Thursday, January 26, 2006

America's Coming War With China

The much blogged about (1, 2, 3) CATO book talk to mark the release of Ted Galen Carpenter's America's Coming War with China: A Collision Course Over Taiwan took place Wednesday at the CATO offices in Washington D.C.

Joining Mr. Carpenter on the stage were moderator Chris Preble (CATO) and China experts Richard Bush (Brookings) and Clyde Prestowitz (Economic Strategy Institute) with the latter two offering comments on Mr. Carpenter's book. The roster of attendees reads like a who's who of China and national security scholars as well as policy and defense practitioners. For those who were unable to attend and don't wish to watch the video in its entirety, a summary and discussion of the points raised follows. It needs stating that these comments are based on the notes I took during the talk and I am unable to double-check their veracity against the video due to a slow internet connection.

After a brief introduction by Chris Preble, Carpenter explained the conclusions outlined in his book. If the United States, the People's Republic of China, and Taiwan all continue on their present courses, war is almost certain within the next decade.

Taiwanese public opinion is shifting in favor of independence as demonstrated by the oft-cited public opinion polls on self-identification and feelings toward reunification, independence, and the status quo. China is becoming increasingly impatient in its wait for reunification and less satisfied with the status quo as shown by China's 2000 Defense White Paper and the 2005 Anti-Secession Law. Finally America's Taiwan Strait policy of strategic ambiguity relies on convincing China we would defend Taiwan were it attacked and convincing Taiwan that we would not (to oversimplify the matter criminally) could potentially be read the exact opposite way. Due to these trends a costly war is likely and ten years down the road the balance of power may have shifted to the extent that American victory would not be assured, Carpenter asserts.

As the United States has limited control over Chinese or Taiwanese foreign policy, averting conflict can only occur by shifting American policy in Carpenter's view. Therefore, he recommends that the American policymakers view Taiwan as but a peripheral issue to the United States, not the vital concern it is often characterized as. As such, America should continue selling defensive arms to Taiwan to allow it to defend itself but explicitly rescind any American security guarantee to the island. To put it simply, we care about Taiwan enough to sell them arms but not enough to put American sons and daughters in harm's way.

Richard Bush, author of At Cross Purposes and Untying the Knot, offered three comments in response to Carpenter's book and talk. First, Bush agrees that there is a significant danger of war due to miscalculation in spite of the growing economic interdependence between the three economies. He feels that any miscalculation is more likely to result from a failure of the leaders in Taipei or Beijing to understand the decision-making of the other capital's leaders than from any ambiguity related to American foreign policy.

Second, having been a representative of American foreign policy in Taiwan, Mr. Bush contended that American policy hasn't been nearly as ambiguous as Carpenter suggests. He cautioned Carpenter that American policy can not be interpreted solely based on public pronouncements, rather one must realize that much of the communication occurs in private consultations with senior leaders on both sides. To illustrate his points, Bush pointed out that Chinese defense acquisitions indicate that China believes the United States would intervene in a conflict. Additionally, in his talks with senior defense and policy leaders in Taiwan, he noticed little confusion as to American policy.

Third, Bush offered some policy concerns in the form of questions.
  • Can Taiwan afford the weapon systems necessary to defend itself against a Chinese attack?
  • Would Taiwan have time to build up its defense capabilities before being abandoned by the United States?
  • Is there American public or policymakers support for such a shift in foreign policy?
  • If the US abandoned Taiwan, would that cause Taiwan to seek nuclear weapons? How would the United States respond if Taiwan were to acquire nukes?
  • Would abandoning Taiwan cause Taipei to sue for peace immediately?
  • Shouldn't we include Taiwan and the Taiwanese people in the decision-making process?
  • How would such a move effect American security?

Avoiding a war with China (either hot or cold) and bringing China completely into the global system is a vital national interest of the United States, pointed out Clyde Prestowitz, the author of Three Billion New Capitalists. Is defense of Taiwan as vital a national interest? When deciding whether or not to extend a security guarantee to Taiwan, America must consider the relative importance of these goals and decide what America is willing to sacrifice in defense of Taiwan. Prestowitz used an uninhabited Hawaiian island as an analogy to point out that Taiwan means a lot more to China than it does to America.

In closing, Prestowitz recommended that if America truly wants to engage China and include it fully in the globalized interconnected world, America should strengthen its commitment to globalization. During the question and answer session, Prestowitz further elaborated on this point saying,
If you want democracy in China, uncensor Google.

In response to the comments offered by Bush and Prestowitz, Carpenter offered three points. He replied to Bush's question about Taiwan's ability to defend itself by admitting he didn't know if Taiwan was capable or not but argued that the Taiwanese legislature would act more "responsibly" if it lacked an American security guarantee. In reply to Bush's question as to the political support within the US for such a move, Carpenter admitted a policy change was unlikely, especially because of Taiwan's democratization, but argued it is too dangerous for the United States to fight China over the island. Finally, in response to Prestowitz's comments/question as to the relative importance of Taiwan to China and the United States, Carpenter agreed that Taiwan was vastly more important to China, pointing out that when a security guarantee is offered one must consider not only the balance of power, but also the balance of fervor, by which he means the intensity of commitment to the cause being fought for.

Q & A Session
Questions were offered by Mark Stokes, Eric McVadon, and Parris Chang among others. One of the more interesting questions came from a representative of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, who pointed out the strategic importance of Taiwan due to its proximity to sea lanes vital to South Korea and Japan. The answer came that if the waterways are important to those countries, let them defend it. In response to a similar question that followed, Mr. Bush commented that adopting Carpenter's advice would likely profoundly effect the alliance between the US and Japan. Mr. Prestowitz countered that the Japanese have never understood the American commitment to Taiwan, pointing out that they would much prefer America focusing its defensive efforts on their island.

In a query sure to warm the hearts of Michael Turton and others, Eric McVadon of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis asked if the oft-discussed offer of arms to Taiwan in 2001 (diesel submarines, anti-submarine patrol aircraft, and missile defense batteries) represented the best package of weapons for Taiwanese defense needs. Carpenter responded that while diesel submarines might not be the best use of defense dollars, the KMT has not accepted a downsized package either but seems content to simply stonewall the entire package.

Parris Chang accused Carpenter of unfairly placing blame for the friction between China and the US at the feet of Taiwan, asking if the panelists felt that all disagreements between the two powers would disappear in Taiwan's absence. He also commented that Taiwan was not the provocateur in the matter as it is China pointing 800 missiles at Taiwan, not the other way around. Because his sentiments were worded as statements more than questions, his concerns went largely unanswered by the panelists.

Carpenter's conclusion that America should abandon its security guarantee to Taiwan is not surprising considering his position as the Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Libertarians tend to favor cutting of security guarantees and adopting a foreign policy of "restraint," which is to say a military retrenchment like the one advocated in Dr. Eugene Gholz's "Come Home America" (International Security, Spring 1997). The problem with this policy is the same today as when George McGovern first proposed it, the American people will not accept an amoral foreign policy. From a purely Realist position, accommodating the rising superpower might be wise and offering up Taiwan would be accommodation par excellance. There is little support in the American collective heart, however, for giving up on the 23 million free people of Taiwan. America claims to stand for the promotion of democracy and liberal institutions. While sometimes America has retreated from its vanguard position in the name of Realpolitik, surrendering Taiwan to a rising China would be a bridge too far. As long as there is support in America for a foreign policy based on more than pure self-interest, there will be support for assisting Taiwan in its defense.

  • Dignified Rant views Taiwan as a "canary in the coal mine."

  • I argue in the comments that if you add up those who feel we should support Taiwan because of past promises, those who think we should support Taiwan because it is a liberal democracy facing threat from a country who is not, and those who think we should defend Taiwan lest it become an hor d'oeuvres to the growing apetite of China, we will have reached the critical mass of popular support necessary to require action by the US government.