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Demystifying U.S.-China Relations

The three-way tension between the U.S., China, and Taiwan is easily understood when we realize that each nation is simply pursuing its own interests.

An exchange of views on an important aspect of the U.S.-China relationship appeared on the Foreign Affairs website the past month, and it serves to crystallize the broader question of what to do about China’s rise and about its growing geopolitical ambition and aggressiveness in Asia. This is the most pressing foreign policy challenge facing America today, and the United States’ fate and role in the world are hinged to it.

On September 2 Foreign Affairs ran a piece by Richard Haass and David Sacks entitled, “American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous.” Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Sacks, a research fellow at the Council, argued that it’s time to end the “strategic ambiguity” that has been part of U.S. policy toward Taiwan since 1979, when Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act and discarded its mutual defense treaty with the island.

That legislation announced that the United States accepted that there is just “one China” and that its capital was Beijing. But America made clear that it opposed any use of force to reunify Taiwan with the Mainland. That would have to come through peaceful means whenever—or if—it could be accomplished through such means. But the question of what the United States would do in response to Chinese aggressiveness against Taiwan was left ambiguous.

This ambiguity, argued Haass and Sacks, served to deter any Chinese military action against Taiwan because Beijing couldn’t be sure what the U.S. response would be. It also served to deter Taiwan from declaring its independence, which likely would spur a hostile Chinese reaction, because Taipei couldn’t be sure what kind of support it would get from America in such a scenario. Thus did America’s strategic ambiguity help maintain stability for decades in the three-way relationship among China, America, and Taiwan.

But now this policy has run its course, argued the authors, and isn’t likely to deter today’s “increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities.” And so we need “strategic clarity” making explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. The one-China policy would remain intact under this concept, and the new policy would actually strengthen U.S.-China relations, Haass and Sacks suggested, “by improving deterrence and reducing the chances of war in the Taiwan Strait, the likeliest site for a clash between the United States and China.” 

In several responses appearing on the same website on September 24, one sentence stood out. Bonnie W. Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote that China could become more likely to mount an attack on Taiwan if the United States were to give the island a firm security guarantee “without the ability to make its threats credible” (emphasis added). In other words, it isn’t about words so much as about relative power, and the real problem is that China’s power and hence its range of action are increasing in Asia while America’s is shrinking in relative terms. 

Glaser notes that China has developed “anti-access/area denial” capabilities that “complicate the Unied States’ ability to defend Taiwan.” She adds, “If the United States is to credibly head off a Chinese invasion, it must find effective ways to counter these capabilities.” 

But that’s not what America is doing. A couple years ago Lawfare ran a piece by Robert Ross of Boston College that was chilling in its revelation of China’s naval buildup in relation to a U.S. lag in naval development. Ross acknowledged that the United States retained maritime superiority throughout East Asia. “But the trend is what matters,” he added, “and the trend is less rosy.” In early 2018 the size of the active U.S. fleet was 280 ships. According to the Congressional Budget Office, if the Navy’s budget were to average the aggregate budget of the previous 30 years in real dollars (with aircraft carrier and ballistic submarine construction schedules maintained), the active naval fleet would decline to 237 ships within 12 years. 

Meanwhile, within just two years China—”the largest ship-producing country in the world”—increased its naval fleet to 350 ships from 328. At current rates, wrote Ross, China could have 430 surface ships and 100 submarines within 15 years.  

“The rapid rise of the Chinese Navy has challenged U.S. maritime dominance throughout East Asian waters,” wrote Ross. He added, “Nonetheless, the United States has yet to come to terms with its diminished influence in East Asia.”

One reason it hasn’t come to terms with it is that so many Americans misdiagnose the situation. Often they view a nation’s foreign-policy actions as largely a product of internal characteristics, such as America’s democratic values, Russia’s authoritarianism, or North Korea’s totalitarianism. Sometimes such actions are attributable to the personality of a country’s leader, giving rise to the errant view that, if only this or that leader could be upended, the nation would cease being problematic. This approach gives rise to a tendency to demonize rival nations as misguided or bad, when in fact they may simply be following the dictates of national interest. 

Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt rejects such analytical thinking. Most often, he wrote in a Foreign Policy piece last June, nations base their actions on the dictates of fundamental national interests. When the national interests among nations clash, tensions emerge.

So it is with China and the United States. The two most powerful countries in any international system are almost destined to be at odds with each other for the simple reason that each is the other’s greatest potential threat. Beyond that, in the case of America and China, there also is an incompatibility in their respective strategic objectives, derived in part from factors of geography and tradition. China wants to dominate its own neighborhood, as America dominates its continent and surrounding waters, in order to ensure its security to the fullest extent possible. To that end, it wants to push the United States out of Asia “so it no longer has to worry as much about U.S. military power,” as Walt puts it, “and so that its neighbors cannot count on American help.” 

In Walt’s view, “This goal is hardly mystifying or irrational.” It stems from basic strategic imperatives. 

But America also has its own basic strategic imperatives, and one is to ensure that China doesn’t consolidate geopolitical power in Asia because it would then be positioned to project power outward into other regions of the world, including America’s strategic neighborhood. That’s what the U.S.-China rivalry is all about, and it doesn’t really matter much what America says about Taiwan. What matters is power. 

John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago agrees. “My argument, in a nutshell,” he told an interviewer back in 2016, “is that if China continues to grow economically over the next 30 years, much the way it has over the past 30 years, that it will translate that wealth into military might. And it will try to dominate Asia, the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere.” The U.S. counter, he adds, must be to align China’s nieghbors into a strong coalition dedicated to slowing down China’s rate of economic growth. “So the question is, Can you prevent it from becoming a giant Hong Kong?” 

Emphasizing the folly of any preventive war or rollback strategy, Mearsheimer adds, “It makes much more sense for the United States just to work with China’s neighbors to try and contain it and to prevent it from becoming a regional hegemon.” 

Can that work? Probably not if America remains bogged down militarily in the Middle East, picks fights unnecessarily with other nations, such as Russia, that could become China adversaries based on their own strategic considerations, continues to enervate itself through cannibalistic politics, and succumbs to incompetent national leadership. America will have to become more like the America of old, when its premier position in Asia was established unequivocally 75 years ago—unified, confident, competent, with a strong sense of national priorities and a belief in its national destiny. Either way, America’s approach to the Taiwan conundrum—ambiguity or clarity—probably won’t have much to do with the outcome. 

Robert W. Merry, former Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent and Congressional Quarterly CEO, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).

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