Partner in the Pivot?
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Partner in the Pivot?

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Editor's Note: Below is the full text of the Naval Diplomat’s essay for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on February 26, 2013. It appeared in Shihoko Goto, ed., Taiwan and the U.S. Pivot to Asia: New Realities in the Region? Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, March 2013, pp. 25-32.

Apathy kills. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia—a politico-military endeavor that combines strategic mass, strategic maneuver, and geography in intensely competitive surroundings—may well bolster Taiwan’s security vis-à-vis the mainland.Yet the pivot’s capacity to dissuade or defeat China hinges on whether U.S. Navy relief forces can reach the island’s vicinity, do battle, and prevail at a cost acceptable to the American state and society. This is an open question—but one that Taiwan’s armed forces can, and must, help answer in the affirmative. The island must bear a vigorous hand in its defense rather than passively awaiting rescue. Otherwise it may stand alone in its hour of need.

Get Serious

Taiwan, then, must think of itself as a partner in as well as a beneficiary of the United States’strategic pirouette.Why? Because the remorseless logic of self-help, whereby nation-states bear primary responsibility for their own defense, still rules international affairs. And because appearances count in alliance politics. A lesser ally that covets help from a stronger one must demonstrate that it merits the effort, lest the strong stand aside during a crisis. Taipei’s performance is suspect in both military and diplomatic terms.Defense budgets, a rough gauge of political resolve, have dwindled from already meager levels. Military spending stood at 2.2 percent of GDP in 2012, down from 3.8 percent in 1994.

For comparison’s sake, 2 percent of GDP constitutes NATO’s benchmark for defense expenditures. Taiwan barely meets the standard fixed by an alliance whose members face no threat. This is not the behavior of an ally serious about its defense.

Taipei thus remains on a peacetime footing even as the cross-strait military balance tilts more and more lopsidedly toward the mainland. Its armed forces’ capacity to withstand assailants long enough for U.S. forces to reach the theater is increasingly doubtful. Only by conspicuously upgrading its defenses can the island’s leadership help a U.S. president justify the costs and hazards of ordering increasingly scarce, and thus increasingly precious, forces into battle against a peer competitor. Otherwise the American people and their elected officials may ask why they should risk vital interests for the sake of an ally that appears unwilling to help itself.

Granted, this is a dark picture to paint at a time when knowledgeable observers proclaim that peace has broken out in the Taiwan Strait. But think about it. America’s superpower status—among the most vital of vital interests—hinges on sea power. Losing a major part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in an afternoon would set back the republic’s standing in the world. Even in victory, a costly encounter could carry dire consequences for both the United States and the global order over which its sea services preside.

In short, U.S. presidents can no longer blithely send forces into combat in the Western Pacific. It is no longer 1995-1996, when the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft-carrier task forces to the island’s vicinity to deter Chinese aggression during presidential elections. The prospective adversary is far more capable, the costs of battle mounting in relative terms. After all, each ship or aircraft lost in combat constitutes a bigger proportion of a smaller force. Beijing is counting on the increasing “lumpiness” of U.S. military capital to help dissuade Washington from involving itself in a cross-strait war.

The decision will be doubly difficult if Taiwan seems indifferent to its own security—indeed,to its own political survival.The island must help America pivot to the region rather than assume help will automatically arrive during times of strife.

Competing to Mold Washington’s Cost/Benefit Calculus

Theory helps clarify such matters. Strategic theorist Carl von Clausewitz urges statesmen and commanders to impose rationality on international strife—an arena for chance, “friction,” and dark passions—as best they may. The value of the political object, writes Clausewitz, should govern the magnitude and duration of the effort a belligerent puts forth to gain that object. In other words, how much importance a combatant attaches to its goals determines how many resources—lives, weaponry, treasure—it should expend on theundertaking, and for how long. It is the price a belligerent is willing to pay.

Should the costs come to exceed the likely gains, adds Clausewitz, the leadership should write off its losses and exit the conflict as gracefully as possible. Such hard scrabble logic should trouble Taipei, raising the prospect of American abandonment. And it gets worse. No enthusiast for alliances, Clausewitz adds laconically that

"One country may support another’s cause, but will never take it so seriously as it takes its own. A moderately-sized force will be sent to its help; but if things go wrong the operation is pretty well written off, and one tries to withdraw at the smallest cost."

Allied commitments, that is, are typically tepid. Harvard professor Steve Walt maintains that common interests and threats, cultural and social affinities, and incentives or coercion furnished by the leading partner can bind together alliances and coalitions. If so, his taxonomy offers scant comfort for Taipei.

Consider. The same things are not at stake for Taiwan and the United States in East Asia. Washington must uphold regionwide and global interests while keeping the peace in the Strait. Taipei concerns itself mainly with cross-strait relations. Taipei clearly cannot pay off or compel Washington to fight on its behalf.That leaves sympathy for a fellow democracy under threat as the chief motive impelling the United States to intervene.Yet Walt declares that social and cultural affinities are relatively weak adhesives. Doubtless Clausewitz would agree.

To bias a stronger patron’s cost/benefit calculus in favor of military intervention, accordingly,a lesser ally like Taiwan must shoulder as much of the burden as it can, demonstrating it remains a going concern while keeping down the costs to its ally. To help the United States pivot to its defense, Taiwan must demonstrate that the fight will not be too costly or take too long. Showing the American people and their leaders that they can advance a worthy but secondary—for them—cause at an acceptable price will easeWashington’s decision to intervene.

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