A new issue of The National Interest is out this week. Of particular interest to Diplomat readers will be John Mearsheimer’s essay pondering Taiwan’s future in light of China’s rise. The piece is based on a speech he gave in Taiwan a few months back.
The article is concerned with the fairly distant future when, assuming continued growth, China’s military and economic power equals if not surpasses the United States’. At this point, Mearsheimer contends, the U.S. will not be able to defend Taiwan conventionally given prevailing geography. He also asserts that the U.S. will not extend its nuclear umbrella to Taiwan because of concerns about precipitating a nuclear war with China.
The article is characteristically thought-provoking and provocative. Mearsheimer makes bold statements throughout like “There was no flashpoint between the superpowers during the Cold War that was as dangerous as Taiwan will be in a Sino-American security competition.” Beyond the Taiwan issue, he outlines his views of more general issues, including how China will act in the broader Asia-Pacific region if its power equals that of the United States.
With regard to Taiwan, Mearsheimer argues that it will have three choices in the face of a militarily and economically dominant China: develop an independent nuclear deterrent; build potent enough conventional capabilities to make it excessively costly for China to invade and conquer Taiwan; or pursue the “Hong Kong strategy.” Regarding the latter, which Mearsheimer concludes would be the least bad option, he writes: “In this case, Taiwan accepts the fact that it is doomed to lose its independence and become part of China. It then works hard to make sure that the transition is peaceful and that it gains as much autonomy as possible from Beijing. This option is unpalatable today and will remain so for at least the next decade. But it is likely to become more attractive in the distant future if China becomes so powerful that it can conquer Taiwan with relative ease.”
Many readers will find the future Mearsheimer sketches out for Taiwan as excessively gloomy if not downright absurd. I tend to think that it’s more plausible than we would like to imagine. After all, most European powers laughed at the United States when it initially issued the Monroe Doctrine. However, American leaders persevered in their quest for hegemony, and by the end of the century had made the Monroe Doctrine a reality. I don’t see China being any less determined to annex Taiwan than U.S. leaders were to eject European powers from Central America.
That is not to say that I necessarily agree with Mearsheimer’s conclusions. I think there are a number of issues that aren’t considered or not given enough credence. First, an underlying assumption in the article is that China continues to increase its relative economic power, and thereby its military power. To his credit, I’ve heard Mearsheimer acknowledge that this is an underling assumption in the article, and one that may not pan out. He also notes at the end that Taiwan should hope that China falters economically in the coming years.
Still, I think the article tends to downplay the very real challenges that China’s economy faces, and the fact that historically countries facing similar problems didn’t overcome them well at all. At the very least, then, I think it’s quite possible China will not be as powerful as Mearsheimer envisions in the article until after it recovers from a very serious economic crisis or long period of stagnation.
Secondly, as I’ve argued before, I think almost all observers underappreciate the fact that defeating Taiwan’s military forces would not be the biggest challenge China would face in trying to annex the island through armed force. As Mearsheimer actually convincingly argues in the essay, a strong Taiwanese national identity has taken hold on the island since 1949, and this identity appears to growing stronger in more recent years. I expect this will continue as China grows more powerful.
The major consequence of this, for our current discussion at least, is that China would have to contend with a prolonged armed insurgency after it defeated Taiwan’s conventional forces. This insurgency would have strong external backing, although the fact that Taiwan’s an island might limit how much concrete assistance it would actually receive from the outside. Facing an open, armed rebellion to its rule in Taiwan would be very problematic for the Chinese Communist Party’s rule over parts of the mainland. This possibility alone might make CCP leaders very weary of launching an invasion in the first place.
Thirdly, I think Mearsheimer understates the degree to which other countries besides the U.S. might come to Taiwan’s aid. Foremost among these is Japan, which is already considering a Taiwan Relations Act of its own. This is a crucial difference between the situation the U.S. faced in seeking regional hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and one that China faces in the Asia-Pacific. Namely, Beijing is surrounded by powerful neighbors, all of whom are adamantly opposed to a return to Chinese regional hegemony. I don’t believe these countries will be weaker collectively than China for some time to come, if ever.
Finally, I would not rule out the possibility that if China becomes too powerful, Taiwan might seek an independent nuclear deterrent before it chooses the “Hong Kong strategy.” It would hardly be the first nation that acquired nuclear weapons to negate a rival’s vastly superior military power because it couldn’t do so through conventional means alone. Furthermore, Taiwan has a fairly robust civilian nuclear program that would make it easy—at least relative to some of the recent proliferators—to acquire a nuclear arsenal. The real challenge would be trying to do so covertly since Beijing might attack Taiwan if it discovered the island’s dash for the bomb.