Though doubtless unnerving for Taiwanese, China’s handling of cross-strait relations has a long pedigree. Great sea powers view strategically located islands as platforms to extend their reach into faraway theaters. Empires burnish their prestige by acquiring outposts offshore — and islands commonly hold intrinsic economic value.
As all these factors are at work in the Taiwan Strait, it comes as little surprise that Beijing has deployed every tool in its diplomatic toolkit to consolidate its influence over Taipei. That includes trade and commerce.
While coercive means like ballistic missiles garner the most headlines in the cross-strait imbroglio, the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) that will soon be under negotiation represents another part of a concerted Chinese strategy toward Taiwan. Chinese leaders believe they can amplify their bargaining leverage by persuading Taiwanese to pin their economic future on access to China’s vast marketplace. Ultimately, Beijing can coax Taipei into accepting Chinese rule without resorting to arms.
This is sound strategy. US diplomatic history attests to it.
Indeed, US history supplies several models for thinking about relations between islands and great nations. Consider the founding of the US. Physics metaphors abounded in early US political thought. In his 1775 pamphlet Common Sense, for example, Thomas Paine ridiculed the thought that an island nation like Great Britain could forever rule a continent like North America. To do so, he appealed to Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity.
Paine said “small islands not capable of protecting themselves are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care.”
However, he deemed it “very absurd” to suppose that a continent could be “perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet.”
An ocean separated Britain from the US, limiting the mother country’s gravitational pull. In short, British rule inverted “the common order of nature.”
Similar thinking applied to Cuba. In 1824, US secretary of state John Quincy Adams said the island was a “natural appendage” of the US. Like Paine, Adams invoked Newton: “If an apple, severed by the tempest from its native tree, cannot but choose but fall to the ground, Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union, which, by the same law of nature, cannot cast her off from its bosom.”
Cuba had matchless strategic value by virtue of its size, its abundance of harbors and its position astride key Caribbean sea lanes. Still, domestic politics intervened when the US Congress approved military action against Spain, only to foreswear annexation. Southern planters opposed annexation, lobbying tirelessly to prevent competition from Cuban imports like sugar and tobacco. Despite Adams’ prophecy, the US freed the island after expelling the Spanish colonial regime in 1898. Strategic logic sometimes yields to other imperatives.
Then there’s Hawaii. Navalists like Alfred Thayer Mahan prized the archipelago for strategic reasons, mainly to prevent rival navies from acquiring strongholds off the US west coast and to provide the US Navy an advance base in the Pacific.
The cases offer mixed guidance for Taipei. If Newtonian logic governs cross-strait affairs, a glance at the map implies that Taiwan will be drawn into China’s orbit. But Taiwan is better equipped than 19th-century Cuba, Hawaii or the Philippines to defy political gravity. The challenge before Taipei is to turn cross-strait economic intercourse to its advantage.
Physics is not destiny. Neither is economics.
James Holmes is an associate professor at the US Naval War College.
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