David Rothkopf

Can the U.S. afford to continue supporting Taiwan?

In the past few days, the Obama team has alienated Republicans by showing them to be the empty poseurs that they are, the EU by deciding not to attend their summit later this year, and the green community by apparently backing away from including cap-and-trade revenues in the upcoming budget and thus sending a message ...

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images
SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

In the past few days, the Obama team has alienated Republicans by showing them to be the empty poseurs that they are, the EU by deciding not to attend their summit later this year, and the green community by apparently backing away from including cap-and-trade revenues in the upcoming budget and thus sending a message that they’re no longer expecting them. 

But of all the alienating that has taken place in the past week, the most meaningful has to do with the president’s decision to send $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan and the resulting, inevitable Chinese pique at the U.S. action. According to the foreign ministry, the step "constitutes a gross intervention into China’s internal affairs."  They’re "extremely indignant."

Frankly, following the administration’s unsteady performance with China during its first year in office, this willingness to stand up to the Chinese is welcome. On the President’s China trip and throughout last year, the Obama team seemed altogether too passive in accepting criticisms from a Chinese government that lives in a Forbidden City full of glass houses. They may be gaining strength but clearly their economic policies are compromised by corruption, a weak banking system, a real estate bubble, and the manipulation of their currency. Their businesses and their people are hampered by their efforts at censorship and their continuing readiness to employ authoritarian tactics. Their foreign policy consists of a willingness to engage when it is in their interest but not to play any kind of real leadership role on global issues where their intervention could be key — from Iranian nukes to combating climate change. 

They are an important partner to the United States on many issues but they are one that is deeply flawed and unsure of themselves. They know they are changing. They know they need to change. But they are unsure how rapidly they can go or in what direction those changes may take them.

China will not be influenced by carrots or kindness alone. Indeed, cozying up to the Chinese leadership will be ineffective with a hard-nosed government motivated by a laser-like focus on national self-interest. For example, they will complain about America’s arms sale to Taiwan or our recent criticism of their Internet policies, but they won’t let it derail the relationship. Because their growth and national stability depends on us even more than we depend on them for the capital to finance our debt — although we ought to focus more on the symbiosis that is required by circumstance and less on who has the edge.

All this is to commend the Obama administration for its resolute stance with regard to the Chinese these past few weeks. Having said that, I’m concerned that we are likely to fall victim to several traps.

Beating up on the Chinese is as popular with the Democratic base as beating up on Arabs is to Republicans or beating up on Mexicans is to border-state populists and the thankfully now relatively silent and almost forgotten Lou Dobbs. The problem is, letting the domestic politics of having a whipping boy drive foreign policy is dangerous and on some key issues, like trade, the temptation is likely to be so great that it stands as the single biggest threat to President Obama’s surprising State of the Union goal of doubling U.S. exports and strengthening the international trading system. It is a treacherously tempting (and I would say rather likely) first step on a protectionist slippery slope that would make the half pipe at the recently concluded X-Games look slow and shallow.

Another problem is that we need to avoid demagoguing the issue of Taiwan. While many in the U.S. feel that Taiwan, as a democracy, deserves our unquestioning support and that the island nation affords us an "aircraft carrier" just off the Chinese coast, it is not clear to me that this particular issue should be allowed to play as big a role as it has in the past in coloring the U.S.-China relationship. 

Taiwan is small. It offers us very little in the way of true strategic advantages (in the final analysis, it really is China’s for the taking … and it is certainly not worth going to war for regardless of what U.S. rhetoric has been for decades). Further, our policy does not really bear too much scrutiny.  Imagine, for a moment, if the Chinese were to make a $6.4 billion arms sale to Cuba as part of a program to provide them with a strategic foothold just off our shores. We’ve been down that road before. We know how the U.S. would react. While I believe that there is a certain place in foreign policy for a modicum of well-thought-out hypocrisy (a fairly prominent place, usually), we have to realize that this issue is a potential distraction from much bigger questions.

It is one of those issues for the Taiwanese and the Chinese to work out among themselves. Just as are the issues between China and Tibet. Just as are countless other border issues of nothing more than regional significance … unless we continue to choose, in our desire to aggrandize our role on the planet in Yertle the Turtle fashion to involving all issues we survey. Should we support democracy everywhere? Yes. Are we willing to go to war everywhere to defend it? No. Should we support international efforts to preserve the rights of minorities and small states against bullying neighbors? Yes. Is it up to the U.S. to be the last bulwark of defense for all those states (especially the ones that have movie stars or highly-financed lobbies behind them)? No.

We are entering The Era of Limits for the United States. We can only actively get involved in those few places where our vital strategic interests are involved and where involvement will actually advance those interests. That should mean a spring cleaning of the attic of U.S. foreign policy and an effort to identify vestigial positions we can no longer afford to support. This will mean some wrenching decisions … and in some cases, it’s probably just as well we keep our changed policies to ourselves. But we don’t have the balance sheet we once had.  Economic trends are not in our favor on that front.  And so we have to accept that we simply can’t afford to be the country we once were … or over-reaching will prove to be the ultimate threat to our security.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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