What country does the US fail to officially recognize, and yet is legally bound to defend?
The answer is Taiwan, otherwise known as the Republic of China (ROC), a country born as the last redoubt of Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist army, which fled to the island in 1949 after being routed on the mainland by the Peoples Liberation Army. There the Nationalists, and their successors, have languished ever since – succored and defended by the US government. While our relationship with the real China is too important to endanger by granting official recognition to the ROC, US support for Taiwan has been generous, consistent, and long-standing.
Long before there was an Israel lobby worth noticing, the infamous China lobby wreathed its multiple tentacles around official Washington, wielding an influence that was very often decisive. During the late forties and fifties, Taiwan’s lobby was a major force on the American right, wielding inordinate power – and backed up by large sums of money – in an effort to secure their lifeline to US subsidies and protection. Alfred Kohlberg – an importer and businessman with extensive investments in China – and his allies funded various ultra-conservative groupings in the US, funneling money from Taiwanese government sources to lobbying efforts aimed at supporting Taiwan. Kohlberg, with the aid of Senator Joseph McCarthy, whipped up anti-Communist hysteria to the point where Congress investigated the Institute on Pacific Relations (IPR), which opposed support to Taiwan, targeting it as a "Communist front." The Kohlberg-McCarthy campaign portrayed the State Department and academia as riddled with pro-Communists, traitors intent on having the US abandon the Nationalists, thus giving Mao’s Communists free rein in China.
As Murray Rothbard points out in The Betrayal of the American Right, the China lobby was instrumental in steering the Republican party out of the "isolationist" (i.e. anti-interventionist) position it had taken during the Thirties and early Forties, and propelling it into the cold war years and beyond as the party of untrammeled aggression.
In any case, the power of the China lobby waned during the Nixon years and the rapprochement with Mao, but the lobby still had enough power to ensure passage, in 1979, of the Taiwan Relations Act. The Act stipulates that the United States will "consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States." Furthermore, the Act requires the US “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character,” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
In short, we are "legally" required to go to war with China in the event Beijing tries to take back their breakaway province, a possibility that has been raised several times in the past half century or so – and could easily arise again.
While the power of Taiwan’s lobby has long since waned, the arms manufacturers who derive a regular source of income from the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act – Lockheed-Martin, United Technologies, Boeing, and Raytheon – employ a powerful Washington lobby that doubtless had a major hand in getting the go-ahead for the $6.4 billion arms deal. That’s what Washington is all about: the national interest has little if anything to do with it. As long as the merchants of death make huge profits – while the rest of the country is slipping into an economic depression – that’s all anyone in the Imperial City cares about.
China has reacted with ill-concealed rage, breaking off its limited military cooperation with the US, and threatening sanctions against American companies involved in the deal. Most notable, however, is not the content but the intensity of Beijing’s protest, as reported in the Washington Post, over a headline detailing how "China’s Strident Tone Raises Concern Among Western Governments, Analysts":
"China’s indignant reaction to the announcement of U.S. plans to sell weapons to Taiwan appears to be in keeping with a new triumphalist attitude from Beijing that is worrying governments and analysts across the globe."
Ever since the end of the cold war, the US has stood astride the globe triumphantly proclaiming its "right" to attack any nation, anywhere, for any reason, "preemptively" – but it’s the Chinese who are the "triumphalists"!
To put the issue in proper perspective: Imagine if Texas governor Rick Perry carried out his half-serious suggestion that Texas secede from the Union, and China opted to sell the Republic of Texas $6 billion worth of Patriot missiles, Blackhawk helicopters, and sophisticated detection systems – for "defensive" purposes only, of course. Washington would rightly consider this very close to an act of war.
To the Washington Post, however, other nations have no right to assert their sovereignty: indeed, such impertinence is usually punishable by having "rogue nation" status conferred upon the "transgressor," who is from that moment a prime candidate for "regime change."
The Post details the list of issues that vex US-China relations, including climate-change and "cyber-security." The US claims China is somehow involved in hacker attacks on Google, as well as other targets, albeit without providing much in the way of evidence. The climate-change dispute is over China’s refusal to surrender its national sovereignty to Western technocrats intent on reducing emissions and "saving" the earth from the ravages of technology. China, for its part, is just now entering modernity, and is not about to let itself be pushed back into a pastoral pre-industrial existence by environmentalist do-gooders.
According to the Post, "This new posture has befuddled Western officials and analysts: Is it just China’s tone that is changing or are its policies changing as well?"
It’s only natural that the Post, the voice of Imperial Washington, is "befuddled" by such obstinacy. They simply can’t understand why the Chinese guard their sovereignty so jealously, and seem to treasure their independence from the West. Why oh why won’t they go along with the program?
It is often stated that the Chinese will never dump their lion’s share of US debt instruments because they would stand to lose an awful lot of money. As US-China relations take a turn for the worse –with the US firing the first shots of a trade war by imposing tariff restrictions on selected Chinese goods – the certainty of Chinese restraint becomes highly problematic. The Chinese have already warned the US government their debt level is making such investments highly risky, and Beijing may not be averse to playing the debt card if it involves a mater of national pride – or national self-preservation.
If China really felt threatened by US arms sales to Taiwan – perhaps as a prelude to an official declaration of independence on the part of the ROC – they have the power to stop US military aid dead in its tracks. All they have to do is simply cease buying up the US debt – and dump what they have. That would be the financial equivalent of a nuclear detonation going off in the center of Washington. It’s a measure of the political pull of the arms lobby, and the anti-mainlanders in US officialdom, that we’re taking that kind of risk.
In needlessly provoking the Chinese, the Obama administration is caving in to the lobbyists, both foreign and domestic, and their allies in the War Party, who would like nothing better than a new enemy to justify their profit margins and ceaseless warmongering. Our real national interests lie in maintaining peaceful trade relations with the country that has replaced us as the world’s factory. We have no interest, not even an ideological one, in supporting the Taiwanese secessionists against the central government in Beijing: While China is an authoritarian state, Taiwan is very far from being a democracy. The form is there, but the content is sadly lacking.
Even if Taiwan were a Jeffersonian republic, however, we still could not rationally guarantee its security in the face of China’s overwhelming presence. The idea of going to war with the mainland over the status of Taiwan is absurd: in reality, such a war would make short work of the Taiwanese themselves, and we would be left with a major conflict on our hands – one we would soon regret initiating.
It is simply not realistic to pretend we can guarantee Taiwan’s sovereignty, and, to make matters simpler, this realization does not involve any concession of principle. Indeed, the official US position is that it has no position, whilst maintaining only unofficial relations with Taiwan’s government in deference to Beijing. Will we go to war to preserve a government we haven’t even granted the courtesy of official recognition?
The Chinese Communist regime, left to itself, cannot and will not survive: the pressures of modernity on the strictures imposed by the "Chinese road to socialism" are bound to crack the system at its very foundations. China, like the old Russian empire, can be characterized as a veritable "prison-house of nations," and is bursting with ethnic tensions nearly invisible to the Western eye. As in the former Soviet bloc countries, no one believes the official ideology, a highly compromised form of "market socialism" with a totalitarian overlay. All of these factors militate against the survival of the last major Marxist regime on earth.
However, the demise of Marxism-Leninism as the ideological inspiration of Chinese government cadres has created a void increasingly filled by ultra-nationalism.
The West remembers the Tiananmen Square protests and the "goddess of democracy," but more recent manifestations of popular sentiment have centered around perceived insults from foreigners: e.g., the Hainan island incident in 2001, which brought out thousands of Chinese students protesting "US imperialism." The sometimes violent protests were tamped down by the government, which has good reason to fear any expression of popular opinion – especially opinion that implicitly criticizes them for being soft on the Americans.
For the moment, the leaders of the Communist Party have been wary of whipping up too much nationalistic sentiment, in fear it could boomerang. If pressed, however, the leadership could well take a nationalistic turn, in which case China’s foreign policy – so far relatively pacific and inward-looking – could take a more aggressive turn. In which case our actions will have provoked and encouraged the very outcomes they were supposed to prevent.
In poking our sword at the dragon, we take the risk it may suddenly awake. Better to let him die in his sleep.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You might want to go over to the web site of The American Conservative, and check out my review-essay on the life and work of Robert A. Taft as seen through the eyes of Russell Kirk.
And I’m still blogging the "Question of the Day" every morning over at The Hill, official Washington’s online newspaper of record.