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The Next Thirty Years' Peace in Asia

Eric B. Brown

I want to thank the Taiwan Congressional Caucus for hosting this discussion on “Asia’s Next Thirty Years Peace” and what it will require.

This is exactly the right subject to be discussing  especially now with the situations in the East China and South China Seas approaching a boil.  Territorial disputes are nothing new to the West Pacific.  But given the military build-up in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Beijing’s newfound reliance on coercive diplomacy to press its claims against its neighbors, Asia is programmed to become a much more competitive place in years ahead.

I also believe the Taiwan Caucus is exactly the right forum to be having a discussion such as this.  The U.S.-Taiwan relationship has been a pillar of the security order which has sustained the previous three decades of general peace and unprecedented prosperity in Asia.  Nowadays, however, there’s a new order taking shape, and Taiwan’s place in this new order is increasingly in doubt.

Already, Taiwan has become, at best, something of an afterthought in the everyday U.S. policy discussions on Asia’s future.  Given Taiwan’s small size, especially when compared to the massive PRC, this may be understandable.

But this also gives short shrift to the island of Taiwan’s strategic location, as well as its unique potential as a Chinese-speaking democracy to influence the course of Asian affairs, including future political developments on the mainland.  Not appreciating this fully will have deleterious consequences for U.S. policy in the region.

Even more worrisome, however, has been the creeping acceptability of the idea that the U.S.‘s long-established security relationship with Taiwan is placing us on a collision course with an ever-more powerful PRC.

Not long ago, we might’ve chalked this talk up as the opinions of those who don’t actually have to think about what it means to exercise power responsibly. But now the reality is different. The argument that the U.S. should draw down our support for Taiwan is now being made by influential people and in some of our nation’s most prestigious journals and institutions.

These are unsettling realities, not least because they raise a big question mark over the fate of Asia’s democracies like Taiwan and, indeed, over the very liberal order and peace which has nourished Asia’s Rise in recent decades.

I’ll say something about this, but first, I’d like to say something about the primary challenge to the general peace in Asia today; that is, the PRC.

Internationally, the PRC has been enormously successful at shaping the terms with which the world at large has made sense of and responded to its rise.  My colleague Charles Horner uses the late Fred Iklé‘s brilliantly succinct phrase “semantic infiltration” to describe this, and it is a technique which congressional staffers should understand well: Control the discourse and the terms of the debate, and you can have real influence over political outcomes.

Charles has cited the PRC’s policy of “re-unifying” with Taiwan as a prime example of semantic infiltration. Taiwan, as we know, hasn’t for a single moment been part of the PRC regime; as such, “re-unification” is a distinct impossibility. Forty years ago, no one spoke of Taiwan re-joining China because no one thought in these terms.  But now, the concept of “reunification” frames everyday discussions in Beijing, in Taipei, and also here in Washington, and it thus dominates the triangular relationship that now governs cross-straits affairs.

We might readily concede that the concept of “reunification” has proven a politically useful and expedient way for East Asian diplomacy to “manage” the complicated cross-straits peace.   But let’s remember, such talk of “reunification” also conditions popular expectations about the future on all sides.  Inevitably, diplomatic custom always outlives its utility, normally when the security order that sustains such diplomacy is overtaken by new strategic developments  such as, for example, the dramatic military build-up of the PRC.

When such changes in the strategic game occur, it is not the high opinion of diplomats which matters most, but the popular expectations about the future, about how it should be, which drives political behavior.

In my view, the potentially most dangerous aspect of the PRC’s semantic infiltration is its ability to seamlessly conflate the Beijing regime with China itself.  People the world over, regardless of what they think about the “China Question,” routinely speak of the “PRC” and China Proper as if the two are in fact One.  Yet there are differences between them which matter.

The PRC refers to a particular set of ruling institutions and political arrangements. It is not the first regime to claim to rule over China, nor will it be the last.

Of course, it is not always easy to separate between the two.  The PRC’s rise as a strategically consequential force in Asia has only been possible by the opening-up and economic take-off of China itself.  However, while the two are not entirely separable, China’s re-emergence and the rise of the PRC are different, and they have very different implications for Asia’s security and peace.

There’s a good historical argument to be made that general peace in Asia is a direct function of whether peace exists on the mainland; when China is in chaos, Asia slips into chaos, etc.  Surely, the relative stability and economic development on the Asian mainland since the late 1970s has been an important condition of the last three decades of peace.

With the PRC regime, by contrast, the U.S. and our Asian allies, as well as the PRC’s other neighbors, finds themselves increasingly in a strategic competition over how Asia as a whole should best be organized.

What’s also clear is that the PRC, far from being one with China, is itself in a long-term competition with China. Consider, as but one example, recently leaked information which suggests the PRC employs about three percent of the total Chinese population to spy on other Chinese.  If this is true, the PRC now possesses the largest domestic spy service ever assembled in history.  Per capita, it is larger than the informant network run by the East German Stasi in its heyday.

All of this exists to enable what the PRC Leninist State desires above all else: that is, to maintain its monopoly on power.

Despite this, the PRC’s official discourse insists that it and China are the same. The Communist Party, as such, complains everyday that America’s unstated policy is to “Contain China’s Rise.“  We hear this, and variations on this, repeated all the time  that the U.S. meddles in internal Chinese affairs, that the U.S. is an imperialist that’s unwelcome in China’s neighborhood, that the U.S. is trying to keep China down, that the U.S. is irreconcilably anti-China.

Of course, the historical record shows the opposite is true.  Far from seeking to inhibit China’s rise, American policy and also our unofficial engagement in Asia for much of the last 80 years, if not longer, has actively encouraged it.

We not only came to China’s defense in the struggle against Imperial Japan, but in 1945, when the U.S. undertook to rebuild the world after part of it consumed itself in war, we pressed hard to provide the Republic of China, which was then still very much in chaos, with a seat on the U.N. Security Council and thus, with a leadership role in the new world order which was supposed to be.

It wasn’t the U.S. which turned on China.  It was, in 1949, the newly ascendant and revolutionary PRC, led by Mao Zedong, which undertook to drive China against the U.S. as well as the rest of Asia.

We opposed this first in Korea, and then again in Southeast Asia, and the U.S. Grand Strategy for Asia ever since has sought to counter revolutionary and totalitarian politics while actively fostering and maintaining the conditions for peace, and specifically, a liberal peace which is good for commerce among nations, good for the development of viable states, and ultimately, good for the development of democracies like our own.

What’s remarkable is just how successful and truly beneficial this strategy has been  for the whole of Asia Pacific, including for China.  Indeed, the U.S. has been directly responsible for shaping the most benign security environment in East Asia that the Chinese mainland has seen since the mid-nineteenth century, when the Manchu Empire faced the arrival of European colonizers and an increasingly hostile Japan.

In the 1970s, it was this benign security environment which helped persuade the PRC’s rulers who had become aware of the failure of their revolution that they not only should, but in factcould, scrap the Maoist system.  And once the PRC began to accommodate to and permit China’s integration with Asia’s then emerging liberal order, the so-called Rise of China was started.

This gets us to what is at once so perplexing and troubling about the PRC’s efforts of late to upset the peace.  The Beijing regime seems apparently intent on disentangling itself from the very liberal order and peace which made China’s ascent up from the depravity and backwardness that the PRC once systematically imposed on it possible in the first place.

If this liberal order is replaced, is the general peace in Asia even possible? Right now, there are a number of proposals on offer about how best to accommodate the PRC’s growing power so as to reduce the U.S. competition with it and thereby, at least in theory, lengthen the peace in the region. The most sophisticated of these proposals call for the creation of a “Concert of Asia” led by a new “G2 Entente” between Washington and Beijing.  These may be serious proposals, which deserve to be taken seriously.

What’s striking, however, is how such proposals almost seem to unthinkingly accept the terms proffered by PRC, including on the question of Taiwan.  For example, any new agreement with the PRC in Asia would necessarily require that the U.S. accommodate what Beijing claims as its “core interests,” and that would mean capitulation on Taiwan and elsewhere in the South China Sea.

The power of such proposals is formidable, and they’ve led to growing calls for the U.S. to withdraw from Taiwan. Indeed, so strong is the desire not only for peace, but for these particular peace plans to work that, already, alarm has been raised that we Americans won’t find it within ourselves to accommodate to the PRC’s legitimate and merely “regional” aspirations.  Thus, because of American intractability, the argument holds that war in Asia becomes more likely.

In effect, this logic stands the security order that has sustained Asia’s peace on its head: It is now the U.S.‘s relationship with Taiwan, not the territorial ambitions of a rising PRC, which presents the greatest threat to Asian peace.

But let’s consider, for a moment, what might happen if the U.S. does abandon Taiwan to the PRC.  This requires that we leave aside the question of whether the One Party dictatorship on the mainland even has the capacity to politically or administratively swallow a democratic society like Taiwan’s.

Instead, imagine that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) sets up a naval base on Taiwan, which then becomes Beijing’s unsinkable aircraft carrier, and which thereby fundamentally reshapes the strategic architecture of the West Pacific as we know it.

The U.S., in such a scenario, has become very much an offshore balancer. Optimistic assessments will hold that the U.S. will still be able to maintain some semblance of a liberal order in Asia and will be able, from afar, to re-assure democratic allies like Japan and South Korea.  But will we really?

In this future, the more appropriate question is not whether the U.S. can accommodate the PRC in the South China Sea and then balance against it elsewhere, but whether the PRC can be reliable peacemaker in the new regional order, and whether it could bring itself to accept other countries as equals in that new order.  What would it want, and how would it behave?

We know from the PRC itself that it won’t, because it can’t, countenance Taiwan as an equal. How, then, would it treat democratic Japan?  Or South Korea?  And what about all the other established commercial democracies and the emerging ones which have benefited, and still benefit, from the liberal order?

In such a future, America’s increasing isolation from Asia wouldn’t be so splendid after all.  In all likelihood, the risk of friction with the PRC, and of outright conflict, wouldn’t shrink, but would instead increase.  Indeed, any honest answer to whether such a G2 Concert of Asia could generate the conditions for peace needs first to consider the nature of the PRC itself.

As was suggested earlier, the PRC exists to maintain its monopoly on power. It says this in its Leninist charter, and it makes this abundantly clear by the actions which it takes everyday to sustain its rule over China.  The tenuous nature of the PRC’s rule at home has implications for its international conduct.

To illustrate what I mean, consider another thought experiment. What would happen if it was the Republic of China (RoC) government on Taiwan, not the PRC, which governed China?   At a bare minimum, we could say that all citizens of this New China, could vote directly for their president and an administration in regular and free, multi-party elections.  They could send representatives to the national legislature.  They could elect their own mayors.  If any of these elected representatives hoarded power, or grew corrupt, they’d be voted out of office.

What’s more, China’s minorities, such as the Uighurs and Tibetans, would live like the aborigines on Taiwan do today: free to practice their religion, to sustain their cultures, so long as this doesn’t conflict with law and their obligations as democratic citizens.

This really isn’t such a fantastical experiment. The Nobel Prize winner and National Endowment for Democracy-grantee Liu Xiaobo among thousands of others have proposed exactly this in the so-called Charter ’08, and for this, the PRC has locked Liu and others up for inciting subversion of state power.

If the PRC is willing to treat its own subjects like this, what kind of power can we realistically expect it will be elsewhere in Asia, especially as its Will to Rule chafes up against the liberal order? The nature of the regime has consequences for the kind of strategic actor it will be, and for the kind of order it will seek to create.  The PRC now, as in the future, must set the terms and conditions of China’s integration with the liberal order in Asia, because China fully integrated with the liberal order will mean the unraveling of the PRC itself.

Ultimately, securing this Asian Peace will require planning for a militarily-strong PRC with territorial ambitions as well for one whose rule is falling apart.  Beijing, as I said, is itself in a long-term competition with China, and given the current configuration of power between them, it doesn’t seem all that likely that the PRC can win.  Today, there’s a good amount of well-informed speculation that Beijing’s bluster in the West Pacific is meant to mask intra-Party fights that have broken out in the lead-up to the power transition that’s scheduled to happen soon.  Given the enormous upheaval in China itself, we can say with some confidence that a new change in the governing arrangement is on the horizon.

Indeed, when one considers the major political shifts which have taken place in modern Chinese historyfrom May 1919 to the founding of PRC in 1949; from the ascent of Mao in 1949 to Deng Xiaoping’s rise in 1979; and from China’s opening to the liberal order in 1979 to the rise, in 2009, of a PRC which is seeking to replace the Asian Peace as we know itthese things do tend to run in cycles of thirty years.  So perhaps we’re due for something new.

This is, of course, not to say that we’re on the cusp of a democratic transformation in China. As we’ve been reminded by the uprisings in the Middle East, popular upheaval and the advance of popular sovereignty does not a democracy, or even a cohesive country, make.

But all this does serve to underscore what securing the next thirty years peace in Asia may require.  It goes beyond shoring-up our alliances and re-assuring our protectorates via military re-balancing.  As crucial as this is to do, and to do right with adequate resourcing, we also require a non-kinetic, political strategy that’s designed to keep the liberal order intact and to keep Asia safe for the continued, peaceful development of commercial democracy.

One central U.S. task, then, is to work in concert with our Asian allies to do what we can to insure that the next political evolution that occurs on the mainland is a real step-up from the PRC regime which exists now. If the next governing arrangement in China is in a better place politically than that will do more than anything else to preserve the general peace in Asia.

This is where I think Taiwan’s role is potentially indispensable. Far from being a strategic liability for the U.S. in the emerging Asian order, Taiwan has a potentially unique, perhaps even game-changing role to play.  As a Chinese-speaking democracy, it has a special opportunity to become a viable model for China’s evolution, and to help enlighten the political institutions and future course of affairs on the mainland.

I say Taiwan may potentially play this role but, as of now, it is not clear it will choose to do so.  Indeed, for some Taiwanese, and also for some Americans, there’s concern  and concern which isn’t entirely unwarranted, in my opinion  that the democracy on Taiwan may not prove robust enough to remain a pillar of the liberal order in Asia.  But in previous eras, Taiwan has helped to show China that there’s a better way forward, and it may yet do this again  perhaps especially if the U.S. also proves our robust commitment to democracy by renewing and deepening our relationships with the RoC.

The role of the U.S. Congress here is vitally important. Numerous discussions around our city are susceptible to the semantic infiltration which makes us forgetful of how dependent the Asian peace actually is on the Asian liberal order.  Of all the institutions of American Government, Congress can and must remain vigilant against this.  In the 1970s, the U.S. rushed to normalize relations with Beijing for entirely legitimate geopolitical reasons, but in our haste, we also almost deserted Taiwan.  Thanks to a bipartisan effort in Congress, the U.S.-RoC relationship was salvaged with the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, a cornerstone of the Asian order that sustained the last thirty years peace. It was this liberal order that created the conditions for Taiwan’s democratic transformation, a political transformation which now may help to enlighten the way forward to a new and durable peace in Asia.

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