Shadow Government

(Why) should America abandon Taiwan?

Taiwan's upcoming elections on January 14th look set to be a close-run thing. In the presidential contest, incumbent Ma Ying-Jeou's Kuomintang (KMT) is locked in a tight race with Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Less important than the policy specifics of who prevails is the spectacle of a lively, democratic election in a free Chinese society. Taiwanese may rightly fear China's overweening military power and growing economic leverage. But it is rulers in Beijing who will watch nervously as citizens across the Taiwan Strait who look like them, speak their language, and share their culture freely and peacefully choose their leaders.

Unlike a senior Obama administration official -- who last September used an interview with the Financial Times to inappropriately inject Washington into Taiwanese domestic politics by suggesting that the United States did not believe Tsai Ing-wen was ready to govern - most Shadow Government types presumably hold no position on who should win on January 14th. The election is an opportunity, however, to highlight a troubling argument in American foreign policy circles over whether Taiwan has become a strategic liability for the United States.

A gathering debate is underway in Washington over whether Taiwan is a spoiler, rather than a partner, in America's Asia strategy as President Obama continues the efforts of Presidents Bush and Clinton to "pivot" towards the region.

The core of this argument assumes that relations between the United States and mainland China will define the 21st century -- and that they should not be held hostage to the legacy of the civil war between Chinese Nationalists and Communists in the 1940s. Why should Washington risk its relationship with the rising superpower of 1.3 billion people over its ties to a small island nation of only 23 million, given the high military and economic stakes for the United States of a conflicted relationship with Beijing? In this view, China and America could enjoy a fruitful partnership if only the thorn in the side of the relationship posed by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan could be removed. Without arms sales, of course, Taiwan would have no choice but to rapidly accept the mainland's terms for unification, irrespective of the views of the Taiwanese people.

But arguments to let Taiwan go get strategy backwards. First, cutting off an old U.S. ally at a time of rising tensions with an assertive China might do less to appease Beijing than to encourage its hopes to bully the United States into a further retreat from its commitments in East Asia. Second, it would transform the calculus of old American allies, like South Korea and Australia, who might plausibly wonder whether the U.S. commitment to their security is as flexible as it was towards Taiwan.  

In particular, Japan, the United States' most important ally in Asia, may have few viable strategic options to maintain an independent foreign policy without a free Taiwan. As China's military power casts a growing shadow over its neighbors, Japan's capacity to maintain strategic choice may hinge on Taiwan's ability to retain autonomy from the mainland in ways that preclude a hostile China from projecting military power from Taiwan into the sea lanes that are the Japanese economy's lifeline.

Third, abandoning Taiwan would upend the calculations of new U.S. partners like India and Vietnam, whose leaders have made a bet on U.S. staying power and the associated benefits of strengthening relations with America as a hedge against China. Fourth, such preemptive surrender would reinforce what remains more a psychological than a material reality of China emerging as a global superpower of America's standing -- which it is not and may never be. Finally, and most importantly, it would resurrect the ghosts of Munich and Yalta, where great powers decided the fate of lesser nations without reference to their interests - or the human consequences of offering them up to satisfy the appetites of predatory great powers.

Taiwan's people may one day vote to reunify with (a politically liberalizing) China. The choice should be left to the Chinese and Taiwanese people, acting through legitimately elected leaders. That's why Taiwan's election this week -- made possible by a regional security environment underwritten by the United States and its allies -- is strategically significant, irrespective of who prevails.


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Shadow Government

Why we need to move beyond the "Two War" doctrine

My colleagues have offered good criticisms of the defense budget and strategy unveiled by President Obama and Secretary Panetta last week. Let me add to the chorus with two more points.

First, the defense strategy is an explicit and unfortunate rejection of parts of the Quadrennial Defense Review completed less than two years ago by former Undersecretary Michelle Flournoy. The QDR rightly, repeatedly, and explicitly argued that the United States needs to retain a large-scale stability operations capability. "The United States must retain the capability to conduct large-scale counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations" (emphasis added). "DoD will continue to place special emphasis on stability operations," because stability missions will be a permanent requirement of the 21st century environment. "Stability operations, large-scale counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism operations are not niche challenges...Nor are these types of operations a transitory or anomalous phenomenon in the security landscape." That is why "U.S. military forces must plan and prepare to prevail in a broad range of operations...Such operations include...conducting large-scale stability operations."

The new defense strategy, by contrast, openly admits that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations."

The abandonment of a decade's worth of investment and grinding experience in stability operations is a dangerous risk that willfully ignores the realities of the contemporary security environment. Weak and failing states, and the rogue actors who operate within them, represent a real threat to regional and global stability. In response, the  U.S. and UN have launched more than two dozen stabilization and reconstruction efforts between them since the Cold War -- averaging about one per year -- and there is no sign that demand for such operations is easing. We have gradually and painfully improved our ability to execute such missions, and they are a real contribution to U.S. national security. Cutting back on stability operations now will throw away our hard-fought gains and expose us to new risks from across the globalizing, fragile world.

My second criticism of the new defense strategy, and some responses to it, is that it is still captive to the decades-old debate about how many wars we need to fight simultaneously. Since World War II, U.S. military planners have argued that we need to fight two major theater wars at the same time. The two-war doctrine has become something like Holy Writ or an idée fixe. The idea was somewhat well-founded during the Cold War when we plausibly could have faced simultaneous crises in, for example, Germany and Korea, or Germany and Cuba.

However, holding onto this idea for the last twenty years has looked increasingly disconnected from reality. Obama's new strategy goes through contortions to claim that we will, sort of, maybe, continue to be able to almost fight and nearly win two wars at the same time. But it fails, like every defense strategy has for two decades, to explain why this precise formulation is worth defending.

In fact the two-war strategy is the textbook definition of fighting the last war: rather, fighting three or four wars ago. World War II was precisely the contingency during which we were compelled to fight two major theater wars at the same time. Ever since we won that war, we've been unable to free ourselves from the intellectual construct of preparing to fight it all over again. It is always tempting to relive your glory days.

Today's security environment is dramatically different. First, we face the possibility major conventional military crises in not two theaters, but five, as the number of nuclear-armed authoritarian powers hostile to the United States grows each decade. Second, in addition to however many conventional wars we might have to fight, we need to prepare against the aforementioned threats from failed states and rogue actors. In other words, "war" is not a monolithic unit against which we can raise a predetermined number of troops.

The answer is not to concoct a five-war strategy. In the face of this security environment, preparing to fight a set number of conventional wars at the same time (Two? One-and-a-half?) simply misses the point. The best response I've seen yet is Michael O'Hanlon's insightful recommendation to adopt a "one plus two" strategy: that is, one major war and up to two contingencies or stability operations. I'd probably differ with O'Hanlon on the numbers (we might need "two plus two"), or even add another tier to make a "one plus one plus two" -- meaning one major land-based conventional war, one major air or littoral action, and two stability operations. But the point is that our defense strategy should be framed around the actual threats we face and the actual capabilities we need, rather than a template slapped down from 1942.

In the end, I expect that regardless of the rhetoric, what the U.S. will end up doing, no matter who is president, is this: we'll reduce our standing, peace-time overseas presence in Europe and East Asia, and cut the overall size of the Army and Marine Corps. We'll slow down the pace of technological innovation and weapons procurement. But we'll keep the forward deployed equipment and bases, overseas infrastructure, and training capacity to rapidly raise and deploy a major land army anywhere in the world. We'll also keep air force and navy pretty much as is, since they are harder to recreate rapidly. That will enable us to continue to meet our current obligations around the world, or at least claim to, at the price of higher risk and bloodier wars. That's basically the Obama strategy. If conservatives are serious about offering a critique of it, we need to come up with a compelling alternative.

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