That said… even if you take a a very bearish view on China’s medium term economic prospects, the likely path of US-China rivalry remains troubling. As Tanner Greer argues in this excellent new essay
, the nature of this competition is not merely economic (or even technological), but ideological - and the Taiwan question gives it an immediate and dangerous military dimension. As we’ve discussed before
(see also the TiB podcast episodes with Meia Nouwens
and Shashank Joshi
), direct military action by China against Taiwan remains by far the world’s gravest geopolitical threat.
What can and should the US do? Greer argues that we’re at risk of being misled by historical analogies. It’s tempting to see the US-China relationship as a sort of Cold War redux - and to think that the strategies the US deployed successfully against the USSR will enjoy the same results against China today. Greer thinks that’s dangerously wrong. Riffing on this superb piece
by former senior DOD official Keith Payne (which really is a must-read if you’re interested in this sort of thing), Greer argues that “strategic ambiguity
” and deterrence, core pillars of the US’s Taiwan policy, rely on foundations that were present during the Cold War but are missing today.
In particular, Payne notes that strategic ambiguity only works when (a) you can convince your opponent that you might lose control of events and do something that, on the face of it, is irrational (“Mr. Chairman, you will have to take into account the possibility we Americans are just [expletive] fools”, as Dean Rusk told Khrushchev) and (b) you have such military dominance that the uncertainty your ambiguity creates imposes greater costs on your opponents than on yourself. Payne (and Greer) argue that (b) does not apply today in the domain of US-Taiwan policy. Payne concludes:
“The question is whether the current generation of U.S. leaders will… cling to past notions of deterrence as an enduring U.S. birthright that are likely to fail in current circumstances”