One of the oddities of “the realist” school of international relations in America is how profoundly unrealistic its proponents’ policy prescriptions typically are. The latest example of this phenomenon is found in the new issue of Foreign Affairs in an article written by Charles Glaser of George Washington University, entitled, “Will China’s Rise Lead to War? Why Realism Does Not Mean Pessimism.”
Getting the most attention is Glaser’s suggestion that, to avoid a military confrontation with China, Washington should consider what concessions it can make to Beijing, with the most important of these being backing away from any commitment to help defend Taiwan. In so doing, Glaser argues, the United States would “remove the most obvious and contentious flash point between the United States and China and smooth the way for better relations.” And not just now but “in the decades to come.”
Glaser is smart enough to anticipate his critics’ likely charge that what he is advocating is a policy of appeasement and that, instead of satisfying the ambitions of a rising power, it will actually fuel them. “The critics are wrong…territorial concessions are not always bound to fail.” To the contrary, “not all adversaries are Hitler, and when they are not, accommodation can be an effective policy tool.”
Of course, Glaser is right. Not all adversaries are Hitler. But, if history is any guide, most rising powers—and certainly autocratic ones—are more like Hitler than not when it comes to their ambitions. Does Imperial Japan ring a bell? How about Wilhelmine Germany? And, indeed, in the case of Imperial Japan, the U.S. and Great Britain both followed a policy of appeasing Japan for numerous years, leading not to an era of peace but to an incredibly costly and destructive war.
In the category of “I’d rather be safe than sorry,” I would think any prudent U.S. policy would recognize that abandoning Taiwan is highly unlikely to lead to greater stability in the Asia-Pacific region. First off—and a point a realist presumably should take account of—Taiwan’s location makes it incredibly important geo-strategically, sitting as it does just south of Japan and above the Philippines. Conceding Taiwan to China is to give China’s military virtual control over the sea lanes that are vital to our allies, Japan and South Korea, and to give it a front door to the wider Pacific. Glaser’s tepid response to this problem is to suggest the U.S. could take “countervailing measures” to reinforce and reaffirm our security ties to allies as needed. But good luck on that front: having made the security situation in the region much worse and having abandoned democratic Taiwan, don’t expect our allies to then turn around and think America is a tower of strength on which they can depend. Moreover, the Chinese would object, and correctly, that any strengthening that might take place would be aimed at them. Again, hardly a realistic formula for tamping down the competition.
Nor does Glaser have a realistic view of China or Taiwan. In the first instance, while Beijing certainly is adamant about claiming sovereignty over Taiwan, Taiwan is far from the only territorial dispute China has with its neighbors and the United States. China is far from a satisfied power, with claims over swaths of the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the Spratly Islands, and parts of India—and lest we forget, an occupation of Tibet. These are not, as Glaser seems to argue, marginal concerns to China, as the Chinese have made it abundantly clear in recent months. Moreover, China’s two-decade long military build-up gives it the ability not only to try and coerce Taiwan but, increasingly, a capacity to throw its weight around in the wider region and against the United States. By all reasonable measures, this is a power on the move that, in Mahanian-like fashion, believes that control of the great commons of the sea, space and (now) cyberspace, is necessary if it is to become and stay a great power. In short, China is behaving less like some post-modern power than a regime from yesteryear.
As for Taiwan in Glaser’s account, it is unrealistic as well to think, absent U.S. support, that the Taiwan issue will go silently into the night. Poll after poll in Taiwan makes it clear that the vast majority is not interested in unification with the mainland, and most Taiwanese think of themselves as a distinct, self-ruling people. Taiwan, in short, will not accept unification without a fight. And if there is a fight, does anyone really think the U.S. will stand passively by as a democratic state is pummeled into submission by its autocratic neighbor? Presidents and scholars of a realist bent can kid themselves now that the U.S. would never believe it worth the price to come to the defense of Taiwan, but, if we are debating now whether to provide military assistance to the counter-Gadhafi forces in Libya—forces we know little about and for a population we’ve had only the most minimal of association with—imagine a situation in which an American president attempts to ignore an incredibly bloody and devastating attack on an island consisting of 24 million democrats, whose manufacturing base is critical to the global supply chain of our modern economy, and that is geographically vital. We went to war in Korea for a whole lot less.
No, the most sensible policy response to China’s rise is to reinforce our position of political and military leadership in the region, create new strategic relations with other rising democratic powers in the region (such as India and Indonesia), and attempt to rebalance the military equation across the Taiwan Strait after more than a decade-plus worth of slippage as a result of Clinton, Bush and now Obama administration inattention to the growing Chinese military build-up. Drawing a red line for China at Taiwan, backed by superior military power, is the best and most realistic way to prevent a conflict no one wants.