Written by Yuan-kang Wang.
The most important geostrategic event of this century is the rivalry between the United States and China. International competition between these two countries is heating up. As the African proverb goes, “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled.” How should Taiwan avoid being trampled?
Broadly speaking, there are four guidelines to follow.
First, Taiwan needs to recognize the supremacy of national interests in international politics. Although the US has a security commitment in the Taiwan Relations Act, this commitment is guided first and foremost by US national interests (instead of those of Taiwan). In a system without overarching authority to adjudicate disputes, states make decisions based on their national interest, not on moral principles. The United States is no exception. For example, the US supported autocratic regimes that abused human rights during the Cold War because it was in its national interest to do so. Similarly, in the midst of the North Korea nuclear crisis in 2003, US President George W. Bush publicly chided Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian for holding a referendum that might upset the status quo (“as we define it”). When Washington has bigger fish to fry, Taiwan’s democratic aspirations can be sacrificed. This is no doubt dispiriting, but it is how international politics works.
Second, Taiwan should synchronize its security interests with those of the United States. The US-China security competition presents an opportunity for Taiwan to strengthen mutual defense cooperation with the US. As China rises in power, there is growing fear in the United States about being overtaken. An emerging realization in Washington is that the policy of engagement has not delivered the results as advertised. Hopes of a Chinese democracy remain as distant as ever and China has not behaved—in the eyes of the US—as a “responsible stakeholder.” Instead, China is expanding in the South China Sea; establishing footholds in Africa, Latin America, and across the world; building alternative institutions to US-preferred ones; and becoming increasingly assertive in protecting its interests. Rising powers tend to expand, and China is just following this historical pattern. These actions, however, have awoken the United States. President Obama’s Asia rebalancing strategy and President Trump’s “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy are both efforts to shore up America’s declining power position in the face of a rising China. In the context of this changing international structure, Taiwan is a strategic asset Washington cannot ignore.
Third, because international politics is a self-help world, Taiwan should not become complacent on US security assistance. Instead of wishfully counting on US support, Taiwan must boost its own self-defense. Surveys show that the Taiwan public has a strong belief that the US would come to its rescue. In the 2019 Taiwan National Security Survey, when asked if Taiwan maintains the status quo and does not declare independence, 61.5 percent of the respondents professed a belief that the US would send troops to defend Taiwan if China attacks the island. The percentage drops to 48.5 if the cause of war is a declaration of independence by Taiwan, which is still higher than those who believe the US would not defend Taiwan in this situation (45.3 percent). Nevertheless, in a self-help world, free riding on an uncertain US security commitment is too great a risk to take. The military balance of power in the Taiwan Strait has consistently shifted in China’s favor over the past decade; there may come a day when the PLA could overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses. Yet despite years of declaratory statements, Taiwan’s military expenditures as a percentage of GDP have yet to meet the 3 percent target. The minimum defense requirement for Taiwan is to be able to withstand the first wave of a PRC attack before US assistance arrives on the scene. Taiwan’s defense planners need to ask hard questions and realistically evaluate whether the island has sufficient self-defense capabilities.
Last, but not least, Taiwan needs to build a domestic consensus on how to deal with China. Since the current administration does not accept the “1992 Consensus,” it must find an acceptable workaround. If an identity as the “Republic of China” is the greatest common denominator across the political spectrum, then leaders should build a consensus around it. Without this consensus, Taiwan will not be able to meet the China challenge and will risk being swallowed up in the long run. This is probably the most difficult challenge for Taiwan, but to survive it must try and try very hard. The China factor dominates, and divides, Taiwan’s domestic politics and elections. Internal divisions cause gridlock in Taiwan’s political system, which Beijing can exploit to its advantage. Without the necessary economic and political reforms, the result is a stagnant economy and political paralysis. Yet another problem is the mass media’s tendency to report on sensational and trivial events, which has the unfortunate effect of desensitizing the public to changes around the world. To deal with the China challenge, Taiwan’s leaders must have a sober understanding of the international reality and the dire straits the island is in. Continued political infighting is debilitating to the country and will only increase the island’s jeopardy.
As the US-China rivalry intensifies, Taiwan needs to walk a fine line. It should strengthen Taiwan-US relations while avoiding unnecessarily antagonizing China. To survive, Taiwan needs to understand the imperatives of national interests in great power politics, continue defense cooperation with the United States, strengthen its self-defense capabilities, and come up with a consensus on China. This is no easy task. If Taiwan does not help itself, nobody will.
Yuan-kang Wang is Professor of Political Science at Western Michigan University. He is the author of Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics. Image credit: CC by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)