The Chinese know of Japan’s determination—and its impressive self-defense capabilities—and appear to have been deterred for decades. After all, it would be difficult for the PLA to attack Taiwan without passing through Japanese waters or airspace, so, as Waldron notes, China, by taking on Taiwan, would be buying “two wars for the price of one.”
And should China take on Japan, it will probably have to confront a good part of the region as well. Thanks to Chinese provocations, Tokyo is developing military ties around East Asia with Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. Moreover, Japan has other friends just beyond East Asia’s periphery—Australia and India, for instance. Poked incessantly by Beijing, New Delhi is increasingly becoming involved in the region. And India matters. Alone among Asian nations, it has a credible claim of becoming the owner of the twenty-first century, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi often reiterates. New Delhi has thrown in its lot with Tokyo and Hanoi, two capitals also directly threatened by Chinese actions. Indian vessels exercised with their Japanese counterparts, most recently in June in the Malabar drills. The region is coalescing around Japan, and at this rate it is more likely to become Nipponized than Sinicized. The acceptance of Japan’s new role is remarkable. In the first keynote ever delivered by a Japanese prime minister at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Shinzo Abe spoke of the “new Japanese” providing security around the region. In a few words at East Asia’s premier security conference, Japan’s leader staked out a position that could become the basis of the region’s security architecture.
Tokyo’s time has come. In late 2006, then Minister of Foreign Affairs Taro Aso talked about the region building an “arc of freedom and prosperity.” The concept was years too early. Then, nations were optimistic about China adhering to the international system’s rules, treaties and norms. Few outside Japan thought the region needed a plan B.
NOW, HOWEVER, nations realize the dangers of Chinese assertion and are scrambling to build defense networks. In Asia’s new kaleidoscope, even the weak, with friends, can hold off the strong. Among the weakest regional actors is the Philippines. Manila was not able to prevent China from grabbing Mischief Reef in 1995 or Scarborough Shoal in 2012. The loss of Scarborough was especially consequential, as the feature, located just 124 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, guards the strategic Manila and Subic Bays.
After seizing the shoal, Beijing then went on to increase pressure on Second Thomas Shoal, off the coast of Palawan. There, Manila in 1999 grounded a World War II–era landing ship, the Sierra Madre, and placed a small detachment of marines on board to preserve its sovereignty. The Chinese, employing their so-called “cabbage strategy,” have stepped up efforts in recent years to prevent resupply.
The Philippines, which could not hope to compete with China ship for ship even in its own waters, turned to lawfare. In 2013, Manila instituted an arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in The Hague. At first, Beijing did not grasp the significance of the case. In early July, the arbitral panel issued a sweeping award against China, and Beijing reacted with anger, provocation and belligerence—what the Asia Society’s Orville Schell called a policy of “no acceptance, no participation, no recognition, and no implementation.” Beijing found itself isolated and, inadvertently, curried international favor for Manila. The Philippines has yet to recover Mischief or Scarborough, but China is facing a formidable coalition spread across four continents.
The Philippine case suggests that, contrary to Mearsheimer’s analysis, America’s departure from the region will not create a vacuum. In America’s absence, Japan will, in all likelihood, anchor a new security architecture. By focusing only on China and the United States, Mearsheimer ignores the possibility of regional actors defending Taiwan. He does, it is true, acknowledge that Taiwan is part of a U.S.-led coalition, yet does not discuss the grouping after the predicted American withdrawal. Nor does he give the coalition any agency, as if states in the region could not protect their interests if the United States were not around.
That coalition could end up the dominant factor in East Asia. China, unfortunately for the region, is insistent on using forceful tactics to dismember the Philippines, four other South China Sea claimants, South Korea and Japan. Those threatened will naturally draw together, as they are now doing. And Taiwan will be critical to that alliance. It is “the cork in the bottle,” the landmass in the “First Island Chain” that helps trap the Chinese navy close to shore. Japan and other Asian states, therefore, will have every reason to believe that defending Taiwan is defending their own territory.
Of course, the existence of such a coalition substantially decreases the possibility that the United States exits the region. After all, Mearsheimer thinks Washington will leave because Beijing will push it out. Nonetheless, the Chinese state, no matter how strong it may become, is unlikely to be so powerful that it will be able to match all the regional actors and the United States together in heft. As is becoming evident, in East Asia today, there is a divide between China and weak friends on one side and just about every other state on the other. In fact, regional diplomats for years have been pulling Washington into more active involvement in the region, precisely because they seek a counterweight to Beijing.
APART FROM Mearsheimer’s flawed application of realism to the region, there are three other aspects of his argument deserving special mention. First, he makes unsubstantiated statements on Chinese public opinion. He tells us “the legitimacy of the Chinese regime is bound up with making sure Taiwan does not become a sovereign state and that it eventually becomes an integral part of China.” Furthermore, he writes, the “unification of China and Taiwan is one of the core elements of Chinese national identity.” Taiwan’s fate “is a matter of great concern to Chinese of all persuasions.” His argument is that the Chinese public will be instrumental in making sure the regime absorbs Taiwan.
It is beyond question that the party’s legitimacy is tied to taking territory because its leaders have made it so, but it is not clear what Chinese people feel and, more importantly, how strongly they feel about it. In authoritarian societies, it is extremely difficult to gauge public sentiment on issues important to the regime.
There are hotheads in China demanding immediate action to “reunify” the country, but there are those who fully appreciate why Taiwan does not want to be absorbed by an undemocratic state. My wife and I were living in Shanghai when Chen Shui-bian was elected Taiwan’s president in 2000. Many Chinese, especially those from younger generations, were inspired by his election and awed by the constitutionally mandated transfer of power from one political party to another. It is unlikely that these same people would ever push their leaders to destroy that society, especially because people in China view those in Taiwan as compatriots and “Chinese should not kill Chinese” is a sentiment often heard outside official circles.
Most Chinese people, due to relentless indoctrination, would probably like to see Taiwan join the People’s Republic. But they are unlikely to lend this issue much importance in a time of growing economic hardship. In any event, there is little evidence that public sentiment on Taiwan drives Beijing’s policy—or that it has the potential to do so.
Second, Mearsheimer tells Taiwan to look to Hong Kong for its future political arrangements. “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,’” he writes, referring to the “one country, two systems” (1C2S) model that Beijing employs to run the former British colony. “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.’”
Since “Say Goodbye” went to press, it has become obvious that 1C2S has completely failed. In the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic, calls for independence are steadily growing. Beijing has completely spent its popularity, so evident at the time of the “handover” in mid-1997, and the wave of anti-China sentiment has changed most every political calculation there.
Hong Kong’s former colonial master, once unpopular in many quarters, is now viewed with fondness and nostalgia. The most visible evidence of this complete reversal in thinking is the sight of the Union Jack. It is seen flying during moments of protest and frequently displayed proudly on clothing. Many people in the city no longer consider themselves “Chinese,” and those in the People’s Republic are not just foreigners but “locusts.”
The Taiwan public sees the failure of the Hong Kong strategy; the framework has absolutely no resonance in Taiwan. “Democracy is our way of life and the people of Taiwan cherish their hard-earned freedom,” Brian Su, deputy director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, told me via e-mail. “We are determined to uphold our democratic system and our sovereignty, anything less is unacceptable.”