Thinking through the US’ ‘closer ties’

By Strobe Driver  / 

Sun, Apr 08, 2018 - Page 6

The intensity and pace encircling Taiwan has included US President Donald Trump signing the Taiwan Travel Act, the imposition of tariffs on Chinese exports to the US — from which Taiwan has not been excluded — and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) once again threatening to invade if Taiwan declares independence.

Regardless of whether the act leads to greater US-Taiwan diplomatic freedom, a single issue underpins the political maneuverings: China’s rise must be stopped at all costs. Why else would a nation that has long benefitted from free trade and the global free market — especially since the end of World War II and the Bretton Woods agreement — seek to stop world trade from taking place?

The answer, of course, is that when ground is being lost to a competitor, the situation must be changed regardless of what was in place.

However, the US behaving as powerful actor and then aggrieved participant does have a history that can be easily traced in West-East trade relations, as it has happened before in the Asia-Pacific region. In the mid-19th century (circa 1853), the US Navy sent a squadron of “black ships” into Edo — now Tokyo — Harbor and demanded that Japan “throw open its doors” and trade with the West.

To be fair, this action was not solely the US’ doing, as England and the Netherlands — and to a lesser extent France and Russia — encouraged the US to act on behalf of mercantilism. All, however, did want a share of the spoils.

What happened next? According to Noam Chomsky’s World Orders: Old and New, Japan got better at exporting goods than the aforesaid nation-states could ever have imagined thanks to its ability to quickly mechanize and industrialize, and through its due diligence.

What did the three main actors do? They did what powerful nation-states have a penchant for doing when “threatened”: They reacted with force.

They shut down the free-trade “advantage” that Japan had gained fairly, and sweated and toiled for. The Japanese found the situation inexcusable, as it was Commander Perry who had threatened to open fire on Edo Harbor if the Japanese refused to engage in free trade. In short, they saw it as a dishonorable act. The denial of export markets would drive a substantial number of Japanese into desperate poverty and would help sow the seeds for the Japanese Imperial Navy to mount a “revenge strike” on Pearl Harbor in World War II.

So, trade wars are not new to the Asia-Pacific region, with the most recent trade war causing varied comment that warrants examination.

One reaction has been that Taiwan would be better off “going it alone,” that the nation faces many problems by having such a powerful neighbor as China. A variation of this reaction proposes closer ties with the US, while the most worrying variation includes commentary in the Taipei Times that Taiwan does not need allies (“Diplomatic allies are unimportant,” March 28, page 8).

A “so what” factor has been included in the commentary: China is threatening, but “so what” because Taiwan can cope. While this might be historically linked to Japan having been able to survive and, to some extent, prosper, the circumstances of such revitalization no longer apply in a globalized 21st-century world.

Taiwan, as a robust nation-state, does have a strong history of holding out against China — as Japan did against the aggression of the West — but Taiwan’s geography presents its own set of advantages and vulnerabilities, of which the nation’s strategic planners must be acutely aware.

Japan experienced a 200-year period of isolation due to internal divisions, and having “no friends” eventually meant that powerful nations could opportunistically demand what they wanted and gain the upper hand without having to compromise.

Japan’s isolationist mentality — whatever the domestic reasons — did not allow it to have a say in its future once the US Navy entered Edo Harbor. Taiwan not having diplomatic allies would render it vulnerable to other political blocs — especially those encouraged by China. The nation’s ability to successfully navigate out of a crisis would be severely curtailed.

Such commentary suggests that Taiwan could “hold out” against Chinese aggression. This, too, warrants examination, albeit briefly.

The “holding out” scenario is riven with difficulties were China to mount an invasion. What would such a scenario entail?

Extrapolating the “going it alone” scenario yields the harrowing and horrifying possibility of Taiwanese fighting a complex and ongoing war. Taiwanese and the nation’s surviving military would be forced to engage in symmetrical force-on-force warfare, which would involve significant destruction of infrastructure and resources.

Even in limited wars, the best outcome for a nation is to wage an ongoing political awareness campaign, even while being at war. It is not only military allies that matter, as a war comprises peaks and troughs in fighting, it is also diplomatic and political allies that matter during, as well as after, a conflict.

The more allies a nation has, the better the overall outcome, whether it becomes the victor or the vanquished. To adopt a “so what” attitude toward allies and potential allies is not the right path to take, especially in an increasingly globalized world.

Notwithstanding the lessons to be learned from Japan succumbing to greater powers and about the leverage that powerful actors can apply when proving a point, why has the issue of the Taiwan Travel Act initiating “closer ties” with Taiwan been disregarded as a primary point of contention?

Although the US initiated “closer ties,” it also included Taiwan at the first opportunity in a raft of tariffs aimed at China. The economic well-being of Taiwanese fabrication and steelmaking businesses — and therefore the nation — has been shifted to the periphery at best, and completely discarded at worst. The nation’s businesses use Chinese metals to produce goods, which means that it cannot be excluded from the trade war.

Commentary in the Taipei Times has suggested that the trade war is going to get worse, saying that any trade war “will only lead to the US strengthening its defense cooperation to counter an invasion by China” (“Trade war looming over Taiwan,” March 28, page 8).

Therefore, it beggars belief that the US would not consider Taiwan to be worthy of some form of “special consideration” based on its geo-strategic, political, regional and fiscal merit. It is at this point that other factors come into play.

With the angst associated with a Trump administration, its unenviable record of missed opportunities in the diplomatic sphere — with as many as 40 unfilled ambassadorships — and the chaos that is ever-present in the US White House, there is no doubt that the US, according to US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, wants Taiwan to have the means to “protect itself against Beijing’s aggression” (“US lawmaker urges action on Taiwan,” April 3, page 1).

Certainly, nations should have the capability to protect their territory, as this is part of the accepted norms of sovereign statehood. The problem with the US lawmaker’s statement is that it sees Taiwan as a financial opportunity for the US, rather than seeing a nation that requires definitive, astute decisionmaking from a strong ally.

Harming a liberal democracy’s fiscal independence and therefore making it weaker to deter aggression makes no sense.

Moreover, media reports about Taiwan procuring F-35s, a new US-built missile system, and making numerous other military purchases that would cost billions of New Taiwan dollars does bring into question why the US is not more proactive in guarding Taiwan’s fiscal well-being.

According to a recent op-ed in the Taipei Times, Taiwan is about to “face a long period of Chinese strongman politics” (“Threat from China is intensifying,” March 31, page 8) and having policies that hinder such progress suggests a situation where the US is saying: “You can buy our military hardware, but looking after your domestic industries is too difficult.”

This prompts a further question: How much does Taiwan need to give up so that it can gain such a small favor from this powerful actor? Taiwan has more than fulfilled its part of the bargain in its dealings with the US.

The truth, it seems, resides in the simple fact that the US, a developed Western nation of 350 million people, can absorb the effects of a trade war far beyond what a nation-state of 25 million can. Apparently, there will be no nuanced consideration beyond US interests per se.

Strobe Driver holds a doctorate in war studies and is a recipient of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ fellowship for 2018. The views expressed here are his own.