Say Hello to Taiwan

Taipei 101 at twilight. Flickr/Jack Chi

Taiwan and its friends are becoming more powerful together.

November-December 2016

JOHN J. MEARSHEIMER, the distinguished University of Chicago political scientist, argued in the National Interest two years ago that Taiwan had almost no hope of maintaining de facto independence. China, he made clear, will grow so strong in the coming decades that it will, as a regional hegemon, be able to evict the United States from East Asia, dominate its periphery and, one way or another, absorb the island that lies a mere hundred miles from its shores.

Fortunately for the twenty-four million people living in Taiwan, almost everything Mearsheimer thinks about the island’s future is wrong. Mearsheimer gets one thing right, however: the People’s Republic of China will try to make Taiwan its thirty-fourth province.

Mearsheimer relies on standard realist theory to explain Taiwan’s predicament. “The only way to predict how a rising China is likely to behave toward its neighbors as well as the United States is with a theory of great-power politics,” he writes. Applying this theory, he tells us there are two “logics,” China’s nationalism and the country’s imperative to security. “Both logics,” he continues, “lead to the same endgame: the unification of China and Taiwan.” Mearsheimer believes the United States, working to prevent China from dominating its periphery, will at first try to make Taiwan a part of its “anti-China balancing coalition.” Eventually, however, Washington will decide to let go of Taiwan because the prize is more important to the Chinese than to the Americans. From there, it is all downhill for Taipei.

There is an elegant logic to Mearsheimer’s argument, even if it comes off as deterministic at times, but there are two main reasons why Taiwan will prove to be far more resilient than he thinks. First, China during the coming decades will not resemble the country that inhabits Mearsheimer’s imagination. Second, even if China becomes the dominant regional power, as he believes, its neighbors will block it from taking over East Asia. Mearsheimer, perhaps the leading realist thinker today, isn’t all that realistic about Taiwan’s future.

 

AT THE core of “Say Goodbye to Taiwan” is the assumption that China will continue its extraordinary rise. But will it? In 2014, when the piece appeared, Mearsheimer’s prediction appeared sound. Today, it does not.

China’s economy is sputtering. Beijing has given up on reform. Instead, it is moving to close off the country’s markets, targeting multinationals and recombining already monopolistic state enterprises. At the same time, Chinese technocrats have reacted to a slowdown in growth by piling on debt at alarming rates. The rapid buildup—debt is growing at least four times faster than gross domestic product—has enlarged underlying imbalances in the economy and postponed a natural downward adjustment, making the crash, when it comes, far more severe than it ever had to be. Even People’s Daily, the ruling elite’s mouthpiece, appears anxious. In May, a front-page feature warned about a “systemic financial crisis.”

And while this is occurring, the country’s political system is fracturing, its social fabric fraying, its environment deteriorating, its people emigrating, its demography beginning a century-long decline. China is held together only through the Communist Party’s increasingly coercive governance, unsustainable in a fast-modernizing society. “China has hit the ceiling” is how Gerrit van der Wees, former editor of Taiwan Communiqué, characterizes the situation across the Taiwan Strait.

China, unfortunately for the party, has passed not just an inflection point but also the point of no return. A prolonged period of regressive moves on almost all fronts—well into its second decade—indicates there are no solutions possible within the context of a political system that leaders will not change.

Mearsheimer is not unaware of China’s difficulties. He notes at the end of “Say Goodbye” that Taiwan’s only hope 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.” Yet the line is an afterthought, no more than a passing comment at the end of a lengthy essay, and not integrated into his argument.

Mearsheimer’s fundamental premise—that China’s extraordinary rise will continue indefinitely—is unlikely to hold true. Yet even if he is right on this score, his application of realist theory to Asia is deeply flawed. In his telling, there are only two powers in East Asia that count: China and the United States. As Jon Meacham wrote in Time within months of the release of “Say Goodbye,” we should be thinking “in kaleidoscopic terms, not binary ones.” And with regard to both the world—Meacham’s topic—and East Asia, he is right. There is, in short, more to the region than just China and the United States.

As an initial matter, China does have friends. Beijing can almost always count on Cambodia and Laos to support its efforts to block the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from issuing resolutions it does not like. When prompted, the pair will put out statements of support on issues of the day. That, however, is about the extent of the help they could give China on Taiwan. Thailand, in a region without America, would likely gravitate into China’s orbit. Washington’s criticisms of prolonged military rule have already pushed Bangkok toward Beijing.

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