An article by University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer titled “Say Goodbye to Taiwan” in the March-April issue of the National Interest is thought-provoking. In his essay, first published online on Feb. 25, Mearsheimer predicts that in the face of China’s continued rise, Taiwan will have to give up even its present de facto independent status and seek a Hong Kong-style accommodation with Beijing.
Mearsheimer, who is a political scientist from the “offensive realism” school of international relations, did do his homework for the essay and studied local political attitudes carefully. For instance, he presents recent statistics showing that — assuming that China will not attack Taiwan — the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese, 80.2 percent, would opt for independence.
He also writes that: “… most Taiwanese would like their country to gain de jure independence and become a legitimate sovereign state in the international system. This outcome is especially attractive because a strong Taiwanese identity — separate from a Chinese identity — has blossomed in Taiwan over the past 65 years.”
However, he concludes that, in spite of locals’ strong desire that Taiwan be accepted as a legitimate sovereign state in the international system, China’s continued rise will make it increasingly difficult to resist Beijing’s pressure toward unification.
The main flaw in Mearsheimer’s reasoning is that he believes in the inevitability of an unfettered continuation of China’s rise. In his attempt to apply his theoretical construct to the real world, Mearsheimer neglects a number of important aspects, such as the push-back from Taiwanese, from the US and from other nations in the region against a rising and increasingly aggressive China.
In addition, China’s continued rise is by no means certain because its economic and political fundamentals are weak at best: The economy has been liberalized, but the Chinese Communist Party’s political control is as tight as ever and there are manifold bubbles — like housing and banking — waiting to burst. This fuels internal tensions which could derail China’s aspirations.
Yet Mearsheimer’s essay is an important wake-up call to global policymakers: If the present “status quo” and “one China” policies are maintained, there is an increasing likelihood that democratic Taiwan will be absorbed by its neighbor.
This would not only be highly undesirable for Taiwanese, but it would also fundamentally upset the regional balance of power.
Mearsheimer describes how control over Taiwan could greatly enhance Beijing’s ability to project military power. This would certainly cause deep anxiety in neighboring countries like South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. Mearsheimer concludes that China will try to dominate Asia in the way that the US dominates the western hemisphere.
Mearsheimer reveals the perception that Washington and Taipei’s current policies have brought about a reduction in cross-strait tensions is only a short-term fata morgana. These policies simply do not form a solid basis for longer-term stability. At some point, the democratic aspirations of Taiwanese will collide with the designs of Beijing, leading to sharply higher tensions.
To ensure that Taiwan remains among free, democratic nations and to maintain a stable and free Western Pacific, it is essential that the US, Asian democracies and Western Europe significantly improve economic and political ties with Taiwan. Perhaps it is time to promote a “Community of Democracies in East Asia.”
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 to 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.