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.
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