During his tour of the US late last month, People’s Liberation Army Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde (陳炳德) urged Congress to “review” — read “repeal” — the Taiwan Relations Act.
He exhorted the US to “put herself into our shoes” and “appreciate and support China’s stance on Taiwan.”
Ending arms sales to Taiwan would propel US-China relations “in the right direction in a sound, stable and continuous manner.”
Chen’s not-so-subtle message: Further arms transfers will set US-China relations on an unsound, unstable and discontinuous trajectory. He placed the burden of mending ties between the two Asia-Pacific giants squarely on Washington.
Such arguments parallel those of “realist” international relations academics in the US. Such academics concentrate on raw power politics, as manifest in the balance of power. Backing Taipei is a loser in realists’ austere cost-benefit calculus. Taiwan’s aspirations to de facto independence threaten to bring two great powers to blows, imposing potentially catastrophic costs. And, they ask, for what possible gain?
Chen may get his way if such thinking wins out in Washington. And it might. Shedding risky, high-cost ventures makes eminent sense to thinkers of realist leanings. Furthermore, US President Barack Obama’s administration came to office intent on reducing the overseas entanglements undertaken by its predecessor, cutting costs while lowering the US’ profile in the world. Officials portray themselves as clear-thinking realists, not given to ideological crusades.
Some realists would go further. “Offshore balancing” is an offshoot of realism that has swiftly gained ground in recent years. Admiral Gary Roughead, the US’ top naval officer, has appeared alongside offshore-balancing proponents such as University of Chicago professor Robert Pape. Roughead has taken to pushing an “offshore option” by which a weary US withdraws ground forces from Eurasia, entrusting important functions to the sea services.
This would leave the US Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard as the chief military executors of US foreign policy. Roughead evidently assumes the “over-the-horizon” posture he envisions is the same thing as offshore balancing. It is not. Mariners can perform many missions while remaining out of sight, and an unobtrusive presence rouses fewer anti-US sentiments. Yet his offshore option represents a commonsense, essentially operational vision. Roughead foresees pulling US forces back over the horizon — but not far over it.
By contrast, offshore balancers advocate retiring far, far over the horizon — back to the Western Hemisphere.
Texas A&M University professor Christopher Layne, arguably the foremost proponent of offshore balancing, construes US interests “narrowly in terms of defending the United States’ territorial integrity and preventing the rise of a Eurasian hegemon,” an overbearing power able to menace the Americas.
For him the “two crucial objectives” for US foreign policy should be to keep the US atop the great-power pecking order while preventing foreign wars from ensnaring it.
In concrete terms, this means revoking European and Asian alliances, shuttering forward bases, cutting defense budgets by up to half and foregoing missions unrelated to great-power politics. By abrogating its security guarantees, they argue, the US will compel Asians and Europeans to take responsibility for their own security.
Offshore balancers thus expect the self-correcting logic of the international system — by which weaker states band together against domineering states, righting imbalances in the system — to reassert itself. Only in the direst circumstances should the US countenance returning forces to Eurasia. For instance, an aggressor that controlled the coastal Eurasian “rimlands” would command vast resources while geographically encircling the Americas. It would pose a clear and present danger.
However, offshore balancers set an almost impossible standard for undertaking a military response to aggression. Indeed, Layne candidly dubs his strategy an “America First strategy,” evoking the isolationist movement of the 1930s. He strongly suggests that the US could have abstained from both world wars. In his eyes, even total Axis dominance of Eurasia may not have warranted direct US involvement.
Needless to say, succoring Taiwan doesn’t make Layne’s list of just causes for transpacific military action. Chen would applaud. The actions offshore balancers espouse — abandoning friends and allies, gutting US military might, vacating base infrastructure, surrendering command of offshore waters and skies and premising US foreign policy on narrow self-interest — would grant Beijing a free hand throughout continental and maritime Asia.
US leaders must think twice before buying into such a strategy. It could leave the US with neither the credibility, the forces, nor the staging points to return to Eurasia quickly enough to matter. Let the buyer beware.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
Beijing’s imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law and a number of other democratic and human rights issues continue to strain relations between the UK and China. The tense situation has significantly decreased the likelihood of British Royal Navy ships being able to continue their practice of docking in Hong Kong’s harbor for resupply — a not altogether unpredictable development. In a Nov. 19 online speech to parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier would next year lead a British and allied task group to the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and East Asia. Johnson
President-elect Biden and his team soon will confront a raging pandemic, a severe economic crisis, demands for progress in addressing racial injustices, intensifying climate-induced crises, and strained relations with allies and partners in many parts of the world. They will be oriented to view China as America’s greatest geostrategic challenge, but not the most immediate threat to the health and prosperity of the American people. Amidst this daunting inheritance, US-Taiwan relations will stand out as a bright spot, an example of progress that should be sustained. There are strong reasons for optimism about the continued development of US-Taiwan relations in the
Universities and colleges are bearing the brunt of Taiwan’s falling birthrate. Many schools have already closed down, while lower-ranking institutions find themselves in a precarious position. The Ministry of Education has said that more than 40 private senior-high schools, universities and colleges are already in a critical situation. When schools are forced to close, the impact is felt not just by students, who can easily transfer to other schools, but even more so by teachers and other staff, for whom it is hard to change track in the middle of their careers. A Cabinet meeting on Nov. 19 approved a draft
I was probably the first professor in Taiwan to teach a university-level food safety class and a postgraduate food toxicology course. During the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), I participated in discussions to allow imports of US beef containing traces of ractopamine, and was part of the decision to permit imports of US pork containing the leanness-enhancing additive. I am not an expert on ractopamine, as I have never done any research on the drug, but I have taught classes about the health dangers of foods containing traces of harmful substances. When US beef imports were about to be allowed,