Taiwan Must Avoid a Greek Fate

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Taiwan Must Avoid a Greek Fate

Just because China doesn’t want a conflict over Taiwan doesn’t mean it will accept the status quo.

We could hardly agree more with Prof. Daniel Lynch’s appraisal of the situation across the Taiwan Strait—let’s not mistake happy talk and economic agreements for a durable cross-strait status quo. Beijing shows no sign of relenting on its goal of imposing its rule on Taiwan, and Chinese spokesmen are admirably forthright about this.

Nonetheless, when we discuss cross-strait relations with senior US military officers, they often inform us that China evinces little desire to use the formidable military it’s constructing to achieve longstanding political aims. We fully agree with them on this point. Where we do part ways with them, though, is on the sweeping conclusions they draw from this trivial point—namely that Beijing so abhors the prospect of armed conflict that it will accept the cross-strait status quo more or less indefinitely, and presumably compromise on national unity.

Doubtful. As we see it, Beijing is attempting to amass such military superiority over the island’s armed forces, along with such an overbearing deterrent against outside intervention, that Taipei has little choice but to acquiesce in unification on the mainland’s terms while Taipei’s friends have little choice but to stand aside. If so, China is building a strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) precisely to avoid using that force in combat. Armed conflict is a perilous enterprise. Accordingly, Sun Tzu portrays winning without fighting as ‘the acme of skill’. Western sage St. Augustine teaches that even those who disturb the peace through warfare have no intrinsic hatred of peace. They simply want to transform the existing peace into one that suits them better, and they are prepared to use arms to effect such a transformation—accepting the risks entailed by violent conflict.Force is a last resort, then, even for those who use force.

As Lynch implies, the task before Taipei is to combine political measures with artful deployment of military force, presenting such a hard target that Beijing never concludes it can win without running unacceptable risk. Thucydides illuminates the dynamics at work in the Taiwan Strait. When the island of Melos appeared likely to defect from the Athenian Empire to rival Sparta 2500 years ago, the Athenian Assembly dispatched an embassy to make the islanders an offer they couldn’t refuse. They could bow to Athenian wishes or see their male populace slaughtered, their women and children enslaved. As the ambassadors informed the Melians, questions of justice only arise between rough equals in physical might. The strong do as they will, the weak do as they must.

Unable to resist an Athenian assault, and with the Athenian navy barring any overseas reinforcements, the Melians had little recourse. They could surrender or die fighting. They opted for battle, and lost their city after a short, bloody siege. Does China want to impose a Melian fate on Taiwan? Not in a strict sense, but Beijing—whether it realizes it or not—is relying on the inexorable logic of power explicated by the Athenian emissaries. Antiquity holds valuable lessons despite the passage of time.

All this means that Taiwan can’t expect justice from China from a position of weakness. Too grave a power mismatch across the Strait will leave Taipei with few options while disheartening the island’s inhabitants and their leaders. A PLA powerful enough to command the waters and skies adjoining the island could deter, delay, or defeat outside succour, presumably from US Pacific Fleet units operating across great distances from Japan, Guam, and Hawaii. To give themselves the time Prof. Lynch rightly says they need, the Taiwanese government and armed forces must apply their energies and ingenuity to devising a naval and aerial strategy that denies the PLA control of the Strait, holding off an invasion force, and that helps US reinforcements fight their way into the theatre.

Only by doing this can Taiwan preserve its de facto independence for long enough to matter. China doesn’t yet boast the overwhelming supremacy of Athens over its environs. The United States is by no means as powerless as Sparta. And Taiwan’s plight does not yet approach that of Melos.

But Taipei must act lest things degenerate that far.

James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara are associate professors of strategy at the US Naval War College, where Yoshihara holds the Van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies. The views voiced here are theirs alone.