by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 國防部發言人/Facebook

A FEBRUARY ARTICLE by Michael Swaine of the Quincy Institute in The National Interest, entitled “The Worrisome Erosion of the One China Policy”, proves a fanciful excursion into proposing a grand solution for current US-China tensions over Taiwan.

Effectively, Swaine frames present tensions as arising over the US refusing to conform to its own One China Policy and instead increasing symbolic and substantive support for Taiwan. This, per Swaine, has provoked China into taking greater escalatory actions–and yet the original provocateur here is America.

Swaine’s solution is for the US and China to both dial back to the a priori status quo, by coming to an agreement. For Swaine, then, “The only logical solution to this problem is for Washington and Beijing to explicitly agree on a set of reciprocal, credible reassurance measures that will breathe life back into their original understanding regarding Taiwan.”

The article in question

One notes that for Swaine, there is no consideration of what the wishes of Taiwanese are about their own future. Taiwanese are simply a geopolitical chess piece, for whom their fate is to be decided by greater power. But Swaine’s contempt and disregard of small polities caught between the US and China should be clear–Swaine previously made a similar argument regarding Guam, downplaying risks to Guam because China potentially seeks information on US bases there, and Guam could potentially see a preemptive strike by Chinese forces to prevent a US response to an attack on Taiwan.

Likewise, Swaine seems to have a strange understanding of what constitutes reciprocal responses between the US and China. Only the US can do wrong, it seems. According to Swaine, “the United States is arguably the most dangerous driver of potential conflict. This is because Beijing’s red line is much more easily crossed than Washington’s.” Swaine seems to disregard the fact that military exercises directed at Taiwan hardly seems to be a reciprocal response to visits to Taiwan by US politicians such as former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi or more recently the meeting between Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and current Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy in California.

But the silliness of Swaine’s solution to US-China tensions reminds of how advocates of appeasement prior to World War II similarly proposed diplomatic grand solutions that usually did not work. Appeasement is the word of the day then. “Peace for our time,” as Chamberlain’s comment went.

For one, when major powers come to agreements, this is because they see such agreements as mutually beneficial to themselves. At the same time, such powers will continue to contest against each other within the framework of agreements that they themselves ratified–the US pushing against its One China Policy according to present needs, or China shifting its definition of “status quo” in line with its present geopolitical concerns is hardly atypical.

One can expect, in fact, both the US and China to erode their own agreements per the needs of the present moment. And this is nothing particular. Yet states often perceive themselves as only reacting to the other side’s actions violating prior agreements, even when both are probably engaged in such behavior, as to maximize their own interest.

Much hand-waving by Swaine aims to suggest that the US is violating its own Taiwan Relations Act, never mind that the act was probably intended to provide sufficient flexibility for the US in its relation with Taiwan to dial up or back its relations as needed. Swaine seems to misunderstand something childishly fundamental about the way that geopolitics works.

Swaine seems to have the remarkably naive view, then, that states actually can be expected to conform to agreements that they take on out of mutual and genuine good will. As well as that if the US were to back down, China would in turn back down, rather than see a sign of weakness that allows it to further project power globally. Whether the US, China, or any other state, when do states act according to such munificence ever?

Swaine’s worldview, then, in posing the US as the prime mover and apparently the first to violate any agreement is to see China as only static and reactive to the US. On the other hand, it takes two to tango with any bilateral relationship, and it proves strange to see only the US as to blame when China could simply…not conduct threatening military exercises directed at Taiwan, such as the three-day drills simulating a blockade it conducted earlier this week, and instead seek to win over Taiwan through overtures of friendship.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen (left) meeting with US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (right). Photo credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

Swaine also seems to be entirely unaware of when China has itself had a flexible position on Taiwan in the past, such as when China suggested that it would be willing to allow for Taiwanese independence, or that Taiwan was not a particularly large priority.

In this sense, Swaine seems unable to view the world outside of the perspective of great powers. To this extent, Swaine is altogether incredibly US-centric, in failing to consider the agency of Chinese actors–only ever seeing China as reactive to the US, and the US position as subject to flux while taking the view that apparently China’s position has never changed–when it in fact as, as seen in that the PRC did not always stress claims over Taiwan during the Mao period.

This proves the facile viewpoint of Swaine, the Quincy Institute, and their ilk. “Responsible statecraft”, in their words, barely seems to comprehend the basic underlying logic of all states, whether that be the US, China, Taiwan, or any state. Instead, a combination of naivete, magical thinking, and fuzzy thought prevails.

No more articles