The future of China (or, exactly what is realist?)

That Tom Barnett interview I mentioned is creating some dissension within our cousin blog Coming Anarchy.

The authors of CA (correction: two of them), as you might know, are fans of Barnett, but bigger fans of Robert Kaplan (hence the title). Barnett and Kaplan are divided on how the U.S. should deal with China, and their divide really represents two views that are fighting for prevalence in Washington.

Kaplan’s view, which is more in line with official Defense Department policy since the Cold War (and also gets lots of nods on the Japanese right), is that China is an emerging military threat that the U.S. has to contain with ships, airplanes, and missiles. Barnett’s view is that the U.S. has to become partners with China, as the economies of the two countries dictate, rather than let political concerns screw up the countries’ mostly-beneficial symbiosis.

Which view prevails will necessarily determine the future of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. A Kaplan view means that the U.S. has to defend Taiwanese sovereignty at all costs, as a roadblock to Chinese ambition in the Pacific. A Barnett view leads to the U.S. maintaining the status quo in Taiwan until the two countries can be united without force, either through incorporation in a democratic China or as part of a larger EU-style Asian community.

It hurts to admit this, because I’ve been a Taiwan supporter for some time now, but Barnett has a good point. Is it worth it to antagonize China when the U.S. is dependent on China and China is dependent on the U.S.? Wouldn’t it be easier if both countries could focus resources on their own problems, rather than needlessly breathe down each other’s throats? Do we really need to be bracing for World War III right now?

These are all tough questions that Bush and Rumsfeld should be asking themselves. Perhaps the best answer is to do as Barnett advises: maintain the status quo until China and Taiwan have evolved to the point where they can discuss their differences without threatening to lob bombs at each other. I think this is more likely to happen if and when we see closer business ties and more transparent democracy on both sides.

16 thoughts on “The future of China (or, exactly what is realist?)”

  1. What point is Barnett making? We haven’t done anything to antagonize China over Taiwan — far from it.

    And I should add that we’re all fans of Mr. Kaplan, while my fellow posters like Dr. Barnett, and I am an ex-fan of Dr. Barnett (too many Thomas Friedman-esque buzzwords, too totalitarian in his debates with critics).

  2. Curzon, you must be joking. You don’t think that providing Taiwan with all of their weapons and training is antagonistic towards China? This week we just gave them two more massive ships, with both anti aircraft and anti submarine defense systems.

  3. i actually do not think arms sales really antagonize the situation, even though i believe it does not help the situation.
    it provides excuse for word fight. that is all.

    as long as US/Taiwan do not touch the ‘independence’ line. it will all be fine, in my view. some arms sales now and then, is normal, CCP should know that, but they have to say something in protest.

    instead mutantfrog’s buy time and wait for ‘evolve’ approach would.

  4. MF — we haven’t given Taiwan lots of supplies we’ve sold them, which Carpenter at Cato called “selling someone a fire extinguisher but keeping it at the store until there’s actually a fire.” The president is obligated to sell Taiwan weapons under the Taiwan Relations Act.

  5. The ships I’m talking about are not being sold to Taiwan, or even given to them, but stationed nearby as a show of force to China. This is actually unusual, since as I’ve said before, the US has historically not stationed any fighting troops in Taiwan, only advisors.

  6. It’s antagonizing China because, in their screwed-up view of the world, we’re supporting rebels within their borders.

  7. If I may jump into this for a moment, one of the most surprising things during my recent trip to Taipei was that many Taiwanese expressed feelings that they were being “extorted” (and that’s the word they used) by the latest arms package.

    Keeping with the metaphor recounted above by Curzon, they were saying it’s like asking someone for a fire extinguisher, having them instead tell you that they’ll dump one of those firefighting plane loads full of water on your house if it ever catches fire, but not until after a 10 year period expires, and then taking your insurance payment for their troubles.

    I agree that it’s antagonizing China (though we could do a lot worse if we wanted). Deterrent or threat. That’s the heart of the classical security dilemma.

  8. It’s interesting that you guys can have this discussion about whether two pretty but almost useless vessels that will make nice practice targets in war are “antagonizing China” when there are hundreds of missiles and aircraft pointed at Taiwan right now. Why are these discussions always conducted as if Taiwan were the problem? The problem is China, not the US or Taiwan. It’s as plain as 600 missiles. The madmen are in Beijing, not Taipei.

    Speaking from the US point of view, playing for time is a real good idea, and so for Taiwan as well. Taiwan is like the thief in the tale of Herodotus, who must teach the horse to sing. I don’t hold out much hope that China will evolve a democracy, simply because I watch the way the pro-China parties behave here. Further, I think it is naive to imagine that a democracy will be less nationalistic than a one-party state, or that the Taiwanese will feel like being ruled by distant Beijing even in the unlikely event of a democratic China. But if you are of the school that war is probably inevitable, a later war only helps China, since China accumulates military power relatively more rapidly than the US. The US is in the position of the Western powers facing Germany in 1938, when they should have gone to war, instead of in 1939, when they did, and should have lost.

    Of course, for those of you that don’t buy the analogy between two Leninist, State Capitalist societies with territorial claims on their neighbors, and claims on territory far from their borders, a resurgent economy, a cultural superiority complex combined with a historical victimhood complex, a nationalist anthropology, a police state, thought control, and a controlled media, will probably not see a threat.


  9. War inevitable? That’s a hell of a conclusion. We never went to war with the Soviets and we were better off for it.

    Now that there’s a growing middle class and an entrepreneurial elite, China is going to have to tone down. We’ve already seen it give up some of its territorial claims on the west side. And besides that, if it ever comes to war, I have no doubt that Wal-Mart and the factory chairmen are going to go to their respective governments and raise hell. “We didn’t buy you off for nothing!”

    We’re in a very different situation than the 1930s or the Cold War. We rely on just about everyone and just about everyone relies on us. So the comparison is hardly valid. The Nazis didn’t need us to run Germany; the Communists didn’t need us to run the Soviet Union. The “Communists” definitely need us to run China. (I like Barnett’s description of China’s ideology: 25% Marxist/Leninist, 75% The Sopranos.)

  10. It hurts to admit this, because I’ve been a Taiwan supporter for some time now, but Barnett has a good point. Is it worth it to antagonize China when the U.S. is dependent on China and China is dependent on the U.S.? Wouldn’t it be easier if both countries could focus resources on their own problems, rather than needlessly breathe down each other’s throats? Do we really need to be bracing for World War III right now?


    This is the unfortunate slipery sloop of doing business with China. We have, at this point, none to blame but ourselves.

    But, the question is, If we are to give up Taiwan. Who else are we going to give up, if We haven’t already? North Korea Tibet, and will South Korea fall as a natural progession of Chinese Hegemony? And if South Korea falls, is Malaysia next, and oh, how about Indonesia? Yes, the question is: Where does this end?

    Of course it’s easy to much easier to just pack up and leave like we’re doing in Korea, but I have never known a Communist government that respected weakness over strength. In fact, appeasement mentality is the surest sign of courting disaster.

    Strength is the only way of avoiding conflict. Of course, Someone who have not studied History would think otherwise.

Comments are closed.