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.

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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.

A Quick Note on Foreign Infiltration and Anti-bigot Bigotry

“Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

I don’t attempt to propose anything particularly new or path-breaking in this post (more of a note than a post, actually). I simply seek to point out that bigotry comes in all shapes and sizes and that using bigotry and hatred to fight bigotry and hatred makes one a . . . bigot and a hater.

Again, there is nothing groundbreaking here. But as I continue to read posts in the blogosphere, particularly some well-known blogs by well-known bloggers as well as commentaries and news articles in relatively well-respected media outlets, I continue to find myself asking myself this question: “Self [okay, I really don’t begin this inner dialogue with the word “self”], what separates the bigots who use bigotry and hated to demand that homosexuals not be allowed to wed or otherwise seek civil marriage-like unions and those who use bigotry and hatred to argue against those who demand that homosexuals not be allowed to wed or otherwise seek civil marriage-like unions? Isn’t a bigot a bigot? To call someone a bigot and then use bigotry to argue against that person—calling him or her a this or a that, raking his or her religion over the coals, shouting him or her down because his or her belief system is different from one’s own, and similar activities—is no better than the original bigoted act. Aren’t they both—aren’t they all—bigots, pots calling kettles black or what have you?”

Let me say the following before any reader jumps to any conclusions about my own particular position on homosexual civil unions and other marriage or marriage-like ceremonies: I fully support the idea that two people who love each other, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender preferences, ought be allowed to be joined and recognized by the state as any other two heterosexual people who love each other and choose to be united, at least in a free and liberal society. Public law ought recognize such unions. Private institutions, because they are privately owned, ought be allowed to choose whether they recognize such unions or not because the state ought not decide for private institutions those private institutions’ preferences. However, it makes perfectly rational sense for private institutions to recognize such public laws since doing so only increases those public institutions’ standing with the public. It also makes no economic sense for a private institution to decline to serve two people because they are homosexuals united as two married heterosexual would be. Of course, private institutions are certainly able to act irrationally, but it harms only them, as those homosexuals could just go to the next, for example, insurance company that would serve them to take out a policy.

I am also not basing any of this on religious dogma. Although born and raised a Catholic, I have been for the better part of the last twelve years most closely defined as an agnostic, even at one point considering myself an atheist before coming to the conclusion that believing God or gods did not exist was virtually the same, at least theoretically, as believing that He or they do exist, since there is no conclusive evidence either way. Let that end the “Nate has a religious axe to grind” (potential) thread there.

I also have no personal battle here besides having friends and acquaintances in the States, in Europe, and in Taiwan who are homosexuals. And most of those friends and acquaintances, if I know them well, would not hate me for writing here what I am writing. So the (potential) “Nate says these things because he himself is homosexual” thread also ends here, as though that would matter one bit anyway.

Folks should remember that considering oneself tolerant—oh, how I loathe that word here; I much prefer the word “accepting”—does not mean that others one disagrees with are necessarily intolerant. Their arguments may come from completely different perspectives as one’s own. One may disagree with those people rather strongly, but our strong disagreement also should demonstrate to us the potential limits of one’s own tolerance and acceptance. To use words that belittle or slander individuals or groups that hold different viewpoints from one’s own, regardless of what that viewpoint or message is, is no better than being a member of that group. And, moreover, remember that, when one belittles such groups as foreign infiltrations (I am speaking of certain folks who make this claim here in Taiwan), one should also remember that one’s own ability to speak one’s mind without fear of reprisal in a free and liberal society is also the result of what amounts to a foreign infiltration of traditional society, which may or may not have been more or less “tolerant” or “accepting” of such things as homosexuality and/or homosexual unions before “foreign infiltration.”

Taiwan’s Real Tragedy: What the Death of an Army Corporal Says about Taiwan’s Future (Just a Lao Wai’s Humble and Detached Perspective)

In an earlier post I made reference to several reasons why I believe Taiwan’s domestic politics will not save it from Beijing’s pressures. More bluntly, I seriously doubt the resilience of Taiwan’s democracy in the face of a growing China. I tend to find the average Taiwanese—again, this certainly does not apply to all—too complacent, ambivalent, and “tolerant” to seriously challenge dicta from on high. The average Taiwanese—again, this certainly does not apply to all—also appears to hold Taiwan’s military, at best, in low esteem and, at worst, with utter contempt.

The story of army corporal Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) is to what I was referring when I briefly commented on “the death of a young soldier last year and the hands of officers.” (Anyone can Google his name and find information on his story in either English or Chinese.) Yesterday (March 7, 2014) the verdict came down for thirteen of those involved in Hung’s untimely death. The family expressed outrage. Some of my friends, family, and contacts made comments to my face or on social media. Many scolded the “justice” system, the government, and the military.

But in the end, I fear that the media here, which suffers from collective attention-deficit disorder, will move on quickly to the next outrage, as will the utterly incompetent and ineffectual opposition party. The family will mourn. The average person will say, as I’ve heard so often, “This has nothing to do with me personally,” and move on without a second thought. People will protest, but their voices will not be heard for longer than a few days to perhaps a week or two. And, to echo George Orwell, life will go on as it has always gone on—that is, badly.

To not come across as though I am a lao wai trying to project my values upon others, I can only say these things. I care a great deal for this beautiful island and the many people I have met and come to in many ways admire. I perhaps care less than I used to simply because I am, and should be, powerless to do much about what I feel people who are not and should not be as powerless as I—i.e., the average Taiwanese citizen—should and yet can do against their oppressors. I have to remain detached, or I will become the lao wai everyone hates, forcing his views on others, or worse yet, I will become angry. In a society in which only certain people can become angry and angry people are treated like crazy people (without the average person thinking beyond the situation in front of his or her eyes and contemplating for a second or two why the angry person is angry), being angry is far worse than being almost anything else.

I think Taiwanese should be angry—and they are justified in being so. But there I go projecting again. There I go getting involved. There I go caring more about the average person here than he or she cares about him- or herself. Taiwanese are completely justified in being outraged. But they won’t really be. Give it a few days to a week, and this will all pass. Give it a few years and Taiwan’s loss of anything remotely resembling freedom will all pass. But what can I say or do about it? If these things are what the average person in Taiwan wants, who am I to judge? If these are the things the average person in Taiwan wants, I must calmly accept it an either move on or move elsewhere. In the end, this too shall pass. And life will go on as it has always gone on—that is, badly.

More on Mearsheimer’s Article: Some Clarity Appears Necessary

In an earlier commentary, I laid out some of my immediate reactions to John Mearsheimer’s Feb. 25, 2014 article in The National Interest. In this post, written in a similar (commentary) style but with a somewhat different message, I attempt to clarify for some critics Mearsheimer’s argument based on his overall theory of international relations, that is, offensive realism. I suppose it should go without saying that Mearsheimer does not really need my help. My only hope is to clarify for some critics of his recent article—of which I am one—his argument as relates to his overall theory, as it appears some of his detractors have obfuscated his argument not only with past calls for the U.S. to abandon Taiwan but also with general appeasement and defeatism.

Mearsheimer’s theory is, as he himself admits in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, pessimistic, but it is pessimistic in its response to those who believed, in the euphoria that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War (liberal institutionalists and neoconservatives alike), international relations had somehow fundamentally changed and that great power competition had ended—in short, that the end of the Cold War signified, to reference Francis Fukuyama (and, thereby, Immanuel Kant), an end to history.

Mearsheimer’s is not a theory of appeasement. Such an assertion would contradict his entire theoretical argument that states seek to maximize power at the expense of others by any and all means and do not sacrifice power for a little increase in short-term security. (This is Mearsheimer’s theoretical jab at defensive realists, of whom the now-infamous, at least among supporters of Taiwan for his 2011 article in Foreign Affairs which argued that to seek a closer relationship with China and avoid the potential for a major military clash with the PRC, the United States should essentially abandon all commitments to Taiwan’s defense, scholar, Charles Glaser, is one.) For Mearsheimer to argue simultaneously that states—or, more accurately, great powers—seek to gain power at the expense of others and that a state should seek to appease rivals is a major contradiction, one that Mearsheimer does not make. Remember, in Mearsheimer’s theory, there are essentially no “status-quo” powers (sentiment to which I am sympathetic, although I also argue that without the concept of status quo there can also be no revisionism, and hence these are false dichotomies, analytical devices or heuristics meant to give general understanding and make categorization easy but in practice utterly meaningless). There are no states, save the as-yet-unrealized systemic hegemonic powers, that simply wish to hold on to their amount of the distribution of power in the international system.

I make, and have made, no secret about my misgivings with regard to several aspects of Mearsheimer’s theory. As stated in an earlier post, structural realism in general lacks the tools, based on its desire for strict theoretical parsimony, to deal with domestic factors in international politics. Also stated in the same earlier post, I tend to hold the perceptions (and misperceptions) of leaders and even, generally speaking, entire societies in far higher regard than does Mearsheimer and find his rather dismissive treatment of cognitive theories of decision making both disingenuous and somewhat contradictory to how his theory relates to his case studies in Tragedy and vice versa. To take my criticism a bit further, I also argue that offensive realism in the Mearsheimerian sense does not take its theoretical assumptions and relationships between variables to their logical conclusion; in other words, offensive realism simply does not go far enough along the path that it has laid out for itself. Why, for instance, would a state seek to gain power at the expense of others but still, once it has achieved systemic hegemony, tolerate the prospect of potential external threats? To put it differently, as offensive realists themselves assert, the future is uncertain, and there is no way of knowing whether one day one of those minions one stamped down long ago may rise up or work in concert with other minions to undermine one’s hegemony. To me, this is a fatal flaw. My response to it is that the only way to ensure one’s external security is to render all externalities internal. Hence, offensive realism does not go far enough; offensive realists should argue not that a systemic hegemon would be content merely with being by far the most powerful state in the system but that it would strive to become the only political-administrative-coercive show in international-systemic town, that is, it would become a global state.

However, even here this global state would not merely be a “status-quo” seeker. To argue along the same lines as Waltz in Theory of International Politics for justifying his assertion that international anarchy is not inherently bad, there is no reason to believe that, based on historical evidence, hierarchy is less violent than anarchy. States and other administrative constructs have constantly used violence to maintain domestic order. What was once external violence simply becomes internalized—but at least in my critique of offensive realism, the global state can deal with challenges to its administrative control entirely on its own terms and with, if necessary, the entire globe’s resources. It seems, then, that even a global state would not be a status-quo power: it would be constantly seeking ways to enhance its ability to maintain domestic order by any and all means at its disposal while trying constantly to keep localities and regions under its administrative and coercive thumb.

I blame these problems not on the assumptions of offensive realism but on offensive realism’s single-minded focus on armed territorial conquest. In fact, although offensive realists, including Mearsheimer, argue that states use any and all means at their disposal to gain power at the expense of others, they focus almost entirely on only one method of doing so—armed conquest. Then again, neoclassical realists such as Jason W. Davidson in his 2006 book The Origins of Revisionist and Status-quo States fare little better. Davidson, for example, argues that states seek either to change or uphold the status quo via altering or maintaining the distribution of territory, status, markets, expansion of ideology, and creation or change of international law and institutions, yet his cases focus, with only several brief and marginal exceptions, on changes to the territorial status quo. Other neoclassical realists, particularly Randall Schweller, argue that balancing does not occur as often in the international system as neorealists assert; Timothy Crawford offers reasons why this may be—i.e., that potential targets of balancing coalitions have a wide array of tools at their disposal to drive wedges between those states seeking collective action. In the end, although territorial expansion via armed conquest may stand a higher chance of provoking the formation of balancing coalitions, other forms of attaining systemic hegemony exist (see the notes on Davidson’s argument in this paragraph) that arguably stand a lesser chance of being balanced against. None of these appear to be considered systematically by realists of any color, although Glenn Palmer and T. Clifton Morgan’s A Theory of Foreign Policy may represent a step in that direction.

What all of this means is that although I am sympathetic to Mearsheimer’s theory in some respects, I have no desire to defend offensive realism from fair criticism. However, I have found most critics of Mearsheimer’s Feb. 25 article to have a limited understanding of precisely what he is arguing and an even more limited understanding of his theory—which is what his article is really about.

Mearsheimer’s article is not an article about or advocating appeasement, nor is it expressing defeatism. A simple reading of the final chapter of Tragedy would lead those who assert that Mearsheimer is cut from the same sinews as Glaser, Michael Swaine, William Overholt, Bruce Gilley, and others who have from one theoretical perspective or another argued recently that the United States, in order to seek closer relations with, in their view, the economically and/or strategically more important PRC as well as to avoid the possibility of armed, and potentially nuclear, conflict with China, should abandon commitments to defend Taiwan are utterly wrong. Mearsheimer’s argument is quite different if only because he focuses on a different aspect of this relationship and because he reaches a somewhat similar conclusion but from a different approach.

Mearsheimer has—and a quick reading of the final chapter of Tragedy would make this clear—argued quite extensively against the U.S. policy of engaging China. Mearsheimer argues essentially that the United States should, according to his theory, do everything in its power to contain China in the way it contained the Soviet Union because engagement, to borrow a term coined by Thomas Christensen in a 2006 article published in International Security, is “creating a monster.” Whether one agrees with Mearsheimer on this is beside the point; the point here is that he believes U.S. engagement policy counterproductive and counterintuitive and that the United States and its allies will pay a price for their “engaging” mistake.

Allow me to state this plainly: for Mearsheimer, the problem is not appeasement; he appears, based on his theory, quite dead set against appeasement, since it would quite obviously give rise to a new regional hegemonic power and a real, not potential, peer competitor—developments states should, based on his theory, seek to avoid. His is a purely capabilities- and geography-based argument, although he rightly asserts that the steady stream of calls for abandonment among “experts” adds the very important variable of resolve to the mix. But again, resolve is not a part of his theory, which is purely structural and cannot become “reductionist” by considering the resolve of leaders or states, in short, to go below the international systemic level of analysis to explain the behavior of individual actors. Most other scholars, including the ones mentioned two paragraphs above this one, have floated the idea that in the future the United States may not, should the growth of China’s economic and military capabilities continue at the pace they have for the past several decades, be able to defend Taiwan. However, their theories tend to have other elements—for example, Overholt asserts that the United States has far more to gain from deeper economic engagement with China and, thus, abandonment makes greater economic sense; Glaser asserts, again, that abandonment should occur to avoid conflict; neither of these assertions are mutually exclusive, of course—and most often stronger value-based assertions than does Mearsheimer’s. Granted, all social science theories—and indeed, as Michael Polanyi argued long ago, all theories of natural science as well—are essentially value-laden and, therefore, biased, and Mearsheimer’s is certainly no different. However, his argument is at least superficially less value-laden in that he bases his theory on capabilities calculations and not on the wishful thinking that, for example, engagement will change Chinese behavior or that giving in to Beijing on one of its “core interests” will purchase stronger Sino-U.S. relations. Point of fact: if China were able to successfully defeat all U.S. (and, potentially, combined U.S.-Japan and/or U.S.-Japan-Taiwan) attempts at defending Taiwan, the United States, by definition, could not defend Taiwan. That he argues in favor of Taiwan seeking an agreement with Beijing, I think, reveals perhaps his naivety or betrays him as—gasp!—a theorist of international politics and security and strategic studies and not a regional or country specialist. But then again, he does get right that most Taiwanese do not favor unification now or in the future—despite the fact that this is, essentially, reductionism.

The key variable, then, is not U.S. resolve, although it is a variable, but, rather, the ability of the United States to present a viable deterrent (again, I understand the theoretical-cognitive critiques of deterrence; I’m simply trying to summarize Mearsheimer’s structural and capabilities-based argument) to counter Chinese measures and, if necessary, successfully defeat Chinese capabilities in a shooting match based on superior U.S. capabilities. This problem is compounded, as Mearsheimer makes clear, by geography. But as my argument, probably quite controversial, below seeks to demonstrate, an inability to successfully defend Taiwan will likely demonstrate a real inability to defend the Western Pacific—and probably even Hawaii—if this logic is carried out to its extreme conclusion (which offensive realism argues, or at least it should, is inevitable unless it is countered). Again, my own theory is not purely structural, so I am not defending Mearsheimer’s theory or the assumptions upon which it is based; the main idea here is to explain.

The problem with the capabilities-plus-geography argument is that if this argument is carried to its logical (and extreme) conclusion, the United States will likely be forced from the entire Pacific and even from Hawaii. This is because Chinese capabilities will, via current projections, eventually far surpass those of the United States. If the United States cannot defend Taiwan, it can also not defend Japan, keep the South China Sea open to free navigation, protect Guam or South Korea, etc. This is not because the United States lacks the will but because its capabilities are insufficient to do so. Were Chinese capabilities able to far surpass those of the United States, Hawaii would eventually become the last and most-distant U.S. outpost in the Pacific and would, due to Chinese superiority and the inability of the United States to procure the capabilities necessary to defend it, become a potential strategic (and economic, due to the strains of attempting to procure and transport such capabilities across a vast expanse of ocean) liability. Because Mearsheimer argues that water has “stopping power”—but those of us who have actually read Tragedy know this—the Chinese would be faced with major difficulties in taking Hawaii by force, but the United States would face even greater challenges due to superior Chinese capabilities in attempting to defend Hawaii. Essentially, Mearsheimer’s argument, if carried to its logical and extreme conclusion—and based on his claims, it must be carried out thus—the U.S. defeat and retreat would make California the Western-most U.S. state with even Alaska potentially gone.

These claims, like Mearsheimer’s, are controversial. They are, like Mearsheimer’s, meant to be so. This is not because scholars seek to sell books. If it were, I wouldn’t be posting this for free on my blog. If it were, all of those who criticize Mearsheimer would not do so—because they would have already bought and read his book. Scholars make claims and theories and studies not because they hope to make a fortune; believe me, such an endeavor would fail miserably because being a scholar does not pay, at least not monetarily. Instead, scholars make claims to push intellectual boundaries and challenge what others “know.” Before Mearsheimer’s book, offensive realism existed only as a few scattered assertions stretched across a few scholarly articles; it was unsystematic and theoretically crude. Scholars do not write so they will become famous, although that may occur; only the most thought-provoking ideas achieve renown, and the idea tends to outlive, at least among non-experts, the person and the name that created it. Being a scholar is a thankless endeavor, but thankfully scholars don’t become scholars to be thanked. Often they are cursed, sneered at, or baselessly accused, sentenced, and punished almost instantaneously (and usually based more on the ignorance of the judge, jury, and executioner, often all the same person, than on reasonable doubt).

A final point: those who argue that theorizing is simply dealing with abstractions have a point, but then again all thought beyond mere number crunching is based on theoretical abstractions. Deterrence, for example, although real from a policy standpoint, is also based on an almost unfathomable number of theories about human cognition, rationality, human nature, and a host of other concepts that the mere number cruncher—and there are no real mere number crunchers, as Polanyi has argued, even among the accountants of the world—fails to recognize and for which he or she fails to account. However, as always, just because we do not recognize and/or fail to account for something does not mean it does not exist—as every theorist will admit if he or she is a good one. Theory is simply linking variables together in a systematic way in order to attempt to explain a phenomenon or group of phenomena; it is abstraction. But then again, thought itself is an abstraction. So before we condemn theorists, we ought first consider what we are criticizing and, in our consideration, realize that we are in fact contradicting ourselves. Even the most mundane thoughts are based on any number of theories—even those most mundane thoughts of the lowly political scientist who gets no thanks, no real compensation, and little to no recognition beyond the insult. But then again, if he is a good thinker, he thinks for different reasons altogether anyway.

“Say[ing] Goodbye”: Reading Between the Lines and Understanding—If Only in an Academic Sense

Picking on Mearsheimer’s theory, his assumptions, his assertions about Taiwan’s options, or his message as “defeatist” does not allow one to escape the reality: that no matter which way one slices it, Taiwan’s is a precarious situation and has been for as long as just about all of us can remember.

Just as the past (numerous) assertions by policy analysts, scholars, and present and former politicians that the United States either should or will eventually be forced to abandon Taiwan, John Mearsheimer’s February 25, 2014 article in The National Interest caused quite a stir among supporters of Taiwan. What follows is my own response to Mearsheimer’s article, which I hope is interpreted as neither hostile toward nor supportive of Mearsheimer’s overall argument (since that is the spirit in which this response is written). It is written in editorial/commentary and not in academic format, although I do hope to remedy this in a future post.

Theoretically speaking, Mearsheimer’s argument is both cogent and elegantly parsimonious, not at all unlike the third-image theorizing from which Kenneth N. Waltz derived his theory of what is today called structural realism or, more commonly, neorealism. Indeed, Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism, as expounded in his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, is admittedly a strict structural theory that diverges with Waltz’s conception of structural realism only in the diverging conclusions the authors reach about incentives the anarchic international system provides actors. For Waltz, states seek security and are security maximizers in that they seek only the right amount of security to ensure their survival while seeking to avoid provoking balancing coalitions against them. For Mearsheimer, the anarchic nature of the international system incentivizes power, not security, maximization, since no state can be sure just how much power—defined as military capabilities and the economic and other resource means to acquire military power—is enough to ensure security and because no state can be sure that other states in the international system are not aggressive. Indeed, Mearsheimer’s theory argues that the very nature of the international system incentivizes states to act aggressively when they have the opportunity to do so.

Of course one of the many—and oft-mentioned—weaknesses of purely structural international relations theories, whether of the defensive (Waltzian) or offensive (Mearsheimerian) variety, is that what the theories gain in parsimony they lack in contextual specificities and actor particularities, especially at the first (human behavior) and second (internal structures of states) images, or levels of analysis, that Waltz defines in Man, the State, and War. Mearsheimer admits this obvious flaw but, as most structural realists contend, asserts not unfoundedly that the simple elegance of structural theory, while not accounting for all factors—indeed, what theory could account for all variables?—nonetheless makes a necessary and profound contribution to the disciplines of international relations, security studies, and, at least for some, foreign policy analysis. (It should be mentioned here, however, that Waltz, the late father of strictly structural theories of international relations, contended that structural realism is not a theory of foreign policy. Colin Elman, for one, has responded that it can and should be.)

I, for one, am guardedly sympathetic to offensive realism as a beginning point for analysis, but my interests and background in comparative politics, area/regional studies, and country-specific studies renders it necessary that I approach structural explanations with caution—and not, like some, reject such explanations outright. From a theoretical perspective, I tend to adhere more closely toward the less parsimonious neoclassical realism of Gideon Rose (among others), which argues that while the structure of the international system is an excellent beginning point of analysis, the structure itself cannot account for important variables. Hence, neoclassical realists make a different tradeoff from realists of the structural variety (they engage in a certain amount of what Waltz termed reductionism), sacrificing parsimony for greater explanatory power. (It should be noted here that neoclassical realism is often considered not a theory of international politics but rather a theory of foreign policy.) Although I have my own intellectual qualms with certain particulars of neoclassical realism (indeed, my current Master’s thesis as well as an article I am working on with another scholar deal with the more recent injection of what I/we consider a false dichotomy between so-called status-quo and revisionist states), it must be mentioned here that Mearsheimer’s criticism of what he terms “human-nature realism” is not altogether appropriate. (It should be mentioned parenthetically that Mearsheimer is leveling criticism at neoclassical, as well as structural, realism’s intellectual descendent—that is, the classical realism of such writers as Morgenthau, Carr, and Niebuhr—and not neoclassical realism itself.) For one, Mearsheimer’s argument in Tragedy that perceptions matter much less than actual power realities because leaders tend to have a rather accurate understanding of such realities is somewhat contradictory; this is because the only other explanation has to be that those states studied in Tragedy which failed to gain regional hegemony and were defeated in war either were acting in suicidal manners (that is, acting aggressively in full understanding that they would be overpowered) and not within the theoretical confines of offensive realism or because they incorrectly perceived that they could win anyway despite major disparities in national power between themselves and their adversaries. Needless to say, this is an issue for which Tragedy, at least in my reading of it, fails to sufficiently account.

Beyond theoretical misgivings, however, I don’t find Mearsheimer’s general understanding of Taiwan’s current situation all that far from the mark—at least not as far as some of the more fanatical opponents of Mearsheimer’s February 25 article argue he is. Although admittedly not a Taiwan (or, for that matter, China) scholar, one does not need to think too long and hard on the basic facts of Taiwan’s situation to realize quite quickly that Taiwan’s present status is precarious. This, for me, was the obvious, rather unenlightening, conclusion of Mearsheimer’s article. That is not defeatist, nor is it pessimistic; it is simply a reality. And what is more, even though Mearsheimer does not delve very deeply into the nuances of domestic politics in Taiwan or China, he does touch on the major issues—for example, that the vast majority of Taiwanese do not support unification and that although it is impossible to know precisely what the average Chinese citizen thinks, all evidence points to the very real possibility that the average Chinese would support the use of force to either prevent Taiwan’s de jure independence or to compel unification on Beijing’s terms—and, as I argue below, he does not really have to touch on domestic issues in order to reach roughly the same conclusion that he reaches in “Say Goodbye.”

I, for one, doubt the strength of Taiwanese democratic institutions not only because Taiwan is only a few decades removed from Martial Law or because the Republic of China (ROC) constitution remains essentially a Kuomintang (KMT) party-state constitution but also because I doubt the capability and willingness of the average Taiwanese to forcefully resist a coerced end to Taiwan’s de facto independence. This is in no way damning toward Taiwanese, and it is not a lao wai’s projection of his own values on another society or culture. It has developed from a very substantive difference between protesting with words and protesting with force—especially in a society where the average person lacks the means to defend him- or herself. What that says about the right to personally own firearms is one thing, and this is neither the time nor the place to debate that on legal, moral, or “social stability” grounds; what it says about the ability of the average person to fight back if he or she is being violated by an aggressor is a completely other topic, one which I will leave here. Suffice it to say that intentions to fight back, even were they to exist in their most fervent of manners, are useless without the means by which to fight. Peaceful resistance, even in its silent sense, would still essentially sacrifice Taiwan’s de facto independence since it could not be a deterrent against aggressive use of force.

I could point to my observations that the current state of Taiwan’s society has led me to believe that the average Taiwanese is far more willing to accept injustices and wrongs than any other society in which I have yet lived. That is a pacifying and at times warm and open aspect of Taiwan that I respect and to a certain degree admire. Coming from the States, I am all too used to people ranting about the slightest perceived injustice and seeking compensation in any form it can be made available—even if it harms those completely uninvolved in the wrong. However, this passive acceptance also has a very real downside, one I recognize every time I get upset by the many drivers who nearly kill me almost every day and my wife, a Taiwanese, tells me to simply let it go, to tolerate it.

I could point out that the average person appears, at least in my experience, to hold the military in rather low regard, and recent espionage cases in Taiwan as well as the death of a young soldier last year at the hands of officers and the seeming inability of the ROC Navy to protect Taiwanese fishermen have further reinforced this perception.

I could offer a counterpoint to the assertion that because Ma Ying-jeou’s public approval rating is so low he could never afford politically any form of “sellout” of Taiwan to China by arguing instead that is already-low approval rating could instead make such a “sellout” less costly. He needs not seek reelection; he needs not (nor does he ever seem to) listen to public opinion; and he needs not fear a backlash since his approval rating is already so low that he would hardly suffer in the rating department if he were to hand Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on a silver platter.

I could point to the utter lack of a viable political alternative to the KMT. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has shown itself in recent years to be less than innovative politically, gradually more beholden to Beijing (to the point that some in the “independence party” have floated the idea of dropping the independence clause from the DPP political platform), and just as corrupt as the KMT. But to be sure, the constitution, which again is essentially a KMT party-state document, could easily be used to banish opposition parties if interpreted and invoked in particular ways.

I could go on and on and on about how utterly awful the media—both English and Chinese—is, but that would be fruitless and would, instead of reading as informed criticism, more likely read as a Westerner’s projection of his own values on others. Indeed, at least one foreign journalist in Taiwan has been more than willing to batter away at Western value projection while simultaneously projecting values on Taiwanese; I do not seek to be anything remotely like this particular journalist, and so I will end my criticism of the media outlets here.

In short, even were Mearsheimer to devote endless pages to the particularities of Taiwan’s and China’s political systems and the national character of Taiwanese and Chinese people, he would likely reach a very similar conclusion as his structural assessment—namely, that Taiwan’s is a precarious situation. I knew this before I arrived in Taiwan almost nine years ago, and I know it—although perhaps on a somewhat less superficial basis—today. Taiwan’s is a state of perpetual crisis, one my wife has to remind me at times when I complain about this or that political issue I can perhaps understand in an academic sense but never truly feel because I am and will always be an outsider. September 11, 2001 revealed to Americans how truly vulnerable they were as individuals and as a people (you will, I hope, allow the collective sense of nationality here if only for the purpose of expediency); Taiwanese, my wife has insisted several times during our nearly five years of marriage and six years of knowing each other, have lived in a perpetual state of pending doom and insecurity for as long as the vast majority of them have lived. I can remember a time when I could feel, at least superficially, secure and innocent as a young man growing up in the States; I think that sentiment would be difficult, if not impossible, to find among the average Taiwanese, although I assert that it is entirely possible that certain individuals may feel thus.

And in that sense, even the average Taiwanese—and forgive my generalization here—has been continuously held in suspense wondering whether just around the corner he or she will be forced him- or herself to “say goodbye” to Taiwan as a de facto independent nation-state and “say goodbye” to any sense of the identity with which he or she grew up. Perhaps this sense of “say goodbye” was not the sense in which Mearsheimer intended it; but I read it between the lines, and I understand—if only in a cerebral, academic sense.