At a cursory glance, East Asia appears to be on the brink of instability with reports of China militarizing islands in the South China Sea and more frequent instances of Taiwan’s fighter aircraft intercepting Chinese bomber and fighter aircraft as they encircle Taiwan, and the Times with a recent headline grabbing piece “With Ships and Missiles, China Is Ready to Challenge US Navy in Pacific.”
Within this context, should the region—especially Taiwan—be more or less worried about greater military activity observed between the United States, China, Taiwan, and others in the region? At face value, increasing military maneuvers on multiple sides appear to be source of greater fear and concern about a growing possibility of conflict between countries in the region. Generally, displays of military force are actually stabilizing and lead to peace when they serve to maintain a regional military balance of power.
Who is causing instability in the region?
During my recent interview with Voice of America television news show, Taiwan Professor Wu Han suggested that Taiwan is becoming too close to the United States, which then increases China’s pressure toward Taiwan . His specific words were that “Taiwan is hugging the US’ legs,” a metaphor for Taiwan’s political dependence and, some would say grasping, of the United States. Wu speculated that this results in growing dangers for Taiwan. It is as if US display of force in East Asia in support of Taiwan—such as recently sailing destroyers through the Taiwan Strait—creates problems for Taiwan by making Taiwan less safe, and suggested Taiwan handle cross-Strait situation alone to ensure safety.
Professor Wu Han’s view was startling because he was essentially saying that Taiwan’s stronger relationship with the United States causes China to increase pressure on Taiwan, and therefore essentially places the blame of possible regional instability on the United States and the policy approach of Taiwan’s current leaders. Yet, the different understanding based on a careful reading of China’s policies and official statements is actually the opposite: China’s pressure toward Taiwan drives Taiwan to seek closer relations with the United States to help ensure its security and political self-determination.
To explain this further, China’s declared intentions toward Taiwan is rooted in China’s Foreign Ministry statements:
Taiwan has since 1949 been separated from the mainland. To bring about the complete reunification of China is the common aspiration of all the Chinese, both in the country and overseas. The Communist Party of China and the Chinese government take the completion of the grand cause of China’s peaceful reunification as their historical mission and have made protracted efforts towards this end […] Taiwan’s future lies in its reunification with the motherland, and attempt to split China will never be accepted as an alternative [emphasis added].
In light of the above statement, the most recent US Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress on the Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017—also commonly known as the “China Military Power Report”—supports the view that China’s pressure toward Taiwan drives Taiwan to seek closer relations with the United States:
The PLA continues to prepare for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait to deter and, if necessary, compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence, or to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force, while simultaneously deterring, delaying, or denying any third-party intervention on Taiwan’s behalf [emphasis added].
If China’s self-declared goal toward Taiwan is unification (which China claims is “reunification”), what is the United States’ goal toward Taiwan and the region, and which would the people of Taiwan prefer to best ensure its security and political self-determination?
Official US policy toward East Asia
According to the US State Department, the US’ goals in Asia are to “further peace and stability in the region.” The foundations of US policy toward Taiwan are grounded in the US-China Joint Communiques and the US’ Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. The US State Department further explains that the United States is interested in helping Taiwan create a more prosperous economy, and to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defensive capability.
US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) for the East Asia and Pacific Bureau, Alex Wong, recently explained that the US’ new strategy toward Asia is a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy: “We want the societies of the various Indo-Pacific countries to become progressively more free–free in terms of good governance, in terms of fundamental rights, in terms of transparency and anti-corruption […] by open, we first and foremost mean open sea lines of communication and open airways.”
These are the US’ interests and policies toward Taiwan and the broader Indo-Pacific region, and they do not only serve the interests of the United States or just one or two other countries, but peace, stability, freedom, and openness are in the interests of virtually all countries in the region. Moreover, Taiwan political and social system is inherently in line with these US interests, since Taiwan’s politics and society are also free and open. Taiwan’s greatest contribution to the US’ Indo-Pacific Strategy would be to continue to work hard to defend these valuable features of its liberal democracy.
US military strategy directed at achieving US policy goals
The United States backs up its political goals of maintaining peace, stability, freedom, and openness in the Asia region through its military. As Frederick the Great once said, “diplomacy without the military is like a symphony without instruments. It means that talk is empty when there is no force to support it.”
The latest 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) released by the US Department of Defense explains how maintaining a capability military force is essential to achieving the aforementioned US goals:
By working together with allies and partners we amass the greatest possible strength for the long-term advancement of our interests, maintaining favorable balances of power that deter aggression and support the stability that generates economic growth. By working together with allies and partners we amass the greatest possible strength for the long-term advancement of our interests, maintaining favorable balances of power that deter aggression and support the stability that generates economic growth.
Specifically, the NDS quote above explains how US interest in peace, stability, freedom, and openness can be maintained when power is balanced, especially if the United States sustains a favorable balance of power in combination with the capabilities of its allies. This is why greater military activity from those that could threaten Taiwan or US interests in the Asia region should be met with heightened military moves by the United States, Taiwan and others to maintain a peaceful balance of military power. As mentioned earlier, unchecked expansion of power by those countries that could threaten peace, stability, freedom, and openness in the international system is the real danger.
Theoretical rationale for power balancing
Relevant to the discussion on power balancing in East Asia, the logic of balance of power can be traced back at least to Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War when he exclaimed, “what made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which it inspired in Sparta. Essentially, it was growth in Athens’ power that created a dangerous imbalance of power.” Modern political science carries over this concept through Kenneth Waltz’s Neorealism theory. According to Waltz, states seek to achieve their goals either through internal balancing by increasing economic and military strength, or external balancing by creating alliances . To Waltz, stability of the international system comes from maintaining a balance of power.
In essence, heightened military activity by multiple sides in the East Asia region appear concerning—especially over Taiwan—as if an accident can ignite a powder keg leading to conflict. Yet, the theory and practice of balance of power provides a counterintuitive explanation that the region is actually safer when power is balanced. This means that when side displays shows of force, these are not necessarily dangerous moves. The real danger is when a threatening country rises up unchecked, and if there is no one willing or able to stop a threatening and ambitious country that threatens the peace, stability, freedom, and openness valued by almost all countries in the region.
The main point: Though counterintuitive, increasing military confrontation in the East Asia region can be a helpful phenomenon if it maintains a balance of power that ensures peace and stability in the region. The real danger is if a country that threatens the interests and values of peace and stability in the region rises unchecked.
 VOA interview link, and see minute 39:48.
 Waltz, Kenneth, Theory of International Politics. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 1979. Pages 116-128.