The Cold War Meets Taiwan
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The Cold War Meets Taiwan


Couple of quick follow-ups from yesterday's event at the augustly titled Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. We had a lively Q&A, as you might expect when debating Taiwan's future amid increasingly forbidding surroundings. First, a young Chinese staffer from the Wilson Center took us tough-on-China types to task for a "Cold War mentality," and for concentrating on the military dimension of cross-strait relations to the exclusion of confidence-building measures. (My friend and veteran China scholar June Dreyer was on hand for the event as well. Note to self: never make June mad at you.)

Two points in reply. The notion that a Cold War mentality impels China policy in the West is a standard Chinese talking point. And like many talking points, it bears a rather loose relationship to reality. China today is not the Soviet Union of the late 1940s, the predatory great power that prompted George F. Kennan and Paul Nitze to fashion rival strategies of containment. If Beijing has designs on subverting or conquering its neighbors, it has kept them extraordinarily well concealed. Nor, despite the ruling party's official commitment to communism, does the leadership seem to think Marxist-Leninist dogma will sweep the world — or that Beijing can make it do so. If China is not the Soviet Union, the old paradigm of containment appears misplaced. If the analogy doesn't fit, you must acquit! Strategic competition with Beijing will unfold under other rules.


It occurs to me that there is one narrow case in which the Cold War analogy does fit, and that is the case of Taiwan. China resembles the Soviet Union of old in its approach to cross-strait relations. The leadership has openly, clearly, and repeatedly stated an unlimited aim vis-à-vis the island: it will unseat the liberal constitutional regime and rule from the mainland. It will not abide by the wishes of Taiwan's people, the overwhelming majority of whom want to kick the can down the road indefinitely. (See Law, Anti-Secession.) It will lower an iron curtain. So there's a good reason why people like me doubt the usefulness of confidence-building measures. There is no give in China's ultimate goal apart from the timing. (Nor was Moscow on any particular timetable.) In precisely what would we build confidence?

And second, the organizer exercised his prerogative as big kahuna of the event and posed the final question: aren't those of us who take Taipei to task for doing too little for the island's defense really objecting to the outcomes of the past two presidential elections, which installed a leadership committed to cross-strait rapprochement? Not really, quoth the Naval Diplomat. For one thing, military preparedness hasn't been a strong suit of either KMT or DPP governments in quite some time. It's hard to fault the electorate for bipartisan foibles. But at the same time — flipping the question around to U.S. politics — America is under no obligation to expend inordinate numbers of lives, ships and aircraft, and taxpayer dollars attempting to recoup bad strategic decisions on Taiwan's part. That's true whether those decisions were made democratically or not.

Which loops back around to my major theme for the Wilson Center gathering. Taiwan must do what it can to provide for its own defense while helping U.S. forces come to its rescue. Or, it can live with the consequences of inaction. Trusting to the goodwill of a big, nearby power that vows to snuff out your political existence would be a fateful choice — not one I would make.

March 13, 2013 at 12:15

The objective reality is that the PRC and ROC both exist as independent, sovereign states. The US could have its own variation of the 92 Consensus – “One China, Respective Interpretations.” Under its “One China” policy, the US should not be deterred from normal relations with both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The US takes no position on an ultimate resolution of political differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, as long as the process is peaceful. This is the essence of the US One China policy.

March 13, 2013 at 11:57

Michael Turton above has it right – Taiwan’s defense establishment has been pressing to make further investments into its military force. Not just additional F-16s, but more importantly, diesel electric submarines, UAVs, and a range of other systems. The Obama administration is putting decisions off.

Beyond this, Taiwan has already made some pretty hefty investments over the last five-10 years. Advanced tactical data links (Link 16), new tactical radars, upgrades to existing radars, new strategic early warning radar (only one in the region), six new PATRIOT PAC-3 fire units, P-3Cs, AAV-7s, new AH-64H APACHE attack helicopters, and new BLACKHAWK utility helicopters. And Taiwan’s MND is very close to locking in upgrades to existing F-16s that will give the ROCAF the most lethal air platform in the region (with exception of the USAF). Add to this HF-2E land attack cruise missiles, new domestic short range air defenses, a new air defense C2 system, EW systems, and the largest inventory of rapid runway repair sets in the region, then one should ask why anyone would doubt either the DPP or KMT’s commitment to defense.

As for the “spies in the midst” narrative: of course Taiwan has a counterintelligence problem. If you consider the massive scale of the CCP effort, Taiwan’s not doing too bad. West Germany was much more penetrated than Taiwan is today. But the US and rest of NATO worked with West Germany throughout the challenge. Ultimately, the Communists lost in Europe and former USSR. The CCP is likely to share the same fate, and one should never doubt Taiwan’s resilience (or its own proven capacity to penetrate the CCP and PLA at very senior levels).

March 7, 2013 at 07:41

The majority of Taiwanese do not see China as the ONLY salvation. In fact, many Taiwanese businesses are leaving already due to the rising wages on the coast. But you're right on the point that CCP does have an increasing leverage when dealing with Taipei. 

Regarding to debt, You can check out the accumulated debt among local governments in China. Your argument needs elaboration. 

March 7, 2013 at 07:36

Whether Taiwan is a tool for the U.S. is not important, if Taiwan and U.S. have their interests collide, why not? 

Believing in "One Country, Two systems" is rather naive. Simply look at Hong Kong, will you call it a liberal democratic government? What many people in U.S. don't realize is that a considerable amount of people actually want U.S. presence in Asia. (Of course many also are against, but it isn't as unipolar as U.S. media would want you to believe in) 

Simply put, being a tool or not is not important at all. If TW-US relationship benefits mutually, it better goes on. From a Taiwanese standpoint, we do need U.S. power to counter the increasing influence CCP have on the island. 

March 4, 2013 at 16:05

It's best for US to support two Chinas policy, instead of "one China" policy, which needs a revision. The "one China" is unfair to Taiwan's political recognition as the "one China" almost points automatically to PRC (People's Republic of China) or the faked "red communist China", thus degrading Taiwan's political recognition as REPUBLIC OF CHINA (ROC), unfair to Taiwan to exist as a political state. Furthermore, ROC was founding member of UN, holding the China seat to UN from 1945-1972. In no way should Taiwan bargain itself to losing its statehood. The recognition of "ROC" will affirm US state recognition, to formalize diplomatic ties under "ROC". Giving up Taiwan to PRC's aggression will only destroy this legitimate democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, which serves as a model of democracy for mainland China. ROC needs more recognition from its common ally US.

March 3, 2013 at 14:35

Americans want to promote Chinese from both sides of the strait to start a brother on brother cold war. Just like they did to blacks.

March 2, 2013 at 19:46

Then why do some 80-90% of Taiwanese NOT want reunification?


Further, it's clear to see that China's policy vis-a-vis Hong Kong is a failure, so I don't understand why any Taiwanese would be enthusaistic about reunification.

March 2, 2013 at 15:22

Unfortunately, Tawain's days are numbered, they just don't know it. The PRC is infesting it from the inside out. 

March 2, 2013 at 14:27

Excellent points made by Prof Holmes. The Cold War solutions should and do apply in certain instances. Scholars these days are too quick to regard CW solutions as being outdated.

March 2, 2013 at 08:00

Taiwan is Republic of CHINA.

Lauren Garza
March 2, 2013 at 04:37

I'm reminded of the endless blockades off Brest and Toulon that the Royal Navy did in the Napoleonic wars. Spending seemingly endless treasure bottling up the French navy. And while it served the French treasury well having the RN spend all those resources keeping them contained. It didn't serve them well when it came to an actual battle. Because while they had terrific forces at their disposal, they lack the countless manhours spent by the RN learning how to fight. In short, the PLAN suffers from a lack of salt in their blood. And the idea of having their captains having to make independent decisions, out there in the blue, without direct control and at the end of a very long and easily broken tether is anathema to their system.

Note: all the PLAN has to do is close the Formosa straits for 72 hours. And for that they've been developing supercavitating torpedo technology purchased from the Russians.

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