While reports of an imminent Taiwan Policy Review (TPR) are premature, it would be a useful exercise as part of a global strategic review of China’s emerging pre-eminence.
China is now the second-most powerful nation on earth. Its economy has already surpassed Japan and Germany in terms of industrial output. It has massive financial clout with which it has bought incredible political patronage across the map. It has a rapidly modernizing military — as the celebrations last week of the Chinese navy’s 60th anniversary demonstrated.
There is no wisdom in confronting China head-on in Asia, and a TPR by the administration of US President Barack Obama must take this into account. But if the US is to balance China’s looming rise with a coalition of Asian democracies, Taiwan must be a key policy element.
With Kurt Campbell’s nomination as Obama’s — and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s — assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Obama’s national security appointments offer a prospect that his administration might actually salvage some of the Asia policy wreckage of the administration under former president George W. Bush. Campbell understands the looming crisis in Asia policy — the challenge of China’s rise — as does his fellow nominee at the Pentagon, retired Marine Lieutenant General Wallace “Chip” Gregson, for assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs, and his deputy, Derek Mitchell.
Unfortunately, “geostrategic considerations,” when it comes to Taiwan (or China, for that matter) have long been absent in Washington policy circles. Former intelligence officer and White House Asia expert Robert Suettinger, in his book Beyond Tiananmen, admits that “the notion that American policy [toward China] is directly driven by strategic considerations ... is grossly inaccurate.” It had been driven instead by business pressures — if not by sheer intellectual inertia — long after the US’ strategic imperatives with proudly authoritarian China evaporated in the 1992 collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1989 reversal of China’s political reforms at Tiananmen.
Former president Bill Clinton’s China policy quietly changed in August 1999 after spectacular increases in Chinese missile deployments and jet fighter sorties in the Taiwan Strait. Clinton’s defense department secretly began to build up military cooperation with Taiwan — a momentum that continued without publicity through the Bush years — and Campbell was at the center of that initiative. He was an advocate of strong alliances with Japan and Australia — alliances that Bush minimized in an unhealthy reliance on Beijing’s influence in Asia.
The cascade of Asia policy disasters in the last four Bush years stemmed from the president’s preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan and his chronic inattention to geopolitics or strategy anywhere else. The erosion of the US-Japan alliance; permitting North Korea to drive the US’ Asia policy; complete neglect of Southeast Asia; inattention to a strategic partnership with India; abandoning democratic Taiwan in the face of war threats from undemocratic Beijing — that was the Bush Asia policy.
All of these failures sprang from the miscalculation that China was an active, responsible stakeholder in East Asian security, trade, humanitarian relief, the environment and so on. The Bush administration also persuaded itself that Taiwan was of such existential urgency to Beijing that China’s viciousness was excusable. Beijing therefore was permitted to alter the “status quo” with its missile deployments and its 2005 “Anti-Secession Law,” but Taiwan could never react.