More often than Taiwanese care to be reminded, US policymakers have ostensibly held on to the principle of a "peaceful" solution to the dragging Taiwan Strait tensions.
Whether the terminology comes from the White House, the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom or the countless talking heads at the various think tanks peppering Washington, the terms "status quo," "one China," "strategic ambiguity" and whatever euphemism is de rigueur at any time, all posit that somehow, at some indistinct point in time, China and Taiwan will miraculously drop the gloves and make peace.
This is all good and well, but the problem is that parallel to this abundance of "peaceful" talk is the forceful push by Washington for Taiwan to boost its defenses through the procurement of US-made weapons -- an imperative it often pushes upon Taipei through frequent reports of a Chinese military buildup.
Simultaneously, Washington has been calling upon Japan to play a more proactive security role in the region, to such an extent that the White House is no longer averse to allowing Tokyo to alter the pacifist Constitution that the US imposed upon it after World War II.
The reason behind Washington's change of heart on Japan, however, isn't altruistic. In fact, in a different world, Washington would rather keep Tokyo under its heel, because it seeks to prevent countries that could at some point in the future challenge it militarily from doing so (a policy initially formulated by Paul Wolfowitz as the Cold War was winding down and appropriated for official policy a few years ago).
But given the current template, with US forces stretched close to the limit, Washington needs "dependable" allies -- or proxies -- to do its bidding in other regions of the world. For Northeast Asia, Japan is quickly becoming the US' indispensable forward guard.
What Washington is accomplishing in Northeast Asia is a militarization of the region, an outcome it conveniently blames on Beijing's military build-up. No one, however, asks whether Beijing's modernization of its military might not be in response to the sense of encirclement that the bolstered US-Japan alliance has engendered.
Regardless of the efficiency of the types of weapons Washington has been pressing on Taiwan -- raising this question often results in accusations of Taipei "freeloading" on defense -- the pressure is on Washington, through various defense lobbies, to complete the transaction.
Past experience, with Saudi Arabia providing a lurid example, shows that billions of dollars of US weapons cannot guarantee the security of a state. In 1990, when Iraqi forces threatened to press forward into the kingdom after invading Kuwait, Riyadh found itself incapable of mounting a proper defense and nearly begged Washington to come to its rescue.
Given the force disparities between China and Taiwan, it is unlikely that a few additional air defense systems, along with some submarines, would represent so formidable a deterrent as to make Beijing think twice before launching an attack.
Japan, on the other hand, does hold the potential to mount a formidable countervailing force. Thanks to the size of its economy and a stunningly healthy military, with an estimated US$45 billion budget and one of the world's most advanced navies, a Japan freed of its pacifist Constitution and unleashed as a regional peacekeeper would be a force to be reckoned with.
The flaw in Washington's strategy of militarizing the region, however, is that it is predicated on a flawed understanding of deterrence, with its proponents having developed the concept during a very different era -- the Cold War. Back then, deterrence worked mostly because failure to prevent war ran the risk of resulting in nuclear annihilation for both sides of the divide -- the West and the Soviet Union.
The reason why you are able to read the Taipei Times today has much to do with the fact that rational decision-makers chose to abide by the logic of deterrence from the perspective of the nuclear threat.
Absent the threat of annihilation, however, deterrence loses much of its effect and is even more fickle when one of the belligerents is the size of China, with numerous key cities and multifarious strategic nodes.
In fact, in conventional warfare, an arms race -- such as the one that has been sparked by the US, Taiwan and China -- creates its own upward dynamics and only exacerbates the likelihood of error resulting in military exchanges. The more players that are part of the conflict equation, the greater the quantity and complexity of the weapons involved, and the likelier that, at some point, human or systems error will lead to an accident with terrible consequences.
Two belligerents armed with nothing but slingshots cannot do much damage, accidental or otherwise. Equip four belligerents with advanced systems involving thousands of missiles, however, and the intricate, shifting alliance structures will render any mishap potentially catastrophic.
If Washington means what it says about facilitating a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan Strait conflict, it had better reconsider the dangerous arms race it is on the verge of sparking in Northeast Asia and embark upon solid, relentless diplomacy that truly addresses the imbalance of power.
Given the stakes, the world simply cannot afford to put its faith in militarization and deterrence. This is just asking for catastrophe.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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