May 19, 2021, 7:54 a.m.
In a recent foreign affairs article, I argued that we need a serious debate about whether the United States should keep its commitment to Taiwan. This is a difficult question, and reasonable people may disagree. Blake Herzinger’s answer on foreign policy rejects my analysis. Unfortunately, his harsh criticism does little to fuel this necessary debate.
First, he does not address the central pillar of the analysis. I contend that US involvement in defense of Taiwan carries great risks. Therefore, based on the logic of the cut, the United States should end its commitment to Taiwan. Given the value China attaches to union with Taiwan and China’s increasing military capabilities, I believe there is a significant likelihood that China will use force against Taiwan and engage the United States in a major war over the next several decades. This conventional war could escalate into nuclear war in a number of ways. If China loses the conventional war, it could launch a limited nuclear attack to show its determination and force the United States to admit. Alternatively, if the United States lost, it could escalate to nuclear attacks, believing defeat would undermine its East Asian alliances. The dynamics of outright war, involving large-scale conventional attacks by both countries and alerting the US and Chinese nuclear forces, could create other burdens and incentives for deliberate and accidental nuclear escalation.
I am far from assessing the likelihood of a conventional war as significant. In March of this year, Adm. Philip Davidson, who was then the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, told Congress: “Taiwan is clearly one of their targets. … I think the threat will show itself this decade, indeed the next six years. “I’m not that pessimistic; In the article on foreign affairs, I wrote that the likelihood was slim. (I actually misspelled it and mistakenly said the risk was small.) However, if there is a high 10 percent chance of a major conventional war between the United States and China in the next two or three decades, then we are in a very high one dangerous situation. Herzinger says nothing about the likelihood of a conventional or nuclear war. Hence, his answer provides essentially no basis for assessing whether the United States should maintain its commitment to Taiwan.
Second, Herzinger incorrectly characterizes my recommendation as “inconsistent with the values that should be central to US foreign policy” and concludes that “realism is not an excuse for calluses”. I believe, as I have admitted, that cuts would be bad for the people of Taiwan and therefore would cost US humanitarian and ideological values, including supporting democracies. However, I have also argued that engagement carries great risks to other US values, most obviously to the well-being of US military personnel and US civilians. A major conventional war could result in thousands or even tens of thousands of American deaths. An escalation to nuclear war could increase the toll by orders of magnitude.
The demand to end US engagement is therefore not in conflict with US values, but reflects a political compromise in which not all US values and interests can be achieved at the same time. In international relations, as in many other areas, we sometimes have to choose between bad situations – not between good and bad. Herzinger suggests otherwise by ignoring the risks of current US politics.
He is also wrong in ascribing my conclusion to an allegiance to the realistic school of international relations theory. The vast majority of realists are in favor of maintaining US engagement with Taiwan. Although I have written extensively on so-called defensive realism – which states that the anarchic international system enables cooperation and peace between great powers under various conditions – my analysis hardly relies on it. Rather, my assessment reflects China’s level of determination to control Taiwan, China’s growing military capabilities against Taiwan, the United States’ much lower interest in Taiwan, and the combined effect of these factors on deterrence. Deterrent theory, yes; Realism, no. Even so, defensive realism is optimistic that China can rise peacefully, regardless of the dangers posed by Taiwan.
Third, while Herzinger rejects many of my points about the United States’ ability to defend Japan, he says nothing about the relative risks of defending Taiwan and Japan. Even if Chinese control of Taiwan increases China’s military capabilities against Japan, the United States’ best option may be to accept this reduction in the US’s ability to defend Japan. If US capabilities weren’t dramatically reduced – and probably not in this case either – the likelihood of China attacking Japan would almost certainly be far less than the current likelihood of attacking Taiwan. First of all, there is little doubt that China attaches much greater importance to control of Taiwan than Japan. In addition, Japan would be much harder to conquer than Taiwan. As a result, ending US engagement with Taiwan would be the United States ‘best option, even if the United States’ ability to defend Japan were somewhat limited.
Herzinger says I just repackaged the argument I first made in 2011 without making it any more convincing. In fact, my current argument for cutting is very different from the argument I made in 2011 – when I presented a full analysis of why the United States should consider ending its commitment to Taiwan – and the 2015 argument that the Case justified for a bargain in detail. Although big deal seemed possible, if not likely, at the time, China’s more assertive policies have since made it clear that China is unwilling to compromise on its demands in the South China Sea and that it may be more willing to use force against Taiwan . Recent research into the value China attaches to control of the South China Sea confirms this conclusion. Cut is very different from a bargain backed up by its own logic. Analyzing complex international political issues is usually associated with a number of uncertainties. Over time, experience can provide information that can reduce these uncertainties and shift the best estimates, and policy conclusions can change as a result. The development in my analysis – from supporting a large business to demanding cuts – reflects newly available information.
The Economist’s May 1 cover story, titled The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, is about Taiwan. This assessment is correct. How the United States should adapt its Taiwan policy to China’s rise deserves much analysis and serious debate. I hope we are only at the beginning of the process.