Say Goodbye to Taiwan

Time is running out for the little island coveted by its gigantic, growing neighbor.

March-April 2014

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.

John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He serves on the Advisory Council of The National Interest. This article is adapted from a speech he gave in Taipei on December 7, 2013, to the Taiwanese Association of International Relations. An updated edition of his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics will be published in April by W. W. Norton.

Image: Fotopedia.

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SecurityGrand StrategyGreat PowersMilitary Strategy
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AsiaNortheast AsiaTaiwan