Written By: Daniel Roman
“We maintain…that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.” – Carl von Clausewitz
In the scope of human history, battles are won by weapons, but wars are, more often than not, won or lost by politics. While this may seem counterintuitive, the goal of any war is, presumably, to end it. With the exception of steppe nomads and perhaps modern warlords in Africa, Yemen, or the Palestinian territories, most societies find war unprofitable. Armies are expensive to maintain, and that is all the truer in the modern era with sophisticated weapons systems where a single missile can cost upward of a million dollars. Therefore, the key to winning a war is the ability of each side to define what objective they are fighting to achieve, and therefore what a victory would look like. Without a clearly defined objective, or with a delusional one, any number of battles can be won, but to no particular end. The German experience in both World Wars is a prime demonstration of this maxim.
If China’s military and economic growth have been written off as inevitabilities by American officials and commentators, Americans have been all too sanguine about the political aspects of China’s rise. In their eyes, the United States will face no serious diplomatic issues in building a coalition against Chinese aggression. After all, Taiwan represents freedom, China’s neighbors have reasons to fear it, and neighboring states are linked to America either through military, political, or economic alliances. Any Chinese action against Taiwan would be “aggression,” short and simple, and easily condemned around the world.
As reassuring as this conviction may be for policy planners, it is misplaced. In fact, there is no greater misplaced confidence in the US-Chinese relationship than the conviction among Americans that the United States is the “good guy”, is perceived as the “good guy” and will have no problem rallying world opinion in the event of a conflict. This blind spot is the greatest weakness, perhaps the fatal one, in American defense strategy.
When considering the balance of forces on each side of the Taiwan Strait, it is vital to consider the political arsenals available to both sides rather than merely the military hardware. When we do, we discover a disturbing truth. The Chinese arms buildup may be shifting the balance against the United States in strictly military terms, but the US/Taiwanese political position is even weaker than it may at first appear.
Superficially, the case for Taiwan may seem strong. Taiwan is a vigorous democracy. The Taiwanese people would be defending their freedoms, and the example of Hong Kong over the last year makes clear what would be in store for them under the rule of the CCP. This is especially true for groups that should have wide appeal in the West among political constituencies otherwise not inclined to confront China. Taiwan recognizes same-sex marriage, whereas China under Xi Jinping has aggressively censored all discussion of gay rights. Taiwan has a female President. Under Xi, women have all but disappeared from the senior ranks of Chinese politics or business. Furthermore, there is the cause of self-determination.
The weakness of these claims comes when one considers the target audience. That audience is not in America or even Europe but in China itself and Asia as a whole. Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar are far from liberal democracies, and the Philippines and India both have reasons to be wary of arguments based on the principle of self-determination.
That is especially true when Beijing has arguments of its own. First, regarding self-determination, China will make the argument that all Taiwanese are Chinese citizens and that a majority of Taiwanese do not have the right to strip millions of Chinese who do not want to lose their citizenship or their rights as citizens against their will. The advantage of this argument is that Beijing will only need to locate a small clique of fellow travelers in order to present this case. Second, Beijing will appeal to the law. Legally, virtually the entire world recognizes Taiwan as part of China. That extends currently to not just Taiwan itself, but to the United States as well, along with virtually all of America’s allies. The United States government would not be defending the independence of a free people but legally backing a rebellion against legally constituted state authority. American officials who have parroted the “One China” formulation for decades would find themselves hoisted on their petard, condemned under international law for their own words, which vindicates the legal right of the PRC to do what it wishes.
Expect Beijing to make full use of analogies with the American Civil War. Superficially, of course, it would allow China’s leadership to troll American politicians with the record of slavery and suggestions that China too is fighting a war against “reaction.” The actual substance, however, would echo the arguments Lincoln actually made in 1861 rather than those ascribed to him today. Namely, that the United States was sovereign insofar as every American citizen was owed protection by the United States government, and a bare majority of voters in one state did not have the right to strip the protections afforded their fellow citizens by the Federal government away from them. It is this argument against unilateral secession which will be used.
This argument will not likely have much impact in America. That, however, is not the point. Winning over some American academics and triggering debates about America’s historical “guilt” is a nice bonus, but the main audiences are elsewhere. First and foremost, Chinese domestic opinion will be receptive to the argument that there are “Chinese” in danger in Taiwan. Secondly, the sovereignty argument will help portray the American position as hypocritical and, rather than a stand for “freedom”, it will imply that the actual American motivation is to carve up China. By portraying any support for Taiwan as an effort to break up and weaken China, Beijing justifies its moves on the grounds of self-defense.
Another receptive audience is likely to be located among America’s “allies” in the region. Vietnam, of course, has long memories of a “division” of the country upheld by American arms, and any analogy Beijing can draw will be effective. There is also an implicit threat to nations such as India, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand, all of which face secessionist challenges. China will argue that it is fighting for the principles of international law and against unilateral secession. If it loses this fight, then a precedent will be established that any region which wishes to become independent has a right to pursue that option, with an implicit suggestion that such regions can expect future Chinese aid in their quest if China is unsuccessful in recovering Taiwan.
Finally, there is an implicit offer to South Korea in such propaganda. The Chinese use of the Civil War analogy and invoking the Vietnam war will suggest that national unity along historical lines is the natural state of society. The division of the Korean peninsula is a consequence not of any principle but of geopolitical rivalries between the United States and China. In an Asia-Pacific region from which American influence is banished, there would no longer be any objection from Beijing to the reunification of Korea under Seoul.
This offer to South Korea is particularly insidious. Korean Reunification is something the United States cannot offer to South Korea because it is out of America’s hands. Only Beijing can do so. For those wondering why Beijing has propped up North Korea, keeping the Kim regime in the back pocket for just such an eventuality is one explanation. Especially if South Korea judges that Chinese predominance in the region is merely a matter of time, the incentives to make a deal when the balance of forces is favorable will be very strong indeed.
For all of the above reasons, the US “alliance system” in East Asia is quite likely to prove a house of cards when and if China does choose to move. China’s legal position will be clear and easy to explain; America’s position will appear incoherent and smacking of hypocrisy. Furthermore, through a mix of threats and inducements, Beijing will be able to raise questions among every major power in the region except perhaps Japan as to whether they even desire a US victory. As for Japan, memories of the Second World War, as well as Japanese vulnerability, will make that a dubious asset in its current form.
Political isolation will not ensure military defeat. The United States does not expect substantial military contributions from any East Asian nations, though being unable to use South Korean or Japanese bases might prove a major limitation. But such isolation will ensure that if America cannot win a clear-cut military victory, its odds in any conflict in the Taiwan Strait will be long indeed.
American officials need to begin countering this political challenge NOW. That means that they need to come up with a legal justification for the defense of Taiwan. The longer the Americans maintain the current “one China” policy formula, which concedes the right of Beijing to claim sovereignty over Taiwan, they accept that any effort by Taiwan to renounce that sovereignty would be rebellion. Regional powers are scared of China for understandable reasons and will not want to fight. They will look for any excuse not to do so. The same is true of Europeans and even some Americans. As things are going, Beijing will have no trouble providing one.
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