Small states must watch the major players

By Hsu Szu-chien 徐斯儉  / 

Wed, Jun 19, 2013 - Page 8

The last couple of weeks have been a busy season for relations between Taiwan, China and the US. Days after Chinese President and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) concluded an informal summit with US President Barack Obama during a visit to the US, he was back in Beijing holding high-level talks with Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) representatives, as Democratic Progressive Party Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) was paying a visit to the US.

Given this, the book China’s Search for Security, co-authored by Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan and RAND Corp’s Andrew Scobell, makes for a thought-provoking read. The book tries to understand China from the viewpoint of objective realism and provides the reader with a window on how the US views China.

Picking up where Nathan’s 1998 book The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security left off, China’s Search for Security’s analysis again starts from China’s domestic and international geopolitical context.

It explains the multitude of political, economic and social challenges and points of contention that China faces — how it is surrounded by about 20 neighbors with which it has substantial border disputes; how some of these countries lie in several of the least stable regions, geo-politically speaking, in the world today (Northeast Asia, Oceania, continental and coastal Southeast Asia, South Asia and Central Asia); and how it is developing greater ties with other regions in the world, due to globalization and the demand for natural resources.

Compared with other world powers, China is possibly the one facing the most complex external security environment and the biggest challenges, but it is not necessarily the most able to deal with these issues.

Because of this, the book contends that the main drivers behind China’s foreign policy are that it is weak, lacks a sense of security, is preventionist rather than interventionist, passive rather than active and more likely to rally in response to a threat than it is to sally an attack. The book argues that since this is the case, the West has in the past tended to overestimate — not underestimate — China’s strength.

The book concludes that the US should try to establish a kind of new strategic balance with China because not only is there no need to contain China’s rise, but it is also important not to allow China to challenge fundamental regional or global systems, order and values whenever it wants. Not only is this in the interests of the US and its allies, it is also important for guiding China in taking the correct path toward a truly peaceful rise.

After all, the US is the most powerful nation in the world, and the manner in which it regards China — another major power — is going to be considerably different to how a minor player such as Taiwan does, particularly since Taipei has become used to viewing Beijing as its greatest threat.

Even if one does not accept some of the conclusions drawn in the book, the more valid this point is, the more familiar Taiwan should become with such viewpoints.

When it comes down to it, in this world, being a minor player does not preclude a country from having dreams or ideas, but it does mean that Taiwan has to maintain a calm, measured, objective perspective, especially with regard to gaining a thorough understanding of the relations between the major world powers and how they perceive each other. Errors of judgement or wishful thinking are luxuries that minor states simply cannot afford to have.

Hsu Szu-chien is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica.

Translated by Paul Cooper