Beware the Lame Duck

lameMuch has been written, even on the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang, or KMT) website, about Ma Ying-jeou as a lame-duck president. With his approval ratings in the basement, a cross-Strait political agenda—I say political here because, let’s face it, Taiwan’s “economic integration” with China, conducted at the hands of the (not “pro-status quo” but rather) pro-unification KMT, is very much politically motivated—reaching what appears to be the end of its tolerance domestically, and seemingly constant domestic controversies, it appears as though Ma’s days as a wielder of power on Taiwan and even within the KMT are numbered. (Perhaps they are already over?)

But journalists and analysts should beware of labeling him and his administration—and his party—anything but sunk politically. From a constant barrage of ideological and politically biased responses to various social movements—blaming, for example, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for the Sunflower Movement—to a shadowy yet no less real quite authoritarian grip on all major institutions, political and otherwise, on Taiwan, the KMT and Ma Ying-jeou still have a great deal of power at their disposal vis-à-vis society at large as well as the utterly impotent and arguably irrelevant political opposition to do basically whatever they desire at virtually any time they desire it. That is, of course, once “political oversight,” also known as voting, is done.

The criticisms of the Sunflower Movement and the hundreds of thousands—and probably millions—of its supporters reflect this. Voting still matters to the KMT so long as one shuts one’s mouth and puts one’s head down after the ballots are (bought and) counted. (And let’s be honest: both sides buy votes.*) “Show your disapproval at the ballot box,” retort the KMT talking heads. “If you’re unhappy—well!—you voted for us! You are to blame!” “Social movements are anti-democratic,” retort others, “because they interfere with the workings of democratic governance. Show your disapproval at the ballot box if you want to be ‘good democrats’.”

I’ll leave my own criticisms of voting and “democratic governance” for another post sometime in the future. Suffice it to say that if this is the Ma administration and KMT’s response to any and every show of disapproval, then Taiwanese have much to fear from a lame-duck president, particularly if he and the KMT believe the DPP may regain the presidency in 2016. Taiwanese have much to fear, that is, after the 2014 county and municipal elections, of course, because to be too provocative too close to potential “demonstrations of public disapproval” might prove fatal politically (although I don’t ever rule out the potential for a Thailand-like military [read KMT-controlled military apparatus] coup in Taiwan; call me an extremist).

A president—nay, a politician, any politician—unconstrained is a politician irresponsible. This is not an “if, then” statement; it is essentially tautological. Political leaders do not fight tooth and nail through the political orders and echelons in countries to “give back to the people” or to serve at the “benefit of all.” But beyond my own cynicism with regard to politicians and diatribes against them, we can also state this much: the KMT is not a practical, pragmatic, “realist” good guy fighting against the “troublemaking, extremist, idealistic” independence movement. There really is no middle ground in Taiwan politically even though a large portion of the population is quite satisfied with Taiwan’s de facto independence, as countless polls have shown. But between parties, extremism—probably for political points and to gain the support of party bases, which are always portrayed as extreme—exists.

But I think it is quite clear that over the past few years, especially since Lien Chan visited China to undermine and isolate Chen Shui-bian in 2005, the true colors of the KMT have shone through. Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency thus far ought to confirm this. The KMT will undermine the wills of a large portion of Taiwan’s population to close the gap between Taiwan and China. I have argued before among friends, colleagues, and even professors, that the only trustworthy group that could move relations with Beijing forward would be a Nixon-like character within the DPP. But even though some DPP members have floated ideas regarding the elimination of support for Taiwan’s de jure independence from China from the DPP’s party charter, the DPP has yet to do this (and let’s just say right here that this would probably confirm the DPP’s irrelevance politically on Taiwan because the the DPP and KMT would become virtually the same party under different names) and I highly doubt the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would deal with the DPP under any circumstances. But I might be surprised.

The county and municipal elections this year will be a litmus test for popularity among or between parties—or at least that’s how it will be portrayed. The power party, the KMT, will be up against the marginally relevant and essentially impotent opposition DPP. Support the KMT’s “integration” (read “unification”) agenda with China or the DPP’s “independence” agenda. Which party is the ideological antagonist and which is the pragmatic protagonist? Well, the KMT has been portrayed as the former and the DPP the latter for so long, especially in Western (read American) media that one would think the answer a foregone conclusion. But it isn’t. In reality, the KMT is the ideological player placing all its chips on the China card; it is, as my pro-blue friends and colleagues repeat ad nauseum, the only true and rightful government of all of China (including Mongolia, let’s not forget). Unification—or, as they like to say, “re-unification”—is “inevitable.” (Ah, yes, “inevitable”: that word that historian A.J.P. Taylor put into such great [completely ideological] context.)

On the other side is the “ideological” but far more realistic DPP. Taiwan is already independent. It is only under Ma’s administration that Taiwan has been a forced supplicant to Beijing. Otherwise, Taiwan answers to no higher authority (although Beijing and Washington occasionally put their feet down). In a perfect world, Taiwan could be independent and would be independent. But this is not a perfect world. Taiwan’s position is precarious. But Taiwan could be, can be, and should be independent by law.

And here is where one ought to beware the lame duck. After the 2014 elections, President Ma has no constraints on his will, and the KMT may be able to use an unpopular and unconstrained ideologue to push forward its ideological agenda without any further potential “demonstrations of public disapproval” (i.e., elections) getting in the way. They have not shunned the use of force against peaceful protesters, nor will they. Force is too useful—and too necessary—for the tyrant to renounce. And only the KMT, let’s forget, could use force in such a situation. A president unconstrained by concerns for public approval and a political party unconstrained by further elections and concerned about its ability to retain the presidency in 2016 might be pushed to the only “pragmatic” conclusion. What that might be is anyone’s guess, and I leave it for the reader to speculate.

Suffice it to say that a polity without the means of protecting itself from its masters and reduced to sitting peacefully while its masters bash their skulls in is not a polity; it is a subservient mass of meat heading to the grinder. I don’t ask people to “wake up” because I know that what they might “wake up” to and the conclusions they may draw might be far different from my own, and that is perfectly acceptable in a free society. To plead with someone to “wake up” and to attempt to force them to see one’s own point of view is antithetical to individual liberty. I simply ask others to think if they so desire and hope they may desire.

And these words I give readers to think on if they so desire: a politician—nay, a political group—unconstrained is one irresponsible. Beware the lame duck.

*[Update]: Several readers have taken issue with this statement, calling it “[ir]responsibl[e]” since the vast majority of reported vote buying has been done by the KMT and its candidates (84% of all cases, by some reports) in recent elections. I hesitate to alter original content unless there are grammatical and/or typographical errors; hence, this appears as a footnote. The original content states that both sides buy votes, not that both sides do so equally. To add clarity to this statement, I submit this is quantifiable fact, as is the original content (i.e., that both sides buys votes). I apologize for my part in the misinterpretation of the meaning here, although I will also submit that (mis-)interpretation is also the burden of the reader. I appreciate the criticism, although I do hope that future relevant and constructive criticism can be posted as comments below respective posts. Thank you.

Another Taiwan Tragedy: Taiwan, China, and Vietnam

Those who have followed me on various social media outlets know I’ve been quite critical of Taipei’s handling of the latest round of Sino-Vietnam tensions which have invariably—yes, invariably—involved Taiwan. Regardless of my political and ideological inclinations regarding the current government in Taipei, I find Taiwan’s inclusion in the recent spat an unnecessary but ultimately unavoidable tragedy for Taiwan. Allow me to explain before the word “contradiction” leads the skeptical reader to close this window and refrain from reading the remainder of this post.

More than a few locals have made the assertion that Vietnamese for one reason or other cannot tell the difference between Taiwan and China. I have politely shied away, with the exception of several incidents, from commenting simply because I know that get involved directly will only cost me time better spent doing just about anything else. Most have criticized the government for not “acting sufficiently” to protect Taiwanese nationals in Vietnam. What that means for them is anyone’s guess, although for me it means that Taipei must make a move it will not make.

To be sure, Taiwan’s—or, rather, the Republic of China’s (ROC)[1]—territorial claims in the South China Sea are no different that those of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).[2] Vietnam’s direct grievances are with the PRC, but the ROC is indirectly involved not merely because the actions of Vietnamese protesters have involved the ROC but because the ROC’s position is at once both clear and ambiguous.

The ROC, to be brief, claims precisely the same territories, as the “rightful government of all of China,” as the PRC. This inevitably involves the ROC in all South China Sea territorial disputes regardless of the PRC’s unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of the ROC, and vice versa. Hence, it is not so much that Vietnamese cannot tell the difference between Taiwan and China (or the ROC and PRC, respectfully) as it is that to the Vietnamese there is no difference between the two when it comes to territorial disputes. Until Taiwanese realize this—and from my experiences, very few people on Taiwan, whether they consider themselves Taiwanese, Chinese, or Taiwanese-Chinese, would consider changing the ROC’s territorial claims in the South China Sea—theirs will forever be a tragedy.

For as long as China tests the limits of its neighbors’ tolerance in Southeast Asia, so too will Taiwan inevitably get sucked into the fray (again, regardless of recognition). It is possible, from this perspective, to see a future Taiwan labeled a pariah just as China might be labeled a pariah among Southeast Asian nations, not to mention those states that will pay a price should tensions lead to open conflict (namely, Japan and the United States).

And what is worse, if China’s rise continues and if it continues to test the waters (no pun intended) regarding U.S., Japanese, and South China Sea claimant states’ resolve (and perhaps even initiate conflict), Taiwan’s risk will only grow. Where I diverge from the average local, it seems, is that I view this as Taiwan reaping only what it has sown (and I use “Taiwan” here because even “Taiwanese” tend to back the ROC’s South China Sea territorial claims).

Taiwan’s position is both clear and ambiguous because although it quite obviously claims the same area as the PRC (clear) its position with regard to the PRC’s testing has been ambiguous. This is because, if I am allowed to make an educated speculation, in the perfect world of the ROC (and perhaps even Taiwan) the PRC would collapse, the ROC would become the government of both Taiwan and China, and the ROC could then use all the resources of a “united” or “re-united” China to push the same territorial agenda. Moreover, in order for the ROC to legitimately claim to be the sole and rightful government of all of China, it must make essentially the same territorial claims it has always made. And let’s not forget that the current government would likely not want to risk alienating China and being labeled “splittist” for backing away from China-centric territorial claims.

Hence, another of Taiwan’s tragedies: were China and neighboring states (and perhaps Japan and the United States) to come to blows, Taiwan simply could not sit idly paring its proverbial fingernails. It’s fence-riding strategy would force it to make an impossible decision: join the other claimants (plus perhaps Japan and the United States) in denouncing China (a de facto renunciation of the ROC’s own territorial claims) and perhaps even coming to blows with the Asian behemoth, or joining the PRC and becoming a regional pariah. One can only guess as to the path Taipei might choose, but it may vary with who is in office.

My own humble opinion is that Taipei is better off renouncing claims in the South China Sea beyond Itu Aba Island, which it already administers. Of course, I risk becoming a pariah in my own adoptive home for such a claim, and I’m sure I’ll be greeted with more than an occasional snicker from the die-hard reader. But let me qualify my opinion by adding to it: Taipei would be best served by renouncing all claims in the South China Sea beyond Itu Aba Island (and perhaps renouncing even Itu Aba Island), but it also certainly will not do so. That ought to put an end to the snickers—but not put and end to another of Taiwan’s tragedies.

 

[1] I make the distinction here not due to ideological or political inclinations but simply because there is no island named “the ROC.”

[2] To be sure, the ROC’s territorial claims in Asia and the Pacific, at least at present, are even more strident than those of the PRC; see, for example, here.

Review: Learning What from the 521 Massacre?

After the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared a bit from the 521 incident on the Taipei MRT that left four people dead, over twenty people injured, and a psychopath in custody, I thought it might be time for me to weigh in on the tragedy. I will do so in response to an article which triggered a rethinking of my own position on capital punishment.

On May 25, Thinking Taiwan published an article titled “What We Can Learn From Mass Murderers,” which can be accessed here. Although thought-provoking due to its departure from the moral diatribes that tend to dominate the discussions on capital punishment, and thus a welcomed fresh perspective, “What We Can Learn” is also problematic.

The central argument of the piece, briefly, is that Cheng Chieh (the accused perpetrator) should not be put to death in an “emotion[al] . . . desire for vengeance” but should be kept alive in order to become a lab rat. On the surface, this argument seems both logical and practical; the article itself uses the example of Hannibal Lecter from Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs to drive the point home. But three principal problems appear in the article.

First, the article runs through a list of psychological and behavioral traits common to both mass murderers and serial killers: “sociopathic behavior, an accompanying sense of being victimized by society, a strong narcissistic streak, and an inability to empathize,” “[t]heir [mass murderers and serial killers] impulses were driven by an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality and a narcissistic desire for recognition, to leave their mark in history,” and the feeling among “[m]ost mass killers in the non-terrorist/genocidal/familicide category [that] they needed to do ‘something big’ . . . .” It also runs through several common causal factors for such behaviors: “An abusive family environment, a nagging/promiscuous mother, or bullying in the schoolyard, among others, are recurrent red flags.” It also lists several subcategories of mass murder: “terrorism (killing for political or nihilistic purposes, e.g., al-Qaeda and Aum Shinrikyo), familicide (attainment of power, e.g., the Nepalese royal family massacre), or genocide (the extermination of a race, again for predominantly political purposes, e.g., Rwanda).”[1]

It seems a great deal is already known about the average mass murderer: one can even list subcategories of mass murder, causal factors, and personality and behavioral traits. This demands the question, however: if so much is already known about mass murderers (and serial killers), why must one particular mass murderer (as the case may be) be kept alive to be studied? One need not study all individual apples to understand the apple.

But perhaps we are comparing apples to oranges? This possibility may be a way out of the conundrum presented above, and it may salvage the article’s main argument. Here again, however, we run into problems. First, if we focus on individual mass murderers, then the above subcategories, causal factors, and personality and behavioral traits are rendered meaningless because they lack relationships between individual mass murderers. More formally, they are not common independent variables shared by a group of dependent variables; they are simply random data. This may be interesting for the biographer, but in attempting to form a theory of social behavior and psychology, they are utterly useless until some relationship can be found.

Second, if these factors (or variables) are indeed random and particular to the individual and the context of the act, and if there is no overarching relationship between shared independent and dependent variables (i.e., if there is no pattern), then keeping Cheng alive teaches us nothing unless we seek to write a biography or seek to, for whatever reason, become interested in his life. In this sense, study becomes a more professional form of fetish. One should study all species of fruit simply because one enjoys studying fruit species; there are no two apples. Study becomes “intellectual curiosity” that the article argues it need not become, or study becomes potentially an art. Either way, very little, if any, benefit can be derived from sparing Cheng.

Third, it is possible to argue that one might study Cheng because he undoubtedly fits into both categories: likely, his personality fits somewhere into both the general and the specific categories of study, listed above. This is usually the realm of inquiry that all scholarly inquiry tends to fall under. Cheng is an apple, essentially, but there are certain variations to this particular apple that must be explained, as they do not seem to fit precisely into any previously constructed theory of apples. This is the article’s best argument, but inexplicably the article then rules this possibility out by stating that such criminals are a) “not [capable of] weigh[ing] costs and benefits along rational lines” and b) useful because “investigators (like FBI agent Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs) often turn to psychopaths to help identify serial killers on the loose, because they, above all, are cognizant of the things that make them tick. In the absence of such sources, we can fall back on scientific models, which can only be established if we study killers like Cheng.”[2]

The problem here is twofold. First, it is not that mass murderers are not rational; I think it is safe to say that cognitive psychology has ruled out the possibility of any one form of rationality. Moreover, even “rationality” itself has variants: what cost I weigh against what benefit and what weight I give to particular costs and benefits are extremely subjective. What person A interprets as a costly gamble person B might consider a viable option, person C a worst-case scenario, and person D a wonderful opportunity—and that’s just in a four-person game. Say what one will about cognitive psychology; it does not, of course, completely destroy the idea of the rational actor. But rationality, no matter how it is defined, cannot explain why “rational” people behave differently in the same situation. Some intervening variable has to be inserted—for example, a lack of information, time constraints, lack of sleep, etc.—to operationalize the rational-actor model. It is not, therefore, that mass murderers are not rational per se; it is that variations in rationality exist.[3]

Second, and perhaps most problematic of all, if scientific models are something one can merely “fall back on” when resources (i.e., useful mass murderers and serial killers) are scarce, then one has to wonder why all the discussion of personality and behavioral traits common to serial killers and mass murderers needs mentioning at all. Creating scientific models connecting variables to behaviors is how those traits were recognized in the first place. Essentially, then, what the article argues for is keeping serial killers and mass murders alive because they are resources—experts—to use in times of need. But here is the problem: if we reject (or merely “fall back on”) scientific models, then there is no reason to believe that a past serial killer or mass murderer can tell us anything about any current serial killer or mass murderer. Variables are not merely impossible to isolate here; variables cannot exist. It becomes a serious leap of faith: without and theoretical explanation for why one should use serial killers and mass murderers to understand others of their kind, we simply have to believe that they communicate with the same mother ship or supreme sadistic being.

What we come to, then, is three possibilities: first, all sociopaths (there’s a loaded phrase for you) and psychopaths (and there’s another one) are formed from the same mould. No reason to study individual socio- or psychopaths exists. Apples are apples. Period. It is possible to predict and stop all acts of violence.

Second, there exist no such things as socio- or psychopaths. Such terms are merely heuristics. There exist only individuals who behave in disparate ways, and some behaviors are violent. No model can be formed because no relationships between variables exist (indeed, no “variables” exist). Apples are not oranges are not bananas are not kiwi fruits, etc. Period. No acts of violence can be predicted or stopped.

Third, scientific models are imperfect but necessary in locating variations in behaviors across individuals who perpetrate what the layman terms “random acts of violence” (although mass murderers do not consider them “random,” remember). Apples have variations which must be studied and accounted for theoretically if any acts of violence are to be predicted or stopped.[4]

The third possibility is, thus, the strongest, but by rendering scientific models to the background by making them contingent upon individual cases, one undermines the third possibility’s viability. In the end, we are left believing that all serial killers and mass murderers somehow communicate telepathically, yet we lack a rational (read theoretical) explanation for why this may be the case. Interestingly, here we the observers become irrational actors.

This should not be read as a criticism of the article per se. It should be read as an inquiry into why individual criminals merit study. It should also be read as a critique of those who argue that theory construction and model formation are merely exercises in abstraction. I, an opponent of capital punishment under most circumstances, do not agree that Cheng should be kept alive purely for scholarly reasons. Learning things from him may be an unintended advantage of keeping him alive for moral reasons,[5] but it does not follow directly that keeping him alive will produce any scholarly—or social—benefit.

In the end, the greatest hope is simply that such acts never happen again, yet we know as a mathematical fact that they almost invariably will. Thinking Taiwan has shed a different form of light upon this problem—that is, keeping mass murderers and serial killers alive with the hope that they may help us to understand the minds of criminals in order to prevent similar acts from occurring again. It is a fresh perspective that, to be fair to the article’s author (and given my initial thoughts above), probably needs more critical thought than could have been afforded in an initial foray on a new media website. Due to these considerations, the critiques offered here should not be read as outright rejection. The article forced me to revisit deep ontological and epistemological questions that demand addressing in all forms of social-scientific thought. It is my guess that others have approached it in a similar light, and, hence, my main purpose for writing this initial critique.

My condolences go out to the families and loved ones of the slain as well as to those injured and their loved ones. It is my hope that you will be the remembered ones—you and you alone.

 

[1] Emphasis in original.

[2] Emphasis mine. For the circular logic of this statement, see below.

[3] See note 4.

[4] Hence the hedged “which can only be established if we study killers like Cheng,” referring to establishing “scientific models,” above. But again there is a problem: it is unlikely that scientific models will ever be foolproof no matter how many individuals are studied (and a theory that attempts to account for all variables is non-falsifiable). There are an infinite number of variables that can influence a model, many of which are discovered after a theoretical model is formed. Hence, we are again not relying on models in this sense but on variations (i.e., individuals). If a model is forever contingent upon individual subjects, then no useful model can be formulated. Possibility number three becomes possibility number two de facto.

Moreover, it is revealing that the article seems to believe that such acts cannot be deterred. One of the criticisms I have heard countless times over the past several days is how Cheng has become something of a “negative celebrity”: we seem to know so much about him now because he did what he did. Interestingly, his stated goal was to commit an act that would be remembered and make him remembered. Perhaps no deterrent can be found herein, but he certainly had a goal and the means to reach it—and he appears to have achieved it. Remembering that much of deterrence is psychological, one might be able to create a theoretical construct in which the ends (fame) are unachievable given the means ([mass] violence). I leave that possibility to social psychological theorists to ponder.

It should also be noted that any action that cannot be deterred also likely cannot be stopped unless preempted. This is a major problem for any free society.

[5] Or spiteful reasons. That he allegedly has sought the death penalty leads me to believe that if he is not given death, he may one day question his actions and how they so utterly fell short of their goals. See note 4.

The Risks of Asia-Pacific Multilateralism [Coauthored with John H.S. Aberg]

There is little doubt that U.S. alliances in Asia are in a state of flux. The decades of Washington poking and prodding allies to contribute more to regional peace and the maintenance of regional order appear, at least in recent years, to finally be paying off. Japan, considered by many pundits a free-riding pariah for decades, in particular seems to be taking what many in U.S. defense and security circles consider the right course: boosting military spending and seeking substantive and substantial capabilities improvements.

U.S. relations with a host of other East Asian nations have been improving as well. Ties with Vietnam have improved markedly over the past decade. South Korea remains a staunch U.S. ally in the face of North Korean provocations (despite recent signs of a North-South thaw) and the stir caused by China’s announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) last November that overlaps with South Korea’s (and Japan’s) own ADIZs. The U.S. and the Philippines recently reached an Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation, which would grant the U.S. military joint use of certain military facilities. U.S. troops for the last several years have been deployed on a rotational basis in Australia, both symbolically and substantively reinforcing the U.S. commitment to that ally’s security. The U.S.-Singapore relationship remains a strong force in the center of Southeast Asia. The list goes on and on.

In this context, a growing number of leadersgovernment officials, and experts have supported the continued and enhanced development of multilateral institutions in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific, both inclusive and exclusive of the United States. American supporters of such initiatives of course tend to outline the necessary role the United States plays in maintaining not only the security and stability of the region but also American economic involvement. Indeed, American promoters of the institutionalization of multilateral security and economic cooperation are inclined to stress the necessity of preserving and even enhancing America’s centrality to regional well being. Such organizations would further advance U.S. interests in the region and ensure broader support for the U.S.-led order, guaranteeing Washington’s leadership far into the future. These institutions would work collectively to, in the best-case scenario, engage and moderate potential threats to the U.S.-led order or, in the worst-case scenario, function to collectively deter aggressors or, if necessary, defend the U.S.-led order were hostilities to break out. The main assumption tends to be that such a construct would be American-led and serve essentially American ends because the U.S.-led order in Asia has benefited most states in the region for the better part of the past seven decades. Alternatively, because regional security has for a long period of time depended on U.S. military predominance, a leading U.S. role is necessary to assure regional peace and security well into the future.

These advocates of the formation of U.S.-led multilateral institutions in Asia as well as those who seek an exclusively Asian Asia tend to blame the strictly bilateral and asymmetrical “hub-and-spokes” system of alliances created in Asia at the end of World War II for stunting the development of regional multilateral institutions as well as greater Asian regionalism. Although some are quick to note that the political, economic, cultural, and religious diversity in the region also serves as obstacles to greater regionalization, most of the responsibility for this failure has been placed on U.S. postwar bilateralism.

The charges are not unfounded. However, the purpose here is not to condemn or condone U.S. bilateralism, the creation of broad U.S.-led multilateral institutions in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific, or the formation of exclusively Asian multilateral frameworks. Rather, it is worth explaining why U.S. sponsors of multilateral organizations in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific should think twice before assuming that such constructs wouldipso facto serve American interests and preserve and even enhance an American-led regional order. Policymakers need to avoid basing policy on unrealistic expectations that may, in the long run, lead to frustrations and perhaps even institutional breakdowns if unrealistic expectations are not met. . . .

My article, coauthored with John H.S. Aberg and published today in The Diplomat, continues here.

 

Sic Semper Tyrannis: Fear or Loathing in Taiwan?

vulgarOver the past several days, the media both in and coming out of Taiwan have covered, with wildly varying degrees of accuracy and depth, what began as a student protest in Taipei and has since spread to other cities and involved larger segments of society. Many folks—scholars, analysts, average-Joe bloggers and commentators, journalists, politicians, and even well-known criminals*—have put in their two cents. I have refrained thus far from doing so publicly. However, a recent translation of a “viral essay” translated by the folks at Foreign Policy magazine finally coaxed a response out of me.

In it, a one Richard Chiou-yuan Lu writes that the protests are essentially the product of what appears to be a somewhat irrational fear of China among Taiwanese. This fear is the driving force behind the protests, Lu asserts, because

if the counterparty to the agreement were a country other than China—or a democratized China that would treat Taiwan as an equal and stop trying to achieve its political agenda through business, and didn’t want to swallow us up—we’d happily accept the pact. [If the pact were not with China but instead with] “Japan” or “the United States” in place of China—there would be no issue. When Taiwan signed a free trade agreement with New Zealand in June 2013, the public wasn’t out for blood then.

My biggest problem with this statement is not that it is incorrect per se but that it leaves out so many variables as to be, instead of instructive, utterly uninformative. Lu writes as well that

[m]any [Taiwanese] people don’t understand what the CSSTA [Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement] says, so some protesters don’t even know why they oppose it. No one in Taiwan dares to write in support of the pact because sentiment here has almost reached the point where anyone who dares to support the CSSTA is seen as a traitor. But could Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou really have been that flagrant in selling us out? If everyone believes that the agreement is bad for Taiwan, why did Ma insist on signing it?

Besides the fact that Lu does not substantiate his claim that Taiwanese are essentially ignorant of the contents of the agreement, he also casually skips over the much more daunting question: why has the public lost faith in President Ma and the Kuomintang (KMT) government? Without first asking this question, the final two sentences read like caustic condemnation of “irrational” and “ignorant” fools protesting because they have been misled or fickle twits posing as a roused rabble.

Let us start off by addressing certain aspects of domestic discontent with the Ma-led KMT government. A minority, although by no means a miniscule one, was opposed to a Ma presidency both in 2008 and 2012 to begin with, voting instead for the other candidates. This provides a base for discontent. Add, for example, perceptions that the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) has not provided the economic benefits the government promised it would but has instead provided both the KMT government and the Chinese government a coercive political lever over Taiwanese society (as its opponents said it would); shoddy handling of natural disasters; discontent over the use of nuclear power; heavy-handed legislative and administrative tactics; rising prices, due both directly and indirectly to government policy, along with wage stagnation (except for the wages of civil servants, which rise conveniently around election season); a slowing economy; illegal seizures of citizens’ land and/or property or land/property seizures without “just” compensation; corruption among officials; the use of political connections to allow certain companies, especially construction outfits, to obtain government contracts; a sense among some that either opposition parties do not really oppose or are hardly less corrupt than the government, or that they are utterly impotent; a feeling among some (and, I would argue, a growing number of the population) that they are powerless and that Taiwan’s political system is gradually returning to its authoritarian past; unjust and unreasonable sentences handed down to military officers responsible for the death of a young conscript; court decisions made by ultraconservative, pro-KMT judges; the strong opposition, primarily consisting of KMT politicians and their supporters, against equal civil-marital union rights for homosexuals; the general sense among many that the government cares more for the well being of Chinese and is more concerned about being accountable to China than to the domestic Taiwanese populace who elected them and to whom they are responsible—in short, a whole list of grievances that are either not at all or only remotely related to China, and one has an enormous array of reasons to protest. And the above list is by no means exhaustive.

In short, the current protest, while related to China, has many factors, most of which either have no relation or only an indirect connection to “fear” of China. To chalk the protests up to this single cause is at best overly simplified and at worst deliberately misleading.

I tend to blame resentment of domestic policy, resentment of China policy, and resentment of the box of an international environment into which Taiwan has been put—in short, not “fear of China,” although this certainly factors into the resentment of China’s policies and positions towards Taiwan and the government’s policies toward China. Rather than “fear” per se, this has generated a general sense of “resentment” or “loathing” of the overall domestic and international situation.

Many Taiwanese I have talked to who have been abroad recently have commented that their being Taiwanese means others equate them with being Chinese (that is, People’s Republic of China [PRC] Chinese, for anyone who would like to argue this point). Stories of dirty looks by Japanese officials before those officials realized that the Taiwanese visitors were not from the PRC, for example, have frequently been inserted into my discussions with those who have been to Japan over the past five years or so. Others have commented on how far Taiwan has seemingly fallen behind developmentally when compared to other countries it was once similar or even superior to developmentally; South Korea, for instance, once held in contempt by some here, has suddenly appeared to those who have been there recently to have leapfrogged Taiwan. Although these examples are anecdotal, because they have appeared in multiple conversations with different people at different times, they cannot be merely isolated incidents and the personal reflections of particular individuals alone; similar sentiments must exist elsewhere. Several discussants, in fact, were utterly shocked by their most recent experience; they had been to South Korea twelve years ago and felt they were then in a closed, somewhat backward society; the visit then, they said, made them feel proud to be Taiwanese. When they visited South Korea again roughly a year ago, they could not believe the difference: Taiwan had suddenly appeared the closed and backward society, while Korea had been transformed and far outpaced Taiwan. And indeed, many economic indicators substantiate the claims that South Korea is now superior developmentally. The conclusion I reached based on these conversations was the one all of the commentators repeated several times: What has Taiwan been doing these past ten years? How have our people fallen so far behind?

These perceptions only add to the discontent. Although it may not be fair to blame the government alone for these problems (and certainly the problem, if it began ten years ago, is certainly not the fault of the KMT alone), the sense is that the focus on rushing to the China market has left domestic investment as a secondary goal—and the perception that priorities are in this sense out of whack can, at least in part, be attributed to government policies which encourage closer relations with China.

Another point that needs mentioning is that the protesters, although supported to some degree by the opposition parties, appear to have organized on their own accord and at that spontaneously. That the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was not out front leading the charge but has, especially after this past Wednesday (March 19th), gradually grasped the gravity of the situation and sought to ride the wave so to speak politically demonstrates not only that the reports in the pro-KMT media as well as in China that this whole situation has been organized by independence forces are utterly false but also that the students themselves have attempted to keep a degree of distance between themselves and the opposition parties. Indeed, reports I have seen on social media from several of the leading protest groups (in Chinese) have been urging politicians not to take advantage of the situation and have instead been appealing to broader Taiwanese society.

Lu’s observation that the protest is essentially anti-Chinese because if the pact were with another country and not China there would be no protest is correct but unimportant. Lu would be dreaming if he were to believe that Taiwan could actually sign a similar agreement with the other two countries he mentions—Japan and the United States—and this would not be due to domestic opposition on Taiwan but, instead, due to opposition—that’s right—from China. This leads me back to my original assertion: the main anti-China elements that do exist are sentiments of resentment and anger, not fear, although fear certainly factors in to some degree. That Singapore and New Zealand have been to varying degrees successful in reaching accords with Taiwan is one thing, as those two countries do not directly concern the Chinese with regard to Taiwanese “splittism”; Japan and the United States, however, concern the Chinese quite a bit on this point. For the Chinese to allow Taiwan to drift between China, Japan, and the United States even unofficially would be anathema to China’s entire construct of Taiwan’s identity within the Chinese world.

I have in the past been a vocal critic of what I see as a general ambivalence and/or acquiescence  I am often met with in Taiwan. I cautiously (albeit somewhat pessimistically) support these protests because I find the protesters’ positions and their demeanor far more in line with freedom and liberty—and they are by far better people—than their counterparts in the government and even among the opposition parties. (I’ll get to why I am “somewhat pessimistic” about them in a moment.)

The above paragraph’s statements fly in the face of what some have protested as the undemocratic and “violen[t]” nature of the protests. Freedom and liberty are not bought and sold by leaders in high places; government offices are certainly not sacred no matter what leaders say or write. Freedom and liberty are paid for by the blood and sweat of those who protect them—to the death of those who fight to protect them if necessary. Politicians suck freedom and liberty dry and call it leadership. But enough of my ranting against government in general. My point here is only that regardless of what KMT hacks like King Pu-tsung say, the fact is that even though American leaders would not accept the occupation of the U.S. Capitol by protesters, as King asserts, American leaders—and this part King conspicuously omits—would also not survive the authoritarian, black-box manner in which the KMT handled this entire episode, from first blatantly lying about their willingness to go over the CSSTA clause by clause and then ramming the agreement through without allowing the clause-by-clause review they had promised. Forget the U.S. Capitol: if this were to happen in the States, I’m quite sure some groups in several states would be seeking secession from the Union and many—and I don’t mean a few hundred—would be camping on the National Mall, if not invading all of DC itself. It never occurs to tyrants that they are being tyrannical; or at least it is never fashionable for them to admit their tyranny. The protests are just the tyrants reaping what they sow: sic semper tyrannis.

All of this said, I am, as I mentioned, cautiously pessimistic about these developments. First, my observation has been and continues to be that there is no movement towards limiting governmental reach in Taiwan. How does this apply to the student movement? For starters, the KMT will continue to be the KMT—rough, authoritarian, strongly China-oriented at Taiwan’s expense—and the DPP will continue to be the DPP—inept, authoritarian in its own right, fraught with internal divisions and its own seniority-inferiority complex (that is, the old guard clinging to power at the expense of any innovation among younger members). In short, politics will not change in Taiwan. Nor will the workings of state institutions. The students have not pushed for institutional change, and the constitution is and will remain not a Taiwan constitution but, rather, a party-state KMT construct. And what really needs to occur—the development of a strong third party that advocates not necessarily independence or unification but real, fundamental domestic institutional change and limits on governmental and state reach; or, better yet, the abandonment of political parties altogether—will never occur, or at least it will not occur during this protest and will not occur until people look past subservience to tradition and authority and towards a new Taiwan without all the constraints imposed by the burdens of the past and, most importantly, the burdens of state and governmental authority. In short, a fundamental rethinking of what Taiwan is and what its people as individuals and a society represent, where they want to go, and how they want to get there is needed; this does not constitute a throwing off of the past but, rather, a throwing off of the burden of the past. A new constitution is only a start. But a real and fundamental change in the institutions and even the thinking of people needs to happen. This does not mean a full-blown imposition of Western ideology; it means basic introspection and a real desire to be free. In the end, I find that far too many simply love Big Brother.

Sadly, neither the KMT nor the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—nor, I am guessing, the DPP—desire this. That the KMT and probably the DPP do not want this is one thing, but that the CCP will not allow even a revision of the constitution for fear a new draft will veer towards “splittism” and independence is just one more reason why China is resented. In truth, China fears Taiwan. But more importantly, I think it is becoming ever more evident that both the KMT and the DPP will work to prevent anything of this nature from occurring. And as long as society is controlled by a party-state constitution and politics revolves around two political parties fighting for what scraps fall from the party-state table, Taiwanese will be doomed to resentment and loathing.

Why am I pessimistic? It is because without a fundamental rethinking as highlighted above, the future will remain too opaque, too murky, too uncertain. There is nothing to stop the KMT from, once the students do vacate the Legislative Yuan under the promise that the CSSTA will be reviewed clause by clause, once again going back on its word and this time making it impossible to reverse by outlawing any interference or by hunting down the people involved in the protests. Indeed, even “oversight” of the CSSTA consists merely requires the Executive Yuan to brief the Legislative Yuan about the agreement; no debate or vote is to take place, and certainly no real oversight. Without knowing this, any verbal agreement—like the one made that has gotten the KMT into so much trouble recently—can just be flouted later because, hey, we’re the KMT, and whatever we say is the law because the law itself is KMT law. Hunting down the protesters one by one may sound farfetched, but let’s remember that Taiwan is not yet three decades out of Martial Law. And what is more, the DPP is and remains impotent and utterly lacks any means—or, quite clearly, the will—to stop such actions. This DPP weakness is not merely electoral, let’s recall; it is constitutional and institutional.

Until real institutional and constitutional change occurs, loathing and resentment will permeate Taiwan’s political scene, whether one is discussing cross-Strait relations or domestic politics.

Even in the U.S. political system a strong third party has yet to emerge. One is needed there, too. But Taiwan should not wait to follow the U.S. example. It may not have time. And no matter what King Pu-tsung says about the U.S. system and thereby implying that Taiwan must follow the U.S. lead, the resentment of Taiwanese cannot wait. They are, as this administration and this political system has demonstrated time and again over the past seven decades, running out of time.

The Chinese have feared for decades a return to civil war, indefinite cross-Strait political separation, “peaceful [political systemic] evolution” in which Taiwan would likely play a part, and/or a Taiwan declaration of independence. Taiwanese have lived for decades in fear of sudden attack from their “brethren” across the Strait. These things are not new. Even the feelings of resentment noted in this post are not all that new. What is new? The intensification of the resentment over the past several years and the recent CSSTA trigger are what is new. The vulgar display of power is not new, but the resentment of authoritarianism and the general perception that authoritarianism is making a comeback in plain view (instead of the typical “black box” of Taiwan and especially KMT politics) is what is new. The question is whether the fix will be just one more short-term, stopgap covering over of the problem or a real effort to fix the more fundamental shortcomings and whether those proposed solutions actually achieve real results. Sadly, most of those in power have no desire or incentive to do more than a mere papering-over, and pressure from society incentivizes only the former because very little deep thought appears to be occurring where it ought to be. Until this is realized, resentment will not only linger but ultimately grow.

As in Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) famous “mad as hell” speech in the 1976 film Network, I don’t know how to solve these problems, and indeed, it isn’t my place to do so. But like Beale’s speech, I do know that people first have to get completely fed up. Frustration must build to the point that not only individuals and groups but also the system itself cannot “take it anymore.” Each person who is fed up must realize that they are human beings, that their lives have value, and that their individual values are worth far more than any values the system itself claims to appreciate. These things are not the products of fear. If anything, fear is what keeps such thoughts simmering beneath the surface. Fear is what keeps such things from boiling over. Resentment, loathing—in short, utter hatred—is what forces an explosion. And this is something China may play a role in, but the chasms that are tearing open are domestic—and they are completely and totally justified and healthy.

* The attached photo shows pro-unification former Bamboo Union leader Chang An-le, the “White Wolf,” one of the most wanted fugitives in Taiwan, among the crowd during the protests.

Image courtesy of whoamagazine; originally a section of the front cover of Pantera’s sixth album, Vulgar Display of Power, released in 1992.

Preliminary Reflections on “Why Do the Japanese Fear Abandonment?”: A (Potentially New) Perspective from which to Examine Sino-U.S.-Japan Relations

Back on November 22013, I was fortunate enough to be invited as a student presenter at the international conference titled “Abe-ministration: Reforms and Challenges” at the National Sun Yat-sen University (NSYSU) hosted by the Center for Japanese Studies (CJS). At the conference, I presented a paper, which appears on my blog here.

One of the most interestingstock-photo-japan-china-usa-rock-paper-scissors-164393492 exchanges between scholars, and one that has since piqued my interest to the point that I am considering using my response to this question as my thesis topic instead of my current and as yet still somewhat nebulous and more theoretical endeavor (part of which is mentioned in my critiques of offensive realism here and here), is recounted below. This exchange, which occurred between one of the most well-known American scholars of Japanese politics and a prominent scholar at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), followed a long panel discussion regarding Abe Shinzō’s foreign policy and the alliance dynamics taking shape. Of particular note was the JIIA scholar’s discussion regarding why the Japanese were (and still are) seeking, albeit limited, offensive capabilities despite the strength of the alliance.[1]

A discussion of what amounted to, although no one used the term “extended deterrence,” a discussion of the creditability of both the conventional and nuclear elements of the U.S. policy of extended deterrence ensued. One could, had one listened closely, noted a bit of a gulf between the American (with the exception of this writer) and Taiwanese (with the exception of the Chief Executer of the CJS) scholars on one side, who believed that the JIIA scholar was being too pessimistic about U.S. commitments and capabilities, and the Japanese scholars, who were far more skeptical of said capabilities and commitments. Indeed, during the climax of the discussion, the well-known American scholar asked the JIIA scholar point blank: “Why do the Japanese fear abandonment?” This question followed several comments by this particular American scholar about the continuous strengthening of the alliance especially since the mid-1990s. It is a difficult question, one which the JIIA scholar handled in a typical way but which, I think, needs further historical background if one is to drive the real point home.

The JIIA scholar responded that the United States had throughout the history of the alliance given mixed signals to the Japanese government about its preferences and intentions on a plethora of issues. There was no reason to believe that this would suddenly stop because now China was perceived by many as the external threat binding the two allies (and, by way of inference, other allies as well as security partners) together. In effect, Japan’s pursuit of a limited first-strike capacity was at once both a demonstration to its “senior” alliance partner that Japan had the will to possess and use such capabilities if necessary (enhancing the credibility of Japan’s own commitment as the “junior” member of the alliance) and a—here comes the watchword—“hedge” against potential U.S. nonintervention in, or even an altogether abrogation of the alliance due to, a regional conflict that pitted Japan against another regional power. (The obvious reference here was to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute, although the JIIA scholar did not mention China or that dispute in particular.)

After the question was asked and before the JIIA scholar answered, the Chief Executer of the CJS, who is also one of my co-advisers, turned to me, and we both said the same thing to each other quietly: “It [the alliance dilemma mentioned in the question] is structural.” That—i.e., the structural element of abandonment and entrapment—is certainly one, and admittedly a major, factor. But as I have revisited this question, thought deeply about my own academic work, and read much more, I have come to the conclusion that not only are there structural (the one briefly mentioned between my co-advisor and myself, above); postwar-alliance (discussed by the scholar from the JIIA in the previous paragraph); and political, economic, and sociocultural (as discussed at length in the Calder book, referenced in f.n. 1) factors involved; there are also deeper historical (pre-1945) and very important long-term strategic factors with historical antecedents that play into these fears, warranted or not, of “Japan passing,” a Sino-U.S. condominium (or a so-called “G2”) basically at Japan’s expense, and an abrogation of the U.S.-Japan security treaty in order for the United States (and potentially Japan) to seek closer relations with China at the expense of Japan. The logic behind this, too, is partly structural, but it is also historical and often overlooked because many scholarly works on Japan and U.S.-Japan relations, since they focus on either the nature of Japan’s political system or on the post-1945 U.S.-Japan relationship (i.e., the “alliance”), either purposely or inadvertently leave out the competitive influences that drove the United States and Japan towards total war. And as perhaps the best single-volume work on the broader history of the U.S.-Japan relationship, a study which spans nearly a century and a half of these two nations’ relations, put it, one of these competitive influences rested on the role Japan and the United States (as well as other powers) would play in China and their competing views regarding what China would ideally resemble and whose interests it would ultimately serve.

Hence, it is no mistake that as China develops, seeks greater amounts of foreign capital, sees its domestic market grow numerically and with regard to purchasing potential, and becomes a major regional and even global strategic player, both Japanese and Americans are concerned not only with how China itself will behave but also how the two (Japan and America) will behave towards each other. The competing discourses in both countries on China “the threat” and China “the opportunity” clearly factor in here as well, and these competitive influences make it ever easier for Chinese strategy to exploit, or at least probe, these areas of intra-alliance weakness. Simply put, both allies, for both structural and deeper strategic reasons (which can be traced throughout their prewar and even postwar historical interactions), view each other’s approaches toward China with incredulity, uncertainty, and, at times, open cynicism. These sentiments further heighten the security dilemma in alliance politics. However, the contextual and historical background as well as particular features of the U.S.-Japan relationship itself suggest not only that these structural factors will be more acute but that, beyond these structural variables themselves, policy, strategic thinking, and strategic behavior will increasingly, and ultimately, be at odds.

Most studies dealing with similar scholarly questions examine the Sino-Japan, Sino-U.S., U.S.-Japan, and Sino-U.S.-Japan relations through the prisms of strict bilateralism with brief mention of the third party (in the former three cases); true triangular relations; using bilateral relations to approach the third party (U.S.-Japan alliance-China, for example); or one party’s approach to dealing with a bilateral relationship (China and its method of contending with the U.S.-Japan alliance) alone or some combination of these sets. Most studies focus on a limited time period, particularly the postwar or post-Cold War eras. Similarly, many wonderful country-specific studies have been done, and although their specificity has proven an excellent basis upon which to build my comparative strategic analyses, they simply lack (via the country-specific parameters they set for themselves) the comparative aspect (especially in the tri-party sense) upon which my own study is based and to which I may be able to evaluate my own preliminary analyses.

In short, I argue that a better way of examining the Sino-U.S.-Japan relationship and answering the question “Why do the Japanese fear abandonment?” is to place these relations in their broader and more dynamic historical context while paying particular attention to not only structural factors but also the strategic calculations and behaviors of the three states involved. Particularly important is viewing the U.S.-Japan relationship through respective U.S. and Japanese approaches toward China throughout the greater (that is, both prewar and postwar) history of U.S.-Japan relations. My preliminary analyses thus far indicate that this perspective is a fruitful avenue for examining Sino-U.S.-Japan relations and the security of East Asia and the Asia-Pacific in general. In future posts, I will delve into some of these issues at greater depth, but for now it is most important to me whether a) other similar analyses have been done and b) the above perspective has any inherent weaknesses. I welcome, of course, any constructive input, be it critical or otherwise, as well as any suggestions regarding similar analyses. Thus far, I have found none, with perhaps the exception of the LaFeber book (linked above), but LaFeber does not go beyond his historical inquiry into U.S.-Japan relations and how they have been affected throughout history by the China factor to draw implications for social science research. I hope to both do this and, hopefully, go beyond. Again, I welcome any thoughts in this regard. In future posts, I will indicate my independent and dependent variables and make a preliminary attempt at establishing the logical relations between them.

I thank you in advance for any constructive comments you might have.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)


[1] It should be noted, before I continue, that I personally question the idea that the alliance is particularly strong; an excellent read that has changed my perceptions of the strength of the alliance is Kent E. Calder’s Pacific Alliance. However, as I discuss below and will most likely argue at length in future posts here, future scholarly articles, and perhaps even in my Master’s thesis or future Doctoral dissertation, there are historical reasons related to national strategy and even security issues, on top of the political, economic, and socio-cultural factors laid out by Calder, to believe that in many ways the alliance is not as strong as it appears on the surface.

Potential Parallels: Fait Accompli, Ukraine, and East Asia

Before the September 7, 2010 incident in which a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in the East China Sea in the vicinity of the small group of islands the Japanese refer to as Senkaku, the Chinese refer to as Diaoyudao, and the Taiwanese refer to Diaoyutai, most scholars of East Asian international politics and security focused on only one major flash point area between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its neighbors. (The other major flash point which may have involved the PRC was the the Korean Peninsula, but it was usually seen as a less-pressing issue for Beijing, and Beijing’s involvement in any Korean crisis may not have been direct.) This flash point, considered by many to be the only real threat of a shooting war that could involve the United States and the PRC, was the status of Taiwan. Indeed, even as late as 2011, some scholars of international relations still made this assertion, arguing that to avoid conflict in East Asia the United States should reconsider the possibility of coming to the defense of Taiwan in the event of an unprovoked PRC attack. In effect, because the status of Taiwan was still erroneously viewed as the only hot spot in East Asia where Chinese and U.S. forces could face each other in a devastating conventional, and potentially nuclear, war, these scholars were arguing that to ensure long-term peace and stability in East Asia, the United States should unequivocally abandon Taiwan.

I have argued elsewhere that even before September 7, 2010, the status of Taiwan was not the only potentially explosive issue in East Asia that could have pitted the United States against the PRC in a shooting war. Along with the Korean Peninsula, where the forces of several nations may converge if the North attacks the South, the not-so-new “new” problems in East Asia have always been lurking below the surface merely obscured by or overlooked due to the “unresolved” status of Taiwan. The territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea remains, as does Japan’s dispute with Russia. China’s dispute with Japan continues to simmer, as does China’s dispute with six other nations, five of which are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in the South China Sea. China’s declaration of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) last November irked not only the Japanese but also the Koreans. And we should not forget issues of history and “national humiliation,” which although intangible make many of these disputes even less possible to resolve in any negotiated, non-zero-sum manner.

Some are concerned, now, that a shooting war in East Asia is right around the corner. (That such a hot war may only indirectly involve the status of Taiwan vindicates those in the minority who objected to assertions that the Chinese were really only concerned about Taiwan.) The position and resolve of the United States has come into question. It is no secret that the Japanese are enhancing their military capabilities in order to either further assist a relatively declining United States in crises and conflicts in the areas surrounding Japan or, as some have speculated, to independently defend Japanese territory and national interests should the United States refuse to enter a conflict on Japan’s side.

Meanwhile, over the past several days, many analysts and pundits have chimed in on the crisis between Ukraine and Russia, some even asserting that a U.S. non-response signals a lack of U.S. resolve and that the United States must reclaim its leadership role. A few have even begun discussing the messages a U.S. stand down sends to allies and security partners who have territorial disputes, even relating the situation in the Crimea to East Asia. From my perspective, such parallels are a bit of a stretch; the United States had no commitment to protect either the territorial integrity of Ukraine or the political status of the Crimea. But these parallels do send signals and create perceptions among allies and security partners regardless of whether the United States has a dog in the Ukrainian fight.

I, for one, do not think it particularly reasonable that a U.S. ally or security partner ought to question U.S. resolve simply because it did not send forces in an attempt to halt Russian activities in the Crimea. I do, however, think U.S. allies and security partners could reasonably question how the United States may respond in a form of crisis I see as far more likely in East Asia than, say, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) openly attacking Japanese Coast Guard or Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) ships in order to take administrative control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and enforce China’s version of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). A more likely scenario, I think, is one that has already happened in the South China Sea—the 1995 Mischief Reef incident—that is, a Chinese fait accompli that will leave the United States and its allies and security partners at a loss over how to react in any form of concerted effort.

The Japanese have been working closely with the United States over the past several years to train special forces dedicated to retaking island territories. Although some have questioned the wisdom of assisting the Japanese in enhancing what are essentially offensive capabilities (albeit functioning in these cases in defense of Japanese administered territory) because no one can know the true intentions of the Japanese or ever be certain how the Japanese will use such forces in the future, it does not contradict Japanese domestic law or the stipulations in U.S.-Japan security agreements for Japan to possess forces necessary to defend Japanese territory. It also, from a more cynical perspective, is at least superficially less costly for the United States if the Japanese can respond to such potential crises on their own without having to directly involve U.S. forces.

However, there are numerous restrictions on the use of force by Japanese security personnel. For example, if the Chinese were to land forces on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Japanese forces were sent to evict them, unless some form of domestic law were enacted to allow the Japanese forces to use coercive force to remove the Chinese troops, the Japanese could not fight without first being attacked. (And special legislation to allow such use of force may cost precious time while the Chinese fortify their position and seek diplomatic recognition of their position internationally.) What is more, were the Japanese forces to fail in their operation or if the crisis were to escalate and the Japanese were to request U.S. allied assistance, Washington’s dilemma would be agonizing.

And this, I think, is the real lesson for East Asian countries regarding the crisis in Ukraine (as well as the Mischief Reef incident of 1995): they cannot be certain as to the U.S. response in the event of a violence-free fait accompli. Japan cannot be certain that the United States would unequivocally back its claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands were the PLA not to seize the islands in a blatantly offensive attack that involved shooting and killing but, rather, take advantage of some weakness in Japanese surveillance, a weather condition, or some other distraction to land troops on the islands and declare that part of China’s “national humiliation” had been wiped away. The United States, it should be mentioned, recognizes merely Japan’s “administration” of the islands; there is no way of telling how the United States would view a “peaceful” change in “administration.” And even if there were shooting and killing involved in the Chinese capture of the islands, unless U.S. servicemen were directly in harm’s way, there would be no guarantee that the United States would ultimately intervene on Japan’s side.

As far-fetched as this may appear to some, the fear of abandonment is a constant variable that derives from all three levels of analysis in international politics—the systemic and structural, the internal makeup of states, and the human. The fear may be greater or lesser at any particular time, but it is always present in alliance politics. What is more, this fear of abandonment may actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as some U.S. analysts and policymakers have recently expressed concern over enhancements in Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF) capabilities. SDF enhancements worry not only China and South Korea, thus making U.S. efforts to avoid spirals of suspicions and negative sentiments. Such enhancements also bring certain aspects of the U.S. policy of extended deterrence into question, given that extended deterrence consists of both nuclear and conventional elements. Japanese enhancements due to concerns regarding U.S. resolve and commitments fuel suspicions in Washington that the Japanese are seeking an independent foreign policy potentially inimical to U.S. interests and strategy. Moreover, if were Japan to develop a more robust SDF capable of independent action and defense of Japanese territory without U.S. support, some in Washington may misconstrue this development to mean that either the Japanese were seeking to cause trouble for the United States (for example, by seeking autonomous objectives or needlessly causing tension with Japan’s neighbors) or signaling to Washington that its commitment to Japan were no longer necessary. Fears of abandonment can, thus, spiral and snowball.

Moreover, Chinese diplomatic strategies and tactics may involve attempts to intensify such perceptions among leaders in both Tokyo and Washington. Going through Washington to constrain Tokyo serves essentially the same objective as going through Washington to constrain Taipei; such strategies create frictions between Washington and the other two capitals, respectively, at virtually no cost to Beijing. Indeed, as the historical record shows, Beijing’s use of Washington to “restrain” Taipei led to greater understanding and cooperation between the PRC and the United States at the cost of creating mutual ill will between Taipei and Washington. It would take very little to simply transplant this strategy to the U.S.-Japan relationship even though U.S.-Japan security relations are (at least formally) better institutionalized. Indeed, it may already be happening with regard to Tokyo. Whether Washington takes the bait again or not is a matter of trust between alliance partners as well as political forces in both capitals (in this case, Tokyo and Washington). Although the U.S.-Japan relationship is currently (formally) much stronger than that between Washington and Taipei, there is no reason to assume that this state of affairs will continue indefinitely. There is already a chorus of calls for Washington to seek closer ties with Beijing potentially at Tokyo’s expense. Moreover, the logic of triangular diplomacy implies that the party that has better relations with both of the other two parties than the other two parties have between themselves is the party in a better strategic position than the party that chooses the side of one party at the expense of the other. This logic operates against the U.S.-Japan alliance (although it is not necessary that leaders in Tokyo or Washington follow it).

The effects of these factors could certainly work towards any of a number of potential conclusions. One scenario, to be explored here, is that the Chinese seize control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands by taking advantage of some distraction or shortcoming and not by force per se—that is, via fait accompli. The Japanese seek U.S. diplomatic or even, for whatever reason, military support to evict the Chinese forces from the islands. The U.S. dithers and ultimately makes measured statements about both sides showing mutual restraint. It may condemn the Chinese actions but has no dog in the actual fight and, therefore, does nothing beyond talking tough. Tokyo takes the U.S. response to signify a changing U.S. strategic posture towards Japan, China, and all of East Asia and the Asia-Pacific. As far as Japan is concerned, it has either already been abandoned or is on the road to being forsaken by its ally and protectorate. The Japanese, regardless of the political and economic consequences, begin a determined rearmament program not necessarily because they seek to revise the “status quo” or take offensive military actions against their neighbors but because they fear the worst—that is, de facto diplomatic and strategic isolation. The Chinese, sensing Washington’s shift, and the South Koreans pressure Washington to restrain Japanese rearmament. Washington, seeking to console its ally and justify its actions, offers to reinforce its commitment to Japan’s defense. This time the Japanese are ambivalent, politely paying lip service to American offers but in reality already convinced that self-help is the only way to protect Japanese interests and security. The Chinese, observing the continuing Japanese buildup and sensing the opportune moment has come, as well as the South Koreans put further pressure on Washington. Lobbying in the U.S. Congress takes place. The U.S. president is pressured by interest groups to take the Chinese side because, of course, U.S. economic and security interests are better served, they reason, by closer ties with China—even at Japan’s expense.

Congress condemns the Japanese arms buildup as provocative and the beginning of a new arms race in Asia; it won’t stand for it. The Chinese and Koreans applaud. The president also sees the threat and implores the Japanese to “show restraint,” not recognizing how it rings hollow in the ears of Japanese who have shown restraint for decades but have still seen their country, in their eyes, significantly weakened. Again, the leadership in Tokyo politely recognizes the concern but feels it has no choice, given the current situation, but to take more drastic measures. It asserts that its response is meant to secure the safety of the Japanese nation, people, and national interests and that its response is purely defensive in nature. Unfortunately, none of Japan’s neighbors nor its now drifting ally see things in the same light. Congress condemns the Japanese behavior, arguing that Japan cannot be trusted because it says one thing (politely agrees to strengthen the alliance) and does another (enhances its independent and offensive capabilities). Activist groups sensitive to history apply pressure. Finally, the question is raised: if the Japanese “won’t cooperate,” if they are “constantly deceptive,” if they are looking to “entrap the United States in their petty conflicts,” and if they are already “capable of defending themselves independently”—if they are, in short, “not behaving as a friend, little less an ally”—then what is the point of the U.S. honoring any of its commitments to defend Japan (forgetting that the United States had already breached that commitment, in the eyes of the Japanese, long ago)? The reader can, I’m sure, take this scenario to its logical conclusion.

The only conceivably worse scenario would be a shooting war instead of a fait accompli would be a shooting war that escalated to or past the brink of nuclear confrontation. How Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo, not to mention other states in the region, would behave in this worst-of-all-worst-case scenario is beyond the scope of this article, but the point is that the only thing worse than the fait accompli is a hot war is indicative of the severity of the fait accompli scenario outlined above.

What does all of this have to do with the Crimea? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps quite a bit. It depends to a greater extent on how allies and security partners view the U.S. response than it does to the U.S. sense of its response. The U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine as the U.S. not having a dog in the fight is certainly justifiable—to the point of being self-congratulatory. But it may also prove self-deprecatory.

The Chinese may draw the lesson that the West (here meaning essentially the United States) has no way of responding to a fait accompli beyond a few tough words here and a bit of muscle flexing there. The Chinese may be emboldened to attempt such an undertaking should the opportunity present itself again (remember Mischief Reef). This may be the wrong conclusion for the powers that be in Beijing to draw, as Ukraine is not Japan, the Philippines, or even Singapore or Taiwan, but Beijing’s leaders may draw this conclusion nonetheless. They would not be the first (even in Beijing) to believe the West (read here the United States) is a “paper tiger.”

The Japanese may view the crisis in Ukraine as another sign that the United States is no longer willing or able (or both) to stand up to potential aggressors. They may not take this view, of course, but to view the situation this way would not run counter to several lines of discourse in Japan that the United States cannot be trusted and either cannot or will not (again, the end result here is the same) come to Japan’s aid.

Other allies may, or may not, draw similar conclusions. The dilemma for non-allied security partners may be even greater. It is impossible to know exactly how this all is being perceived now—or how it will be perceived in the future under different circumstances.

It should be noted here in closing that the United States was under no obligation to protect Ukraine.* I honestly take no personal position on this issue and, as I focus on East Asian affairs, to delve into what precisely occurred in Ukraine is a bit beyond my professional comfort zone (even though I have kept a relatively close eye on news feeds). My main concern is with the perceptions the U.S. position on this issue may create for states in East Asia, a region which has a plethora of ongoing territorial and historical disputes. The Crimea and East Asia are admittedly different places in different regions with different cultures, different peoples, and specific contextual and situational variables that may not apply to East Asia or may apply in different ways. I dispute none of this. However, these potential differences do not preclude the very real possibility that lessons, whether justifiably applicable or not, may be drawn by East Asian leaders that affect how they perceive their countries’ situations in their own particular historical and strategic contexts.

In short, one may argue that for U.S. allies and security partners in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific to draw such parallels and conclusions is unreasonable. Then again, politics—and particularly international politics—can hardly be considered the art of the reasonable.

*Note [Edited at 6:26 a.m. on Thursday, March 13, 2014]: This appears a bit of a gaffe on my part. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 does appear to be a legally binding U.S., U.K., and Russian agreement to respect and defend the sovereignty of Ukraine. However, in line with my overall argument, some have stated that just because it is legally binding does not mean the parties involved (especially the United States and the United Kingdom) will in fact intervene. At any rate, a memorandum of this sort is not a security institution (alliance), and the facts on the ground appear to indicate that regardless of any legal agreement, binding or nonbinding, the United States and United Kingdom will not intervene militarily.