With the prospects of a transition of power next year, the punditry is once again shifting into high gear with alarmist messages about the risk of renewed tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As always, it is the Taiwanese side—not only the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) but also the millions of Taiwanese who want to maintain their way of life—that is being blamed for the potential risks, not the bully on the other side who is aiming his canons at the island.
What is even more extraordinary about this lopsided logic is that its adherents do recognize the extraordinary accomplishments that have been made by Taiwan over the decades. And yet they still find it within themselves to propose policies that are as defeatist as they are bereft of human decency—or logic, for that matter, as we shall see.
One of the high priests of the abandonment strategy is Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. Every once in a while, White regurgitates that point in op-eds and speeches (he tiptoed around the issue during a talk in Taipei last year, which I attended).
The gist of his idea is that China’s national power has become such that Taiwan cannot hope to resist it and the international community, the United States included, will not intervene on its behalf, lest doing so spark a major conflagration in the Asia-Pacific and hurt their economies.
In an op-ed, titled “The harsh reality that Taiwan faces” published in the Straits Times on April 15, White spells it all out. “Taiwan and its friends and admirers everywhere have to think very carefully about how to handle the dangerous period that lies ahead and to consider what is ultimately in the best interest of the Taiwanese people, as well as the rest of us.”
“The conclusions,” he writes, “will be uncomfortable, but inescapable.” In other words, White argues that Taiwan’s capitulation, and abandonment by the international community, is the only option.
The problem with White’s über-Realist position is that it rests on a series of false assumptions about China. To be fair to White, he doesn’t get it all wrong. He correctly identifies Beijing’s impatience under Xi Jinping and is almost certainly right when he says that a future DPP or Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) leader would not “return to policies as provocative to China as those of Mr. Lee or Mr. Chen”—referring to former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian—but that he or she would likely be more assertive than President Ma Ying-jeou, whose policy over the past seven years has primarily been to bend over backwards to please Beijing. (The so-called greater assertiveness of the future leader will be nothing more than a reflection of popular expectations in democratic Taiwan.)
However, White fails in his prescriptions, however laudable his intention to avoid major escalations may be. He writes:
No one visiting Taipei can fail to be impressed by what the Taiwanese have achieved in recent decades, not just economically but also politically, socially and culturally. But the harsh reality is that no country is going to sacrifice its relations with China in order to help Taiwan preserve the status quo. China is simply too important economically, and too powerful militarily, for anyone to confront it on Taiwan’s behalf, especially when everyone knows how determined China is to achieve reunification eventually.
The argument that a regional hegemon has become so powerful that smaller parties shouldn’t resist it and are undeserving of international support is a recipe for disaster, as it presages a return to an international relations system that led to two world wars.
We all know what good it did the world when the great powers left Czechoslovakia to fend for itself against Nazi Germany. The idea here isn’t to compare Beijing to Berlin under Hitler, but simply to point out the internal logic and dynamics of expansionism, and how appeasement isn’t the best answer to it.
Giving Taiwan away (as if it were the international community’s to give away to start with) would be akin to a sacrificial ceremony to appease an angry god. The problem is that doing so would likely be interpreted by Beijing as a sign of weakness, which almost certainly would fan the flames of Chinese expansionism rather than extinguish them. In fact, the annexation of Taiwan would further contribute to China’s might by adding the world’s 19th largest economy to its national power while providing Beijing with an “unsinkable carrier” facing an open Western Pacific. In this sense, it would provide China with a new front from which to confront Japan and the Philippines, not to mention U.S. forces deployed in the region.
Arguing for the preservation of Taiwan isn’t simply a symptom of wishful thinking by naïve liberals who want to save a democracy against authoritarianism; the Realists’ point that it should be bargained away can be met on similar terms. Abandoning Taiwan would likely encourage Chinese expansionism while giving it more tools to do so. In other words, the tradeoff, rather than ease tensions, would risk much greater instability in future.