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Trump’s Shot Across China’s Bow

Submitted by Daniel Cloud

“Donald Trump is either too incompetent to understand that his foolish phone call threatens our national security, or he’s doing it deliberately because he reportedly wants to build hotels in Taiwan to pad his own pockets.”

       – (Democratic National Committee Spokesperson)

Is that true? Did “incompetent” President-Elect Donald Trump’s “foolish” telephone conversation with Taiwan’s President Cai Yingwen actually “threaten American’s national security”? Is Trump genuinely revealed, by this development, to be a bull in a China shop? If so, we should all be very alarmed.

But in fact… All that seems rather unlikely. Really, it’s more probable that Trump’s phone call has made us all, Americans and Chinese people and everyone else, slightly safer.

How? Carl Von Clausewitz  argued that wars, at their beginning, always involve some sort of misperception. One or both sides must have a false belief that victory will be easy to achieve. If both parties shared the same, accurate estimate of the likely outcome of the war, then the only rational course of action for the inevitable loser would be to make whatever concessions were necessary to avoid an actual fight. Defeat without all the death and destruction of the war may not be a wonderful alternative, but it’s still better than the exact same thing, except with all the death and destruction.

So for a war to start, someone, one side or the other or both, has to make a mistake. How does this sort of huge, consequential blunder ever occur? Estimating an opposing force’s capabilities isn’t easy, but it’s within the range of things humans are capable of, at least on a good day. What seems to be much harder is estimating a potential opponent’s level of commitment to securing a particular outcome.

The Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor which brought America into the Second World War is a familiar example of this common sort of miscalculation. The Japanese knew that if the Americans actually fought back with everything they had, they would win. But they supposed that we wouldn’t see the things at stake as worth fighting an ugly war for. As it turned out, they were fatally wrong.

The wars in Vietnam and Iraq seem to have been examples of similar mistakes on the part of American politicians, who gravely underestimated their opponents’ willingness to carry on an endless fight. This is, in fact, a very typical kind of mistake. Imagining the enemy in some way that would make even rather reckless actions on your part work out well, basically because of some universal human tendency to not take very seriously foreigners who don’t closely resemble your culture’s ideal of an admirable person.

So there’s nothing more likely to cause an unnecessary war than a false appearance of lack of commitment to securing some particular outcome. Because it invites a kind of misperception that people are very prone to anyway. If you would, in the end, when the crunch really came, actually feel compelled to come to the assistance of an ally, if in the end England really would fight to defend France against Hitler, or America really wouldn’t be willing to cede the Pacific to Tojo’s Japan, then there’s nothing that’s more practically important than conveying that fact clearly to potential adversaries.

But have we Americans actually been sending a clear and honest signal of our true level of commitment to defending world peace, lately? Sadly, no. Setting aside the specific details of that very complex situation, one of the risks obviously created by the current administration’s rather laid-back response to the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea was that it seemed to signal a complete lack of commitment to the Wilsonian principles and Realist strategies that had driven American foreign policy for much of the previous century.

We did huffily mention that national borders probably ought to be considered sacrosanct. And, yes, we canceled our participation in the Paralympics, that must have really stung the Russians. There were some other tiny, symbolic sanctions, just insults, really, things that probably made Putin actually laugh out loud when he heard the details… But the kind of vigorous diplomatic response recommended by people like Zbignew Brezinski at the beginning of the crisis just never materialized. If our actual level of commitment to self-determination and the sanctity of international borders is more than none at all, we aren’t really succeeding in sending any very credible signal that that’s so.

So what? The current administration’s ineffectual response to Putin’s gamble must have immediately changed the strategic calculations of many other countries. Post-Soviet Russia wasn’t the only country with unresolved claims on neighboring territories. If the Americans weren’t going to do anything meaningful about the invasion of an ally in Europe, surely their response to similar attempts in less familiar parts of the world would be even more muted… ? But that meant that now, all sorts of ambitious projects which previously hadn’t even seemed worth thinking about might genuinely be possible. And that mere fact, itself, would inevitably change the politics of the discussion about what to do about America, would strengthen the hand of those who argued that we were in irreversible decline (again, for real this time) and could be dealt with much more aggressively now.

An immediate loss of diplomatic traction on other smaller issues was the most visible consequence of this revision. If the only actual effect of invading a large European democracy was that Samantha Power (but not John Kerry) would un-friend you on Facebook, why pay any attention at all to what the Americans thought about Syria? Just turn the volume down on that channel, and begin arranging things there in whatever way you find most satisfactory.

But the invisible consequences were probably even more dangerous. Suddenly China’s government had to confront the question of what they would do about the politics of Asia – under the very unfamiliar assumption that the Americans might not really do anything to defend Taiwan, if they actually did choose to make a play for it. After all, Ukraine was a legitimate, universally recognized democracy, located right in the middle of Europe. If the Americans were unwilling to do anything meaningful about a Russian invasion there, why would you expect them to fight to defend a small Asian island which even they no longer recognized as a genuine, independent state, and which relatively few Americans could actually locate on a map?

It’s hard for most foreigners to really appreciate the emotional importance of recovering Taiwan in the Chinese political universe. To get a little bit of an American equivalent of what the feeling is, it’s as if at some point, in the middle of various other grave national catastrophes, Florida had been invaded and conquered by Castro’s Cuba, which still controlled it to this day.  Imagine the speeches in Congress, lamenting this outcome and berating the government for doing nothing to fix it. Actually, the Taiwan situation is probably, for various reasons, even more upsetting than that would be, but still, it should be possible to imagine how important the recovery of Florida would then become to American politicians.

So the re-conquest of Taiwan is something that Chinese politicians, if they want to go on being Chinese politicians, really have to show commitment to. But until Russia annexed Crimea, it seemed completely impossible to actually do anything about it, because of the obviously impassable obstacle of the American Seventh Fleet. Now, however, not only was it possible to adopt the hypothesis that America would do nothing to defend its allies – it was also easy to generate additional evidence apparently supporting that hypothesis. Empirically, ramping up diplomatic and diplomatic-military assaults on China’s Asian neighbors – aggressively challenging Japan, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, etc. for various symbolically important though practically useless scraps of territory – seemed to produce no meaningful response at all from Obama’s America. So the hand of the Chinese faction that argues that America can only be supplanted as the world’s greatest power peacefully, by mutually beneficial economic development and continued internal reform, must have been greatly weakened by the events in Ukraine.

Presumably what still kept China’s military strategists from seriously contemplating a war to recover Taiwan was the fact that, even if the American will to defend Taiwan was completely nonexistent, even if we remained supinely neutral all through a war, they would still very probably lose it. The Japanese are much too close to Taiwan to simply ignore an invasion. It would seem obvious to everyone that they were next. So they would probably fight to defend Taiwan even if America didn’t. (We would be pretty alarmed by a Chinese military invasion of Mexico, or Canada, so imagine how Japan would feel about an invasion of their nearest neighbor.) Opposed by the combined Taiwanese and Japanese navies and air forces, an amphibious assault on Taiwan would be extraordinarily difficult to accomplish, and the attempt would very probably fail.

You can’t invade by submarine. Taiwan is a hundred and ten miles from the Chinese mainland, so crossing the ocean, on the surface, in the face of an enemy who will probably have air superiority, and will certainly have plenty of anti-ship missiles, is not a trivial exercise. Japan has a very serious navy, smaller than the Chinese navy but of higher quality. Attacking is always harder than defending, and an amphibious assault is even harder to accomplish. Hitler, with all his advantages, never made it across the much smaller English Channel.

Meanwhile, while gambling for this largely symbolic victory and probably losing, the Chinese would permanently destroy their ability to participate in world trade, and very possibly end their otherwise unstoppable rise towards international economic dominance. Japan would immediately test a nuclear weapon.

So it would have been kind of crazy for them to actually attempt to take advantage of America’s new, more relaxed attitude towards the sanctity of international borders by invading Taiwan. But this sort of misperception, unopposed, a perception that a potential opponent is weak or already intimidated, can eventually acquire an unstoppable political momentum of its own. Even if Taiwan itself couldn’t actually be grabbed, still, given our apparent indifference or fear of confrontation, there might be much to be gained by conquering smaller, less significant islands, by occupying Jackson Atoll, or the Senkakus, or the Spratlys.

This kind of purely symbolic victory is mostly desirable because the gain in reputation by those who accomplish it is useful in internal political contests. If your political opponents are freely counting coup on the Americans, failure to do so yourself can lead to a fatal loss of prestige. Since there was no discernable cost, our response to Putin, and the general approach to diplomacy that produced that response, made it inevitable that competing to put a clown nose on the face of America would become an increasingly important aspect of Chinese politics. But history shows us that this is a kind of competition that can easily get out of hand.

And, to come back to what Clausewitz said, actually, starting a war is always kind of crazy, is always a mistake on someone’s part. So it’s no sure guarantee of peace that it would be crazy for the Chinese to start a war over Taiwan. It was crazy for the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. When open aggression meets with no resistance, even very fanciful ideas about a potential opponent’s weakness or lack of commitment can become publicly persuasive. We can hope that all of our potential adversaries will always be perfectly rational, but if we really want to avoid wars, we can also help them out by sending clear, honest, and unmistakable signals of commitment.

After all, it was never really true that the United States would simply abandon Taiwan and then Japan to their fates, inviting an East Asian nuclear apocalypse and ending our role as the dominant Pacific naval power, in order to avoid becoming involved in a war we could certainly win. At some points in the process of lurching towards a war, we might convince ourselves that we would stay neutral, but in fact we can’t. We wouldn’t be able to sustain that approach, it’s politically impossible, as impossible as it ultimately was to stay out of the war against Japan in the 1940’s. One of the things that would make it politically impossible is the ease with which the American navy could destroy the Chinese navy, should that become a regrettable necessity.

So we aren’t doing China any favors by presenting an appearance of being intimidated by, or even indifferent to, their bluster. The effect of this sort of lack of clarity on them will either be nothing, or else a small chance of luring them into an unwise, unnecessary and mutually destructive war. It’s the sort of misguided deference we showed to Saddam Hussein before his ill-fated invasion of Kuwait. Think of how many people who are now dead would still be alive, if only we’d been a little ruder then.

As far as I can tell, Trump’s purely symbolic shot across the bow, as an answer to all of China’s more-or-less purely symbolic boundary pushing in the Western Pacific, should, in fact, actually help the Chinese stay out of trouble, by putting them on notice that actions do have consequences, that there actually are costs to trying to repeatedly pin a clown nose on the sheriff. If they keep trying to take over the utterly worthless Senkaku Islands, it should be obvious now that they’ll only hurt themselves, that they’ll only make it that much more likely that America will eventually recognize an independent Taiwan. Which, given the way things are now developing in Hong Kong, we really might be morally obliged to do anyway, if the Taiwanese ever actually did decide to opt for independence.

So, no, actually the conversation with Taiwan’s president doesn’t really tell us any of the things about Trump that the DNC said it does. But that doesn’t mean their statement is completely devoid of useful information. What the DNC is really telling us, and the world, is something else, something rather important. There’s none of the forgiveness that would be extended to someone who spoke to, say, the Dalai Lama over China’s no doubt equally strenuous objections. There’s no concession, here, to the aspirations of the people of Taiwan, or the legitimacy of their democratically elected leader. No thought that China’s attitude towards any recognition of those aspirations is perhaps too harsh, or unreasonable. There are no moral complexities at all. Taiwan is simply to be shunned, ostracized, because China’s wrath is somehow morally authoritative.

What they’re really doing is tacitly reminding us – if this wasn’t already perfectly obvious from the last sixteen years of world history – that American politics no longer stops at the water’s edge. And the ultimate consequences of that development are completely unfathomable

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