Misjudging the Balance of Interests in Taiwan

This is the bogus credibility argument on methamphetamines.

Matthew Kroenig cannot make a case that Taiwan matters more to the U.S. than it does to China, so he tries to make a war over Taiwan into being about something much broader than it would be:

I wouldn’t be so quick to cede the balance of interests to Beijing. The United States and its allies have built and defended a rules-based system over the past 75 years that has produced unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom globally. I don’t want to trade that in for a world in which Americans stand by as revisionist autocracies like China gobble up neighbors by military force—or, worse, lose a hegemonic war leading to the end of this order and the rise of a Chinese-led system.

It is not Kroenig’s intention to do this, but this rhetorical move on his part illustrates how potentially dangerous a lot of the talk about a “rules-based order” can be. If you treat the defense of Taiwan as a test case of the U.S. willingness to uphold the entire “rules-based system” of the last 75 years (no laughing, please), you are trying to rig the scales. Kroenig wants us to believe that the U.S. has to defend Taiwan or risk the collapse of the entire edifice of post-WWII institutions and alliances. This is the bogus credibility argument on methamphetamines.

The U.S. doesn’t have vital interests in Taiwan, and it shouldn’t go to war to defend it. For that reason, the U.S. shouldn’t make an explicit security commitment that would oblige the U.S. to go to war. Kroenig tries to get around this by making Taiwan stand in for the entire global system when it does not. When hawks are forced to make an argument like this, it is always a good sign that the U.S. doesn’t have enough interests in a place to justify going to war over it. One problem with Kroenig’s argument is that the Chinese government can probably see through the smokescreen to realize that U.S. interests in Taiwan are not great enough to risk a war. He thinks that an explicit guarantee would be “helping them not to miscalculate,” but making an explicit commitment is bound to provoke a challenge rather than discourage one.

Half a century ago, hawks insisted that fighting in South Vietnam was critically important to containment worldwide, and they were horribly wrong. For the last twenty years, hawks have insisted that fighting in Afghanistan was essential to keeping the United States safe from international terrorism, and they were horribly wrong. Now China hawks want us to believe that the fate of the entire “rules-based system” hinges on whether the U.S. gets into a war over Taiwan that it will probably lose. What are the odds that their judgment is any better this time? It is the same story every time: invest a peripheral theater with much more importance than it really has and bog the U.S. down in an unwinnable war that it didn’t have to fight.

Kroenig goes so far as to claim that the U.S. stake in Taiwan is therefore much greater than China’s:

Put that way, the U.S. stake is much greater than China’s interest—which essentially boils down to reclaiming an island.

It would be difficult to misjudge the situation any worse than Kroenig has. Taiwan is a matter of vital importance for Beijing, but he thinks it can be reduced to “reclaiming an island.” At the same time, he tries to inflate U.S. interests there so that they are supposedly of world-historical importance. This is obviously not an accurate assessment of the value the two governments attach to this issue, and therefore any analysis that relies on such a distorted assessment is bound to be wrong in most respects.

Alexander McCoy made some excellent observations on the question of commitments and credibility last week:

Anyone who claims to deeply care about US “credibility,” should be fiercely critical of overextended “commitments” that write checks that would bounce if it came down to it. Of which there are a lot.

But instead it seems like the people most concerned with the “credibility” of US “commitments” are the biggest cheerleaders of the US making dubious commitments left and right, all around the world, in direct defiance of countries that care far more than us about the outcome.

This describes Kroenig’s position perfectly. He wants the U.S. to extend a new security commitment that would involve our country in a major war with a nuclear-armed state on its doorstep. Instead of acknowledging how this sort of reckless over-commitment actually threatens the credibility of other U.S. commitments, he pretends that the U.S. has far more at stake than China when the reverse is true. When faced with a scenario where the U.S. has much less at stake and shouldn’t risk going to war, some hawks simply invent interests that aren’t there in much the same way that they sometimes invent threats that don’t exist.