Vice President Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) opened National Chengchi University’s annual Conference on Contemporary China last week by vowing to craft a “win-win-win” solution to the impasse between China and Taiwan. By publicly disavowing legal independence from China, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) hopes to orchestrate a “diplomatic truce” between the feuding parties. As tensions subside, efforts to repair ties across the Taiwan Strait can proceed.
I have no quarrel with Taiwanese leaders’ determination to seize this chance to improve cross-strait relations. They should.
But they must not succumb to euphoria. After our conference, Ma told the US delegates that everything has changed in China-Taiwan relations. This overstates matters. While Ma’s election may indeed have postponed a reckoning with Beijing, the basic strategic dynamics remain largely unchanged. Taipei must leaven its attempts at reconciliation with a healthy measure of skepticism.
A durable peace rests on a foundation of hard military and economic power. Too lopsided a military mismatch across the Taiwan Strait would pose grave dangers for Taiwan — even in this apparent era of good feelings.
Why paint such a gloomy picture? In his classic treatise On War, Carl von Clausewitz relates the effort a society puts into a campaign to the “value of the object.” That is, the value of the political goals determines the “magnitude” and “duration” of the effort expended in any political endeavor.
The higher the value of the object, in other words, the more resources a society will hazard on that object’s behalf — and for longer. Lesser objectives warrant lesser — or briefer — efforts. A campaign that demands too much in material terms or takes too long should be abandoned on the best terms possible. Needless to say, political leaders should forego any enterprise whose expected payoff doesn’t justify the expected costs.
Next, Clausewitz offers a novel way of examining power politics. For him the three “dominant tendencies” of war are primordial passions, notably enmity and violence; chance and creativity; and rationality, manifest in political supremacy over warfare. The people “mainly” inhabit the domain of passion, effective armed forces display creativity and panache and the government imposes rational direction on the war-making process.
Keeping this “paradoxical trinity” in balance, “like an object suspended between three magnets,” falls to statesmen. Popular support, military acumen and skilled policy making and execution are all central to diplomatic and military undertakings.
Apply this template to China, Taiwan and the US. China is the easiest case to analyze. All three elements of the Chinese trinity — the government, the People’s Liberation Army and the people — are riveted on unification. Neither the communist regime nor Chinese citizens have wavered in their desire for control of Taiwan, while the military is building up a commanding edge in the Strait.
Next, Taiwan. Ma’s “three noes” policy rules out unification, formal independence and the use of force. Ma has voiced doubts that unification will take place “in our lifetimes,” pointing out that liberalization is occurring in China at a glacial pace — if at all — and that Taiwanese would never willingly submit to authoritarian rule.
To Chinese eyes, the “three noes” looks suspiciously like Taiwan independence, in fact if not in name. Beijing’s patience could prove finite as it amasses the military wherewithal to dictate the timing and terms of unification.
Whether Ma can rally Taiwan’s defenses remains to be seen. With Taipei’s talk of peace accords and win-win situations, the popular tendency will be to assume the worst is past in the cross-strait standoff. If so, Ma may find it difficult to convince constituents to devote even 3 percent of GDP — the modest figure of which he has spoken — to defense. Indeed, news reports suggest the defense budget will decline this year — a stark contrast to China’s annual double-digit increases.
If Taiwan seems ambivalent, the US is distracted. Taiwan should expect little from the Bush administration in its final months, while neither the campaigns of senators Barack Obama nor John McCain have made cross-strait relations a major issue. Taiwan barely registers with US voters, and public support for defending Taiwan against China, a major US trading partner, is tepid at best.
With US military supremacy on the wane in Asia, moreover, the probable magnitude and duration of a conflict in China’s backyard will rise. Clausewitzian logic suggests Washington may hesitate in a time of crisis.
Some election-year advice from Clausewitz to Taiwan: Stand to your defenses.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are not necessarily those of the US Naval War College, the US Navy, or the US Department of Defense.
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