The continuing rise of China will have huge consequences for Taiwan “almost all of which are bad,” University of Chicago political science professor John Mearsheimer says.
In a study to be published in a forthcoming issue of National Interest he says that while most Taiwanese would like their country to gain de jure independence, that is not going to happen.
Mearsheimer, described by the US Army War College as an “icon in the field of grand strategy,” says the worst possible outcome for Taiwan would be unification with China under terms dictated by Beijing.
According to a theory developed by Mearsheimer, China will try to dominate Asia the way the US dominates the Western hemisphere.
“There is a powerful strategic rationale for China — at the very least — to try to sever Taiwan’s close ties with the US and neutralize Taiwan,” he says.
“The best possible outcome for China, which it will surely pursue with increasing vigor over time, is to make Taiwan part of China,” he added.
Mearsheimer says the US can be expected to go to great lengths to contain China and will have “powerful incentives” to make Taiwan an important player in its anti-China balancing coalition.
However, there are also reasons to think the US-Taiwan relationship is not sustainable over the long term.
“At some point in the next decade or so it will become impossible for the US to help Taiwan defend itself against a Chinese attack,” he says.
“When it comes to a competition between China and the US over projecting military power into Taiwan, China wins hands down,” he adds.
In a fight over Taiwan, Mearsheimer says, US policymakers would be reluctant to launch major strikes against Chinese forces in China, for fear it might precipitate nuclear escalation.
“The US is not going to escalate to the nuclear level if Taiwan is being overrun by China. The stakes are not high enough to risk a general thermonuclear war. Taiwan is not Japan, or even South Korea,” he says.
He says Taiwan is an especially dangerous flashpoint, which could easily precipitate a Sino-US war that is not in the US’ interest.
US policymakers understand that the fate of Taiwan is a matter of great concern to China and there is a “reasonable chance” US policymakers will eventually conclude that it makes good strategic sense to abandon Taiwan and allow China to coerce it into accepting unification, Mearsheimer says.
“All of this is to say that the US is likely to be somewhat schizophrenic about Taiwan in the decades ahead,” he says.
He says Taiwan has three options: Develop its own nuclear deterrent, have a conventional deterrence strong enough to ensure China will pay a huge price if it invades, or pursue the “Hong Kong strategy.”
Mearsheimer says that once China becomes a superpower, it probably makes most sense for Taiwan to pursue the Hong Kong strategy.
He says Taiwan could accept the fact that it is doomed to lose its independence and work hard to make sure that a transition is peaceful and that it gains as much autonomy as possible from Beijing.
“The option is unpalatable today and will remain so for at least the next decade, but it is likely to become more attractive in the distant future if China becomes so powerful that it can conquer Taiwan with relative ease,” he adds.
Mearsheimer says that Taiwanese should hope there is a drastic slowdown in Chinese economic growth in the years ahead and that Beijing also has serious political problems on the home front that work to keep it focused inward.
If that happens, China will not be in a position to pursue regional hegemony and the US will be able to protect Taiwan from China, as it does now.
“In essence, the best way for Taiwan to maintain de facto independence is for China to be economically and militarily weak,” he says.
“By trading with China and helping it grow into an economic powerhouse, Taiwan has helped create a burgeoning goliath with revisionist goals that include ending Taiwan’s independence,” he says.
“A powerful China is a nightmare for Taiwan,” he adds.
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