Fri, Jun 03, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Offshore balancing and Taiwan

By James Holmes

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.

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