It has been observed by many that the main foreign policy difference between the American political parties is a disagreement over which other super power to hate more. For the Democrats, it has been a deranged obsession with Russia for several years now. For the Republicans, of course, it is the Chinese whom we must hate and fear.
To the extent that some Republican candidates are better on Russia-Ukraine than the Biden Administration, it is almost entirely driven by their stated desire to instead use those military resources against China. I will concede that as long as one insists on viewing the world as a “global chessboard,” the obvious move is to draw closer to Russia as a hedge against a rising China, but that is both a reductionist view that downplays the real benefits of cooperation and, perhaps more importantly, that ship has long since sailed.
Overall, Republican politicians—and the American right generally—want us to fear China in every sphere where one could fear a country, from silly video sharing apps to drugs to world military domination. Most of all, we are told we must have an antagonistic policy towards China to protect the unrecognized state of Taiwan from Chinese aggression. However, a U.S. policy of antagonism towards Beijing only puts Taiwan at greater threat from the government of the People’s Republic of China. The truth is that it is not possible for the United States to militarily defend Taiwan against China. Taiwan can only be protected through maintaining good relations with China so that any benefits of China invading Taiwan are outweighed by the economic and diplomatic costs.
Since Richard Nixon adopted the “One China” policy 50 years ago, U.S.-China policy has been based on an inherent contradiction. The United States views the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China, including Taiwan. However, it has given what amounts to a security guarantee to the so-called “Republic of China,” the government of Taiwan, which itself claims all of China. This system has held surprisingly well given the weight of its own ridiculousness, but in an era where American power is fading while China takes its place among the leaders of the world, it has become ever more fragile. All of this would be hard enough to manage under competent, steady leadership. Instead, the United States is ruled by irresponsible, foolish people who should not be trusted to be in charge of anything, least of all to guide a nuclear superpower through changing times.
U.S. foreign policy is mostly based around twentieth century concepts such as “containment,” which were thought of by men of much greater caliber than the foreign policy minds of today, and even so did not work very well in the era for which they were designed. The ability of the United States to project power in the West Pacific relies entirely on the carrier fleet, which are little more than floating targets in the face of China’s advanced anti-carrier ballistic missiles, which out range U.S. warplanes. On top of this, China’s current naval production dwarfs that of the United States, and a confrontation in the South China Sea would have the enormous advantage of being within easy range of planes and missiles stationed on their home soil. However, among other anachronistic beliefs which have no relevance to the modern world, the China “specialists” hold onto Douglas MacArthur’s seventy year old dictum that Taiwan is our “unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Pacific,” back when China was an impoverished agrarian country lacking advanced domestic technology. The reality is that in the modern world, though one cannot “sink” an island, it is entirely possible for China to destroy Taiwan without leaving home—including any American air power stationed there—at any time it chooses.
It is true, in a sense, that the United States is over a barrel regarding Taiwan because the island produces a huge percentage of the microchips on which modern society runs. Ironically, the same people who use that as a justification for hawkishness towards China don’t seem to understand that a war over the island would massively disrupt that commerce. Further, they want us to believe that a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would end our access to this product, when in reality it would be the United States government which would sanction China and prohibit the import of microchips from “occupied” Taiwan, not any sort of Chinese policy of refusing to sell microchips. Still, it is easy to sympathize with the people of Taiwan who have become wealthy under a relatively free economic and political system, and who have also seen Hong Kong gradually lose freedom under what was supposed to be “one country, two systems” since it was returned to China in 1997. As usual, political actors in the United States are abusing the affinity many normal Americans have for human liberty to promote policies which can only be harmful to those whom they claim the policies are intended to help.
All of this notwithstanding, the hawks think we can protect Taiwan through hostility to China. For example, Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has pledged to end China’s “permanent normal” trade status if elected. The idea is, I suppose, that it would give the United States a freer hand to implement sanctions and otherwise be aggressive towards China. Though we could have better trade policy with more of a focus on American interests, doing this out of antagonism towards China is about as misguided as it is possible to be in regards to protecting Taiwan.
Unlike the U.S. and Russia, the U.S. and China are heavily interdependent economically, which means China has an enormous incentive to not have relations collapse due to a drastic action like the invasion of Taiwan. Removing the normal trade status would create a situation like the United States asking Iran to stop arms deliveries to Russia, but having absolutely no leverage because Donald Trump withdrew from the JPCOA deal. Following the removal of normal trade relations with China, we would be told that sanctions make it clear to China what will happen if they were to further threaten Taiwan. In reality, even Foreign Policy recently published an article explaining that such a large portion of the world is under U.S. sanctions that they no longer have the desired impact (though they never did). Any similar action will only contribute to the rise of a world less dependent on the Western financial system as nations try to insulate themselves from the capriciousness of the United States which regularly uses its economic power to abuse other countries.
Our rulers, like they forgot how to negotiate and how to rule generally, also seem to have forgotten the “carrot” part of the trite but true “carrot and stick” metaphor for managing relationships with other countries. In the case of Taiwan, it simply isn’t possible to defend militarily from mainland China, nor is it possible to inflict economic pain on China without hurting ourselves as much or more than China. Further, there is no reason to believe China will back down in the face of any such threats; instead of these policies serving as “deterrence” or “containment,” they only escalate the situation and increase the chance of conflict.
I’m not a hippie peacenik, and in fact do sometimes think a strong military or show of military force is part of the solution to a country’s problems. But in this specific instance, friendship with China is the only way to protect Taiwan; we have to make life too good for China to risk disrupting their relationship with the United States, which would also be much better for our own country than a war. In short, the proverbial stick cannot protect Taiwan, but the carrot can.