past several decades been unification with Taiwan. On the other hand, there is the fact that much of the legitimacy of China's current government stems from its ability to deliver absolutely phenomenal levels of economic growth, year after year. We can make the second of these issues hinge on continued peace with Taiwan by, well, maintaining the status quo - which has in recent years reulted in the blossoming of trade links between the two countries. As time goes by and trade between China and Taiwan further expands, war is going to become less likely, because it will become more and more of a threat to the prosperity and continuous growth which prop up China's government.

And that's not the only way economic integration can reduce the likelihood of war. Princeton professor Minxin Pei, like many other observers of Taiwan-China relations, notes that over the past 15 years Chinese economic development and liberalization has brought with it political liberalization. As China's political system liberalizes, it will become less dependent on appeals to nationalism as a source of legitimacy - and this, in the long run, is what can obviate the risk of war across the Taiwanese strait. Want peace? Then bring on the trade!

 

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