Mearsheimer, Taiwan, and the Future

Mearsheimer's Say Good-bye to Taiwan, which raised hackles among many of us who watch this island, collected a pile of responses, including one from TECRO and Ben Goren.

Morning in Taiwan's Rift Valley

Zachary Keck over at The Diplomat observed of Mearsheimer:

Thirdly, I think Mearsheimer understates the degree to which other countries besides the U.S. might come to Taiwan’s aid. Foremost among these is Japan, which is already considering a Taiwan Relations Act of its own. This is a crucial difference between the situation the U.S. faced in seeking regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and one that China faces in the Asia-Pacific. Namely, Beijing is surrounded by powerful neighbors, all of whom are adamantly opposed to a return to Chinese regional hegemony. I don’t believe these countries will be weaker collectively than China for some time to come, if ever.

Keck advances the idea of an armed insurgency among the Taiwanese if China occupies Taiwan, an idea I find dubious. But more importantly, he says that Mearsheimer's piece is "thought-provoking and provocative." Actually, once you get past the veneer of realist theory at the beginning, it is the old inevitability thesis, which I've been hearing from ruddy-faced, thoroughly plotzed foreigners in Taipei bars now for twenty years, combined with a melange of PRC talking points and some real truths about Taiwan and East Asia -- not that "inevitability" isn't also a PRC talking point. Though well-written, Mearsheimer's piece is actually rather blandly abstract and not particularly insightful, as if there were no longer any possibility of saying anything new in the Taiwan context. Well, after the messes of Charles Glaser and Bruce Gilley, one can hardly expect too much, especially from the unreality of the realist school.

Some small points....

Mearsheimer writes:

It is also worth noting that the United States does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country, and according to President Obama, Washington “fully supports a one-China policy.”

Either way this is disturbing -- either Mearsheimer does not know that Washington's One China policy does not include Taiwan, or he withholds that fact from the reader.

Mearsheimer also uses the term "unification." The widespread use of this term to describe the annexation of Taiwan is a good example of the way PRC talking points have been incorporated into everyday use among US foreign policy commentators, one of Beijing's subtler and stronger forms of soft power. He repeats Beijing's "feelings" -- note that the use of Chinese government propaganda to represent Beijing's point of view is also normalized in the US media and among US commentators:

For China’s elites, as well as its public, Taiwan can never become a sovereign state. It is sacred territory that has been part of China since ancient times, but was taken away by the hated Japanese in 1895—when China was weak and vulnerable. It must once again become an integral part of China.

Of course this position is nonsense; PRC leaders know perfectly well they are engaged in territorial expansion and annexation. Taiwan was not part of China in ancient times, a point which bears on the whole "inevitability" thesis: if it was inevitable that Taiwan would be incorporated into a Chinese state, why did it never happen in the whole of Chinese history? (the Manchus were not Chinese). Obviously because it is not inevitable. Moreover, this representation of the China government's point-of-view without contextualizing it in terms of expansion and remarking that it is ahistorical helps to legitimate it. Please stop, commentators!

The article is full of little ironies and contradictions. For example, Mearsheimer writes:

Third, no state can know the intentions of other states with certainty, especially their future intentions. It is simply impossible, for example, to know what Germany’s or Japan’s intentions will be toward their neighbors in 2025.

If it is impossible to know the future intentions of states, why is Mearsheimer forecasting China's? Of course, I totally agree with Mearsheimer that China will attempt to dominate the region, and to cast the US out of it. Jes' sayin'...

Unlike so many other commentators, Mearsheimer does devote a whole entire sentence to noting that Japan and other powers facing China will likely form a coalition against it. Yet, having said this, he returns to Taiwan. Like most of the poor commentary on Taiwan, he turns the issue into a Washington-Taipei-Beijing triangle, with Taiwan in the middle, and shears away the real regional context. Yet this context is vital to understanding that all is not lost.

One of the key uses of the word "unification" is that it removes the context of Taiwan from the overall context of China's expansionist dreams. By using the term "unify" China's land grab becomes the mere repair of a breakage, the making of a wholeness, isolated from other actions of China in the area, and certainly not expansion. This covers up what Beijing is actually doing. That's why Beijing constantly uses that term to represent its goal of annexation, and that is why western commentators should avoid it. Taiwan is not being "unified" but annexed, and that annexation is part of a larger move to grab the Senkakus of Japan and eventually, Okinawa, as well as the South China Sea. The lack of this context in Say Good-bye to Taiwan represents a startling lack of concrete understanding. Having used the word "unification" to reduce annexation to a pleasing abstraction with no expansionist connotations, Mearsheimer can then go on to ignore China's territorial claims.

Thus, while Mearsheimer avers China will attempt to shove the U.S. out of the region, he provides no real notion of its territorial dreams that go along with its dream of hegemony in Asia. That is why his piece is sounds more believable and sober than it actually is, because he waves away that ugly reality. These territorial dreams mean that the situation is more complicated than "Should Taiwan throw in the towel?" If China only aspired to hegemony, it might be greeted with resignation or even welcome, but since it aspires to the territories of neighboring states, it will only be greeted with defiance. Mersheimer does touch on resistance by neighboring states, but does not contextualize it in terms of PRC expansion -- when that expansion is omitted, you're looking at a PRC talking point.

I doubt Mearsheimer means to reproduce PRC talking points and PRC analytical stances, but in a way that makes his doing so even worse. As I noted, this is an example of the way PRC soft power hides in plain sight.

It is quite true that the U.S. might not defend Taiwan forever, but at the same time, the U.S.-Japan security treaty won't disappear for many years and it requires the U.S. to defend Japan (that it is not mentioned, of course). U.S. planners, unlike Mearsheimer's readers, know that once Taiwan goes, the Senkakus and Okinawa are next. Hence any U.S. war planner will have to ask why he should give up Taiwan with its millions of people and military assets, and forego defending it, and then turn around and send his men out to die for a bunch of uninhabited islands in the ocean. For the next twenty years, whatever Mearsheimer may argue, that calculus will apply, and it will in fact apply more urgently as China grows stronger, because as it grows stronger, its neighbors will only push back harder as it moves on their territories.

This territorial aspect to China's rise also means that the issue of China's dominance and its territorial dreams isn't going to be settled by one war or campaign to take Taiwan, but likely over several wars, as hegemonic warfare often is -- see the rise of Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries or the rise of France in the 17th and 18th. Even if Taiwan is taken, it may well be subsequently liberated, or China may well stumble into defeat against some combination of Japan, Vietnam, or India, or other powers, one which will take it out of the running for many years. Once you restore the actual context of Chinese expansion, you can see why things, though grave, are not hopeless.

This means that in addition to three options (nuke deterrent, conventional deterrent, Hong Kongization) Mearsheimer lays out, there is a fourth option, and that is regional alliance building with the U.S. as broker and backer. Taiwan is of crucial importance to Japan, and Japan is increasingly responding to China's expansionist challenge by expanding its own military. It is rumored to be currently mulling a Taiwan Relations Act type law. Other nations such as Vietnam, increasingly a manufacturing base for Taiwanese firms, suggest themselves. New issues will likely appear; this week Indonesia announced it was boosting its presence around Natuna Island, an island that fleetingly appeared on Chinese maps in the 1990s. China has only begun to piss its neighbors off; it will only get worse over time.

I note in passing that presented restricted options for Taiwan and ignoring Taiwan's diplomatic possibilities is a PRC talking point. We all know that the current government on Taiwan may not be into exercising Taiwan's diplomatic potential, but that may change as nations around China search for allies and as the people of Taiwan vote in candidates less interested in annexing Taiwan to China.

There is much else one could say, but I will stop. All is not lost, and I suspect in 20 years I'll still be sitting in Taipei bars listening to lectures from ruddy-cheeked drinkers on How inevitable our defeat is! How the World! Will soon! Be China's!

Despite the problems with the piece, those of Charles Glaser and Bruce Gilley, along with recent work by Amitai Etzioni and Joseph Bosco arguing that the U.S. should clarify its Taiwan position, represent scholars grappling with the problem of Taiwan and groping towards solutions. Unfortunately the realist position is: when in doubt, sell it out! The real problem isn't even the mediocre thinking and writing of this crowd, but rather the contradictions of U.S. policy whereby the U.S. supports the pro-China party in Taiwan, but will likely defend Taiwan against China; maintains that the future status of Taiwan is not determined, but does not support independence; complains that the Taiwan military is full of pro-China sympathizers, but supports the party that keeps them in; publicly supports Taiwan's democracy, but supports the party that attempted to suppress it, and so on. Keep groping in the dark guys, eventually you'll feel around to the one position that resolves those contradictions: support for an independent and democratic Taiwan and the parties that espouse it.

...Yet I suspect in twenty years I'll be sitting in Taipei bars, wondering why that hasn't happened yet, and listening to US commentators complain about the same things they have been kvetching about for the last twenty years, unwilling or unable to face the solution....

Michael Turton is a American living in Taiwan, he blogs at

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