Matthew Yglesias strives for clarity on Taiwan but seems to come up a little short.
Here’s another try.
Taiwan receives unequivocal U.S. protection as long as it eschews independence.
I agree that the time for strategic ambiguity is past. It’s a holdover from the first era of U.S.-PRC relations, which began in 1979 when America abruptly dropped Taiwan, signed onto a one China policy, and thereby implied that the fate of Taiwan was something that the United States might not concern itself about.
Since giving a green light to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was politically and strategically unsound even then, the U.S. fudged the issue in order to create the impression that, our formal diplomatic policy in support of China’s position on Taiwan notwithstanding, we and our 6th Fleet might still step in on Taiwan’s behalf.
A few things have happened since then.
Taiwan revised its constitution and abandoned the lethal fiction that it had a legitimate claim on the mainland. It democratized after decades of dictatorship, creating a de facto sovereign state instead of a rump KMT regime.
Then the PRC fumbled the ball politically, first with Tian An Men in 1989 and then with the clumsy resumption of Hong Kong sovereignty in 1997.
The Hong Kong failure was almost as damaging as Tian An Men.
Hong Kong was supposed to be a showcase and a celebration, a trial run for an early political integration of Taiwan and China. But China’s execution, from the deliberately and tortuously unrepresentative constitution it forced on Hong Kong to its installation of proto-stooge Tung Chi-hwa, and its ham-fisted approach to the judiciary excited outrage and suspicion instead of admiration.
Hong Kong demonstrated that even under the most favorable circumstances of a co-opted local elite and British support, the PRC couldn’t engineer an enthusiastic popular consensus in favor of its rule.
Taiwanese looked at what the Chinese did in Tian An Men and Hong Kong and said, no thanks. So did the rest of world opinion.
Economically, China is a juggernaut. Politically, it's a train wreck nobody wants in their backyard.
U.S. acquiescence to the Chinese removal of a ridiculous and embarrassing KMT regime occupying Taiwan in the 1980s was conceivable. But the U.S. accepting the destruction of a democratic Taiwanese government by a clumsy, brutal communist dictatorship today is not.
No ambiguity, strategic or otherwise, needed here.
Abandoning the doctrine of strategic ambiguity and promising to defend Taiwan as long as it doesn’t declare independence should simply acknowledge a geopolitical reality that China, Taiwan, and the United States can all accept.
For a variety of political, military, and strategic reasons I don’t believe that the Chinese need or want to invade Taiwan. The current PRC regime is rational, not suicidal, and relies on regional stability and economic growth to sustain its political fortunes.
Unambiguous U.S. support of Taiwan--with the indispensable caveat that Taiwan abandon its aspirations to formal independence--appears to me to be the only way to take the Taiwan issue off the table.
Therefore, I don’t really understand Mr. Yglesias’ preoccupation with increasing Taiwan’s defense budget in order to make it worthy of American protection.
American deterrence is the sin qua non of Taiwan’s security. Demanding that Taiwan pay an increased tariff in gold, blood, and iron before the U.S. military guarantees its safety is, I think, cruel and unnecessary and creates exactly the state of tension and instability in the area that a new policy of strategic clarity would avoid.
Thickening the Taiwan tripwire would perversely reinforce the Chinese impression that the U.S. wants Taiwan to make a go of it alone, and Uncle Sam might withhold its support if Taiwanese resistance collapsed too quickly and unheroically.
Worst of all, heating up the Straits arms race would catapult the current democratic Taiwan into the front-line role of incipient enemy of the PRC, and work to foreclose what should be the most feasible and desirable outcome we can hope for in the middle to distant future—a Greater China partnership between Taiwan and a politically more mature mainland.
I’ll return to the issue of the powerful, emotional response of people on the Chinese mainland to the Taiwan issue, and what it means for PRC and U.S. policy, in subsequent posts.