James Holmes

The Cold War Meets Taiwan

“China resembles the Soviet Union of old in its approach to cross-strait relations.”

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.

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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.