Has america’s alliance with Taiwan, one of its oldest in Asia, become a strategic liability, a relic of a bygone era that no longer advances American interests? The obvious answer would seem to be no. First, there is the legacy of the relationship. American and free Chinese forces fought together in World War II. Taiwan was America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” during the Cold War. More recently, democratic Taiwan has become a model of political liberalization in a Chinese society. It boasts a high-tech economy that is intimately intertwined with those of America and its Asian partners; the United States is the largest foreign investor there. Taiwan is a key strongpoint in the United States’ offshore network of allies in maritime Asia. And not insignificantly, Taiwan is a reliable friend to America at a time when President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia is a reminder of the Chinese challenge to U.S. primacy — and the imperative of maintaining in Asia a balance of power that favors freedom.
It is surprising, then, that an active debate is now underway in Washington over whether Taiwan is a spoiler, rather than a partner, in U.S. strategy towards the world’s emerging center of wealth and power. The core of this argument assumes that relations between the United States and mainland China will define the 21st century — and that they should not be held hostage to the legacy of the civil war between Chinese nationalists and communists in the 1940s. Why should Washington risk its relationship with the rising superpower of 1.3 billion people over its ties to a small island nation of only 23 million given the high military and economic stakes for the United States of a conflicted relationship with Beijing? These arguments assume that Taiwan, as a senior U.S. military official once indelicately phrased it, is “the turd in the punchbowl” of U.S.-China relations.1
But arguments to let Taiwan go get strategy backwards. First, cutting off an old U.S. ally at a time of rising tensions with an assertive China might do less to appease Beijing than to encourage its hopes to bully the United States into a further retreat from its commitments in East Asia. Second, it would transform the calculus of vital American allies like Japan and South Korea, who might plausibly wonder whether the U.S. commitment to their security was equally flexible. Third, it would upend the calculations of new U.S. partners like India and Vietnam, whose leaders have made a bet on U.S. staying power and the associated benefits of strengthening relations with America as a hedge against China. Fourth, such preemptive surrender would reinforce what remains more a psychological than a material reality of China emerging as a global superpower of America’s standing — which it is not and may never be. Finally, it would resurrect the ghosts of Munich and Yalta, where great powers decided the fate of lesser nations without reference to those nations’ interests — or the human consequences of offering them up to satisfy the appetites of predatory great powers.
Canary in the coal mine
Proponents of “letting Taiwan go” seem to assume that everything else would remain unchanged in U.S. Asia strategy. America’s alliance system would remain robust, its military would continue to expand its access to regional ports and basing facilities, and non-Chinese Asia would continue to underwrite American leadership. In fact, abandoning Taiwan — say, by ending military sales (it is the top recipient of American arms worldwide) — would create a cascade of strategic consequences that would upend the U.S.-led regional order.
The first thing to erode would be the U.S.-Japan alliance, without which American leadership in East Asia in its present form would be impossible. Japan, Washington’s most important ally in Asia, may have few viable strategic options to maintain an independent foreign policy without a free Taiwan. As China’s military power casts a growing shadow over its neighbors, Japan’s capacity to retain strategic choice may hinge on Taiwan’s ability to maintain autonomy from the mainland — in ways that preclude a hostile China from projecting military power from Taiwan into the sea lanes that are the Japanese economy’s lifeline.
Too often, analysis of Taiwan’s strategic evolution focuses on its implications for China, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other. In fact, the foundations of Japanese grand strategy since 1951 — starting with its intimate alliance with the United States — may well be unsustainable should Taiwan fall under the control of a hostile, assertive China that defines Japan as an adversary. As Japan’s primary security partner, the United States therefore has a compelling interest in protecting Taiwan’s autonomy, not only for reasons related to Taiwan and U.S.-China relations but because it is foundational to Japan’s strategic future as America’s bedrock ally in East Asia.
Taiwan and the U.S.-Japan alliance
America’s role as what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called a “resident power” in Asia is made possible by the U.S. alliance with Japan. Nearly 50,000 American troops are forward-deployed there, and it is headquarters of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, whose ships and submarines patrol the Pacific and Indian Ocean sea lanes that carry most world trade in goods and energy resources. The problem of 20th-century Asia, of how to constrain Japanese power, was solved by a post–World War II alliance that contained Japanese militarism, reassuring its neighbors and enabling Asia’s economic miracle by allowing regional states to focus on modernizing their economies rather than competing militarily. China’s own extraordinary growth since it launched economic reforms in 1978 was made possible by the security umbrella America provided to Japan. This neutered armed conflict in East Asia and allowed American forces to operate freely in the region in ways that reassured rather than threatened key Asian powers.
Japan’s strategic posture and identity as a peaceful trading state are intimately tied to Taiwan’s orientation. Japan and Taiwan are natural allies — a term not usually associated with Japan’s relations with neighbors due to friction over “history issues” related to wartime Japan’s rapacity. Japan and Taiwan share a strategic geography as offshore trading powers dependent on free access to the maritime commons. Japan is Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner, and their economies are closely bound together by two-way flows of technology and capital as well as goods and services. They share a common military ally in the United States, the lodestar of their security in a rapidly changing region. They both define a national interest in an Asian balance of power that is not dominated by mainland China but preserves pluralism among Asia-Pacific states, allowing each to choose its alignments freely.
Cultural and political values pull Taiwan and Japan together rather than pushing them apart, laying a more enduring foundation for their shared strategic interests. Both are democracies in which political power has alternated between parties and governments are held accountable through strong institutions, free media, and the rule of law. Culturally, Japan’s occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 did not leave the imperial scars so evident elsewhere in Asia; to the contrary, Japanese administration helped modernize Taiwan and is remembered as a time of progress. Today, people-to-people ties between the two nations remain strong: Polling consistently shows that majorities in both societies hold the other in high regard. Taiwanese popular esteem for Japan is exceptional when compared with most of its neighbors.
Many scholars and analysts predict a near-term future in which Taiwan is increasingly drawn into mainland China’s embrace — willingly or otherwise. Yet as long as Japan and the prc remain security competitors, Taiwan’s reintegration with the mainland would put it on the wrong side of the divide, allied with the country that most threatens it against its most natural East Asian partner. In the absence of political liberalization in China, Taiwan’s interests and political values clash with the prc’s as strongly as they coincide with Japan’s — suggesting that we might expect to see a closer convergence in Japanese-Taiwanese relations over the coming decade, rather than the divergence that would occur from Taiwan’s reunification with a still-authoritarian regime in Beijing. For this reason, the future of Taiwan’s relations with Japan approach in importance the future of relations across the Taiwan Strait.
The strategic geography
There are four maritime domains that critically impact the economic and resource security of both Japan and Taiwan. First and most obvious are the waters around Taiwan, including the Taiwan Strait and Luzon Straits. As a trading state, Taiwan requires full and free access to these waters, the highways for its exports and imports of goods and energy resources. This is equally true of resource-poor Japan: The bulk of Japanese energy imports originate in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia and are shipped through the waters around Taiwan en route to the Japanese home islands. A hostile power that controlled Taiwan and projected naval and air power over surrounding waters could choke off Japanese energy imports. It was the threat of such a stranglehold in 1941 — at the hands of the United States — that persuaded an earlier generation of Japanese leaders to launch a preemptive strike against Pearl Harbor.
The Western Pacific is the second maritime domain of vital concern to both Taiwan and Japan. These waters connect both nations to their principal military ally, the United States, and its major hubs of power projection in Guam and Hawaii. The supply lines for U.S. forces stationed in Japan and Korea run through this area. Western Pacific sea lanes also carry Japanese and Taiwanese exports to North America. Were China to control Taiwan, its ability to project naval and air power into the Western Pacific would be unlocked; it is currently constrained by the offshore island chain of U.S. allies from Japan in the north to Taiwan and the Philippines in the center and Australia in the south.
The weakest link in this offshore barrier to Chinese power projection is Taiwan, given the intensity of the prc’s targeted military buildup against it and the political priority the Chinese leadership attaches to reunification. Chinese occupation of Taiwan would lead to a rebalancing of naval, air, and missile power in the Western Pacific that would put at risk the security of the air and sea lanes — and the U.S. military’s ability to operate freely in them — that bind together the economies of East Asia and North America.
The South and East China Seas are the third maritime domain of special interest to Taiwan and Japan. Taiwan is a claimant in the South China Sea dispute for reasons of history: Its claim matches that of the mainland, as Beijing and Taipei both vie to uphold what they argue is China’s historical suzerainty over the scs. Unlike the prc, however, Taiwan has not pursued gunboat diplomacy against Vietnam and the Philippines in violation of basic maritime conventions associated with freedom of the seas. In the East China Sea, the escalating conflict between Tokyo and Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is taking place in waters very close to Taiwan, underlining how Chinese control would intensify its ability to overturn by force Japanese administration of the disputed islets.
Both Taiwan and Japan are dependent on freedom of passage through the South and East China Seas for energy imports and trade flows. Nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies are shipped through the South China Sea,2 demonstrating how a hostile power’s chokehold on its sea lanes could rapidly cripple their economies — or, at a minimum, require adjustments to their foreign policies in return for secure passage. One-third of all global trade passes through the South China Sea.3 For trade-dependent economies like Taiwan and Japan — not to mention South Korea and China — free passage through the sea lanes linking the Straits of Malacca to the Taiwan Strait and Western Pacific is essential. So is freedom of the East China Sea lanes, which carry the extensive triangular trade between Japan, Taiwan, and the Asian mainland.
The fourth maritime domain of special interest to Taiwan and, in particular, to Japan is the Indian Ocean. It carries a majority of both nations’ energy imports from the Persian Gulf and is therefore intrinsically important despite its geographic distance from East Asia. It is also the home sea of India, which is emerging to play a critical balancing role in East Asia. This is attested by the development of Indian security partnerships with Japan, Vietnam, and other regional powers. India’s access to these countries for purposes of trade, joint exercises, and military exchanges is dependent on freedom of passage through Southeast and East Asian waterways. India cannot play the balancing role in East Asia that Japan, Taiwan, the United States and other partners would like it to play — a role which these countries can leverage to provide themselves greater strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China — if its access to the region is constrained by contested maritime commons.
China’s military buildup opposite Taiwan
A separate component of the strategic geography of Japan-Taiwan relations is the impact on Japan of China’s military buildup targeting Taiwan. The approximately 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles the Chinese military has deployed along its coastline opposite Taiwan are equally capable of hitting Japanese territory.4 The extensive fleet of attack submarines operating out of bases on Hainan Island and other Chinese ports — designed to complicate any American military intervention in a cross-strait conflict — are equally useful to surveil and harass Japanese shipping. The asymmetric capabilities China has procured and developed to deter or defeat American military intervention on Taiwan’s behalf — including anti-satellite weaponry, ballistic missiles capable of targeting advanced naval vessels, extensive cyberwarfare capabilities, and stealth attack aircraft — can equally target Japanese strengths in satellite surveillance, theater missile defense, naval power, and cyber capabilities.
Indeed, we have seen over the past few years a striking increase in Chinese military penetration of Japan’s territorial waters and airspace. Chinese maritime forces are actively challenging Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Chinese submarines routinely harass Japan’s naval fleet and operate extensively within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Cyberattacks on Japanese government and business computing systems emanating from China have spiked (particularly during periods of Sino-Japanese tension). One trend driving Japan’s growing security integration with American military forces over the past fifteen years has been China’s ballistic missile buildup opposite Taiwan, which senior Japanese officials regularly remind visitors can be easily retargeted toward Japan.5 Japan’s defense white papers highlight China’s military buildup against Taiwan as a source of insecurity and threat to the Japanese homeland.6
More broadly, the double-digit budget increases the People’s Liberation Army has enjoyed for the past two decades have funded an aggressive Chinese military modernization that ostensibly targets Taiwan, but increasingly emphasizes power-projection and asymmetric capabilities that would seem to have greater utility in combat against more capable armed forces like those from the United States and Japan. In short, it is difficult to disentangle the utility of China’s massive buildup of military power against Taiwan from the equal threat it potentially poses to Japan and the United States, given their inevitable roles in any cross-strait conflict and the core interests both have in the security of Taiwan and its region.
Both Japan and Taiwan have also learned that close trading ties with China are no guarantee of an improved political or military relationship. China’s emergence as Japan’s top trading partner has developed at the same time diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing have deteriorated sharply and military skirmishes between their air and naval forces have intensified. Enactment of a comprehensive trade and investment agreement between China and Taiwan has not slowed China’s deployment of military capabilities expressly designed to further tilt the cross-strait balance in its favor, and to call America’s ability to defend Taiwan into question.
The key to the alliance
A related component of the strategic geography of Japan-Taiwan relations is the role relations play in facilitating regional access for the United States, which remains the primary security provider in East Asia and the Pacific. American ability to project power in East and Southeast Asia, as currently constituted, is dependent on allied control of Japan and Taiwan. The largest American forward-deployed troop concentration, on Okinawa, is as close to Taiwan as to the Japanese home islands. The United States’ responsibility for the defense of Japan invests the southeastern approaches to the Japanese home islands with considerable strategic importance; similarly, U.S. ability to project power to defend Taiwan is dependent on the American military’s ability to operate from Okinawa. In short, U.S. bases in Japan reinforce the continued credibility of America’s military commitment to Taiwan’s defense, while a friendly Taiwan helps secure the southeastern approaches to the Japanese home islands — the most likely route of any airborne or naval assault on America’s closest Asian ally.
U.S. plans for the defense of Taiwan require access to bases, logistics, rear-area support, intelligence, communication, and supply hubs in Japan. It is therefore unlikely that a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan would relieve Japan of the imperative to actively support, defend, and perhaps even fight with American forces. It was this realization, following the exposure of a lack of clarity in Japan over its role in supporting the United States during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995–96, that led Washington and Tokyo to more clearly define the defense of Taiwan as a core area of alliance cooperation.7
Hostile control of Taiwan which enabled projection of naval and air power from its territory would dramatically erode the United States’ ability to defend Japan. American bases on Okinawa would become less defensible and more vulnerable to embargo or attack. The ability of the United States Navy to secure the sea lanes around Japan would be called into question. This would raise doubts not only about the defense of Japan, but the security of the maritime routes connecting Japan to the economies of Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, and Central Asia.
Okinawa serves not only as the frontline defense of Japan, but as the hub of American power projection into Southeast Asia. Hostile control of Taiwan would geographically sever the primary base of U.S. expeditionary forces in Asia from strategic regions like the South China Sea and the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. Asian states that have sought closer security ties with the United States, including Indonesia and Vietnam, might reconsider their strategic choices should Taiwan move from being a facilitator to an obstacle to U.S. power projection in maritime Southeast Asia.
The freedom of maneuver that U.S. air and naval forces enjoy in East and Southeast Asia — the basis for American primacy and the prosperity it has underwritten in this vast region — would be meaningfully constrained should the air and maritime commons around Taiwan come under contestation. In short, the operation of the U.S. alliance system in Asia, and the reassurance American forward-deployed forces have offered Asian partners for decades, could be overturned if Taiwan flipped from friendly to unfriendly hands. Given the centrality of East Asia to global growth, the consequences for the world economy would be crippling.
Implications for Japan
This strategic geography has compelling implications for Japan. Assuming that China remains controlled by an authoritarian, aggressive regime, Chinese control of Taiwan would enable it to sever the sea lanes that connect Japan to its closest ally on the opposite end of the Pacific Ocean. It would threaten Japan’s commercial and security access to the South China Sea and the straits connecting through to the Indian Ocean, the highway for Japan’s energy supply from the wider Middle East. It would also seriously complicate an emergent Indian-Japanese axis of security, investment, and trade that has developed on the basis of free passage through the international waters linking the two Asian powers. Japan’s other key non-American security partner, Australia, could also find its deep military and economic ties to Tokyo buffeted by a transformed balance of power in East Asia.
Japanese leaders of varying political persuasions have also discovered a consistency in Chinese assertiveness toward both Japan and Taiwan that has consistently diminished Japanese security. China’s missile buildup opposite Taiwan has continued despite the transition in Taipei from rule by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to that of Ma Ying-jeou’s Kuomintang, which has pursued policies of reconciliation and economic integration with the mainland. Japanese outreach to Beijing in 2009–10 under Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama — whose policy of equidistance between the United States and China threatened Japan’s role within the alliance to assist in Taiwan’s defense — was rebuffed by Beijing. Chinese naval harassment in and around Japanese waters actually increased during this period, capped by the ramming of a Japanese destroyer by a Chinese “fishing captain,” launching a tense period in which Beijing demanded the return of its sailor in increasingly militant terms.
The Chinese regime also continued to mobilize anti-Japanese nationalism over a period encompassing both pro-Chinese and China-skeptic leaders in Tokyo, suggesting a structural logic to this manipulation of public opinion tied to Beijing’s efforts to shore up the legitimacy of the Communist Party. Hence Japan and Taiwan are linked in another way: Just as Chinese leaders derive legitimacy from their claims on Taiwan, so they also derive legitimacy by fueling (controlled) anti-Japanese nationalism amongst the Chinese public.
And just as Japan has beefed up its role and capabilities within the U.S.-Japan alliance over the past fifteen years, so it would seem it must elevate Taiwan in its strategic planning and security guidelines, given the extraordinary implications for Japanese interests of any transition in Taiwan from ally to adversary. This could include trilateral U.S.-Japan-Taiwan planning around various contingencies related to mainland efforts to force or blackmail Taiwan into reunification on Beijing’s terms. It could also include enhanced intelligence-sharing in the realms of naval, air, and cyber defense in particular. Elements of missile defense, integrated air defense, and early-warning cooperation between the United States and Japan could be quietly extended to include Taiwan, and officer exchanges among the three countries could be expanded. It would be natural for Japan and the United States to assist Taiwan in upgrading its anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and to cooperate on integrated undersea surveillance.8 Japan could also build planning around various Taiwan contingencies into its security dialogues with Australia, South Korea, and India, given the large stake these powers have in peace and security in East Asia.
In the fraught debate over the relocation of American forces in Japan, Japanese leaders might elevate considerations related to Taiwan contingencies as they assess the pace and scale of plans to realign the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa. Such judgments should relate not only to operational support for U.S. forces in any Taiwan conflict contingency, but to the broader strategic implications for Japanese maritime and energy security of pla power projection from Taiwan. Tokyo has a compelling interest in shoring up an eroding balance of power across the Taiwan Strait and can no longer outsource this role to the United States given the magnitude of Chinese military modernization and the geographic realities that put Japan on the front line of any conflict between Taiwan and the mainland.
Implications for Taiwan
Leaders in taipei historically have focused on ties with Washington and Beijing as the primary determinants of Taiwan’s security and diplomacy. They should consider elevating Tokyo within their councils alongside the current superpower and its rising challenger. Japan will never play the same kind of pivotal role as these states in the international system. But the deep linkages between Japanese and Taiwanese interests, values, and strategic futures, intensified by their geographic proximity, make relations with Japan an important reinforcement to Taiwan’s ties with the United States while at the same time giving Taipei greater leverage vis-à-vis Beijing.
Moreover, structural pressures will continue to push Tokyo to move beyond its historically passive role within the U.S. alliance to one in which Japan becomes a more normal great power willing to use all tools to secure its vital interests, including military force. Japan’s evolution in this direction over the past decade is striking, encompassing military support to allied forces fighting in Afghanistan; deployment of non-combat forces to Iraq without a United Nations mandate; new security cooperation agreements with Australia and India, its first outside the U.S. alliance; military capacity-building projects in Southeast Asia; and development of advanced capabilities for (latent, if not actual) power projection though joint development and deployment of missile defenses with the United States, among other activities.
Japan’s growing security relations not only with India and Australia but with South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia suggest that Japanese leaders from both political parties are investing in a more diversified set of security partnerships in Asia beyond the U.S.-Japan alliance. Taiwan should be a key beneficiary of Japan’s new look on regional security, even if intensified military cooperation and planning must be undertaken more discreetly.
Moreover, the political debate in Taiwan pitting dpp leaders favoring closer relations with Japan against kmt leaders who privilege outreach to Beijing somewhat misses the point.9 Irrespective of who rules in Taipei, closer relations with Japan are a source of leverage that can reinforce Taiwan’s development of a more peaceful and cooperative relationship with Beijing. Kuomintang leaders have suggested that closer strategic ties with Japan could undercut Taiwanese outreach to the mainland, and therefore that collaboration with Tokyo should be rolled back so as not to displease leaders in Beijing. Given that China appears more inclined to cooperate internationally in the face of strength rather than weakness, the opposite would seem to be the case.
Historically, China’s diplomatic isolation of Taiwan — including constant Chinese pressure on the United States to minimize its ties to the island — has been premised on Beijing’s calculation that Taiwan would ultimately accept China’s terms for reunification because it would not have external allies to give it other options. One way for Taipei to give itself leverage to engage on more favorable terms with Beijing in ways that sustain peace and deterrence across the Taiwan Strait is by deepening military ties with Japan as that country itself works to maintain its distance from Beijing, sustaining its strategic freedom of maneuver by diversifying security partnerships across Asia.
American leaders of varying political persuasions have understood clearly that strong and stable relations with Beijing are facilitated by a robust U.S. alliance system in Asia and growing ties with rising powers like India. Taiwan comes nowhere near to approaching the weight of the United States in the international system. But smaller countries that more closely approximate Taiwan’s capabilities and geographic constraints have similarly found that diversified strategic relationships have increased their autonomy vis-à-vis Beijing.
Vietnam, for instance, shares a land border with China as well as a history of both deferral and resistance to Chinese suzerainty. Yet Vietnam is working diligently to build closer ties with the United States and India in particular, in the belief that more intimate military and diplomatic relations with key regional players will allow it to engage Beijing without fear of Finlandization. Taiwanese leaders might draw the conclusion that closer diplomatic and military relations with Japan could serve a similar purpose without upending relations with the mainland.
Implications for the United States
During the cold War, the United States favored a hub-and-spokes alliance model in Asia. For nearly half a century, Washington did not seek to multilateralize this arrangement by knitting allies together into a region-wide security club — unlike in Europe, where military ties with key powers were embedded within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (nato). Over the course of the past fifteen years, Washington’s perspective has changed, and U.S. policy in Asia increasingly favors the construction of groupings combining like-mindedness with meaningful capabilities to shape a new regional security architecture that remains grounded in the U.S. alliance system, but adds a new layer of multilateral cooperation on top of it.
Trilateral groupings linking the United States, Japan, and Korea; the U.S., Japan, and Australia; and the U.S., Japan, and India are a new feature of post-Cold War U.S. security policy. Operationally, Washington has also found quadrilateral groupings to be useful — delivering relief to Indonesia with the Indian, Japanese, and Australian navies following the December 2004 tsunami, for instance, or conducting joint exercises with Japan, India, and Australia in the Quadrilateral Partnership arrangement in 2007.
Washington has also encouraged regional partners to institutionalize security cooperation with each other even when it excludes the United States — on the principle that stronger ties between allies complement their relations with America. The United States played a handmaiden role in the 2008 Japan-Australia security arrangement and encouraged Tokyo to follow Washington’s lead, in the wake of the U.S.-India strategic breakthrough of 2005–08, by signing a far-reaching Indo-Japanese security cooperation agreement. U.S. officials have also welcomed India’s outreach to East Asian states like South Korea and Japan’s strategic assistance programs in Central and Southeast Asia. In short, unlike during the Cold War, when it actively discouraged allies from developing independent relationships with each other, Washington now understands that developing new networks of security providers in Asia could make a critical contribution to the provision of regional public goods as American primacy becomes contested.
Taiwan is an exceptional case given the unique nature of its identity and historical conflict with mainland China, as well as U.S. equities in supporting Taiwan’s autonomy while sustaining a fruitful relationship with Beijing. Nonetheless, the same point applies from an American perspective: to the extent that Taiwan has a wider set of friends and allies that assuage Taiwanese insecurities and offset its isolation, it is easier for Washington to pursue constructive relations with Taipei. From an American perspective, the cross-Strait balance looks sturdier when Taiwan is strengthening relations with Japan and other important powers than when Taiwan is isolated, withdrawn, and unduly dependent on the United States.
The U.S. goal of building new networks beyond the hub-and-spokes alliance model — including connecting allies with each other to create a more robust regional security architecture — would be enhanced by more intimate military and diplomatic relations between Taipei and Tokyo. Pulling Japan out of its U.S. alliance cocoon into greater regional leadership remains a long-term American objective that Taiwan can help facilitate. By encouraging Tokyo to assume broader regional security responsibilities, Taiwan can help shape Japan’s identity in the 21st century in the same way that Japan shaped Taiwan’s in the 20th.
Implications for China
China is more likely to succeed in its self-declared goal of “peaceful rise” if its ascent occurs in a region of strong, vibrant states that can prosper and sustain open commons that benefit them all. China is less likely to rise peacefully in a region of weak states that create a vacuum of power around the mainland and tempt it into external adventurism. Such a scenario would empower the camp of militant nationalists in Beijing at the expense of leaders who would pursue more cooperative relations with neighbors. Japan succumbed to the latter temptation in the 1930s — largely because China was so weak.
A crucial element in sustaining a configuration of power that encourages China to focus on internal enrichment rather than external aggrandizement is a continued and enduring U.S. role as a resident power in Asia. From a development and security perspective, China has had an extraordinary 30 years — a period when the United States actually increased its military footprint and security partnerships across Asia. There is little evidence to suggest that American primacy in maritime Asia is detrimental to China’s own development aspirations. Indeed, the United States and its allies have underwritten China’s economic miracle by shaping such a benign external environment in which China could peacefully prosper.
It is therefore unconvincing to argue that America’s current security strategy in Asia is designed to contain China by encircling it with hostile adversaries. The United States is China’s largest trading partner, and China is America’s largest trading partner. No country in Asia wants to have to choose between relations with China and relations with the United States — they want both, with U.S. ties serving as a useful hedge against what would otherwise rapidly become a dangerous dependence on China.
In these circumstances, it is hard to understand how containment would be either feasible or desirable — or why it would be in the interests of the United States. The entire “containment” thesis misses the point: from 2009 to 2011, as Nancy Bernkopf Tucker and Bonnie Glaser wrote in the Fall 2011 Washington Quarterly, the United States sold nearly $13 billion in weapons to Taiwan, even as relations between Beijing and Taipei improved dramatically. It is more plausible to argue that U.S. support for Taiwan gave it the confidence to engage China than to maintain that U.S. defense sales create a wedge between Taipei and Beijing.
In the same vein, closer strategic cooperation between Japan and Taiwan would not be designed to contain China but, rather, to reinforce and diversify the sources of regional stability. Both Japan and Taiwan have obvious interests in shoring up the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait and signaling to the prc that any attempt to retake Taiwan by force would be extremely costly. Moreover, China’s assertive and even hostile behavior toward Japan over the past two years — from the embargo on rare earth elements (the first time modern China has openly practiced economic warfare) to the constant encroachment in Japan’s territorial waters to overt Chinese warnings against Japanese security cooperation with free nations like the Philippines — has lowered the costs to Japan, and raised the incentives, for Tokyo to pursue a more creative security diplomacy. It should signal to China that the world’s third-largest economy and closest ally of the United States will not be bullied by its authoritarian neighbor, but will pursue its peaceful interests and choose its external alignments as it sees fit.
China promises to be a truly global power in 2030. But a Chinese superpower will not resemble the American one and will suffer from a range of possible Achilles heels, from rigid one-party rule to a strategic geography of constraint, that will limit its ability to surpass the United States as the leader of the international system — much less to shape a world order around itself as America did in the 20th century.
Unlike the United States, which ascended to global leadership in a geopolitical environment characterized by the demise of other great powers — Japan, Germany, France, Britain, and Russia — China will ascend over coming decades in a world characterized by the resilience of American power and the parallel rise of India, Brazil, Indonesia, and other key states. This means that China will be a great power in a world of other great powers. It will live in a world that has adapted to constrain and channel its power rather than submitting to it. China will certainly wield significant capabilities and influence international norms. But it will not single-handedly write the rules of the international system in the way that previous hegemons have done, because it will most likely not be hegemonic.
China may also be democratic in 2030, which if it comes to pass would fundamentally alter the peer-competitor logic that shapes grand-strategic analysis today. China will still need to wield global military power to protect sea and space lines of communication, secure natural resources, protect overseas Chinese populations, meet alliance commitments, and shape developments in regions essential to its economic and security interests. But the security-dilemma dynamics otherwise associated with these projections of power and influence would be muted by a Chinese political system that was transparent, accountable, viewed at home and abroad as legitimate, and governed by democratic norms that eased Chinese diplomacy with otherwise skeptical states. Just as the United States does not worry about nuclear missiles in the hands of Britain, France, and India today, so Washington would have less to fear from the military power of a consolidated Chinese democracy. And China would have less incentive to invest in aggressive military power-projection capabilities were its armed forces subject to democratic civilian control.
It is certainly true that a democratic transition in China could increase the pressure of popular nationalism on Chinese foreign policy — leading to heightened pressure on a more accountable regime to reunify Taiwan, for instance. But it is equally true that a democratic regime in China would be a more appealing interlocutor for Taiwan to consider peaceful reunification. China might actually be better positioned to achieve its core foreign and security policy goals — integrating Taiwan into the prc, convincing skeptical Asian neighbors of its peaceful ambitions, and reassuring the United States that its rise is compatible with American interests — were democratic institutions of restraint and reassurance in place in Beijing, recasting the calculations of both China’s restive citizens and its external competitors.
Democracy would also greatly enhance China’s legitimacy in reshaping international institutions to give itself a more central role in providing global public goods. Many countries would acquiesce to Chinese leadership within the international system should a liberal political regime govern in Beijing, in ways they most likely will not should China continue on its authoritarian trajectory. Indeed, the qualities of Chinese autocracy will increasingly handicap the country’s geopolitical ascent, suggesting that China’s continuing rise through 2030 may actually require a democratic opening to manage a range of intractable domestic and external challenges. Such an opening would, in turn, pave the way for China’s ascent to the top tier of global politics. In this important sense, Taiwan need not be an impediment to U.S.-China relations or to China’s continued rise; it may more accurately represent China’s democratic future.
1. William Lowther, “Blair Defends ‘Turd’ Comment, Taiwan Record,” Taipei Times (February 1, 2009).
2. Robert Kaplan, “The South China Sea is the Future of Conflict,” Foreign Policy (September-October 2011).
3. Conversation with cincpacflt Commander Admiral Patrick Walsh, Honolulu (July 2011).
4. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2012 (Department of Defense, 2012).
5. Conversations with Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense officials, Tokyo (October 2009).
7. Michael J. Green, Japan’s Reluctant Realism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
8. The author is grateful to Randy Schriver of the Project 2049 Institute for these points.
9. The author is grateful to Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute for this insight.