Over at Foreign Affairs, Ryan Hass and Jude Blanchette have published an interesting argument. Hass and Blanchette are worried that the United States and China are needlessly inching towards armed conflict over Taiwan because of the two powers’ shared belief that “the hard questions at the root of the confrontation” can only be solved by a military settlement. In contrast, Hass and Blanchette argue that “sometimes the best policy is to avoid bringing intractable challenges to a head and kick the can down the road instead.” Implicit in Hass and Blanchette’s framing is the belief the United States controls the pace of the can-kicking. Decision makers in Washington, not Beijing or Taipei, will determine the character of their triangular tango. The reasons for this conclusion are laid out plainly: the United States has the power to constrain Taiwanese behavior, while the Chinese, who understand that the costs of a conflict will prove ruinous even in victory, will stage no campaign unless backed into a corner. It is America that will choose whether the can is kicked into that corner or whether it is kicked further down the road.1
Jude Blanchette and Ryan Hass, “The Taiwan Long Game,” Foreign Affairs, December 20, 2022,
Hass and Blanchette’s case is cogent and clearly argued. Some of its particulars—such as their warning to avoid symbolics “that would aggravate Beijing without improving security in the Taiwan Strait” (e.g. Pelosi’s recent stunt)—are especially persuasive. But Hass and Blanchette’s larger argument is only compelling if we think crisis can be kicked down the road—and kicked down it ad infinitum. It is not clear to me that this is possible.
Let us start with Hass and Blanchette’s account of why the can-kicking has slowed to a point of crisis. They write:
昂泽民 [Jiang Zemin], 《江泽民选集》 [Selected Works of Jiang Zemin] 第三转 [vol 3], pp. 361-362. Translation is my own.
For decades, this approach [restraining both China and Taipei from taking hasty action] worked well, thanks to three factors. First, the United States maintained a big lead over China when it came to military power, which discouraged Beijing from using conventional force to substantially alter cross-strait relations. Second, China was focused primarily on its own economic development and integration into the global economy, allowing the Taiwan issue to stay on the back burner. Third, the United States dexterously dealt with challenges to cross-strait stability, whether they originated in Taipei or Beijing, thereby tamping down any embers that could ignite a conflict.
Over at least the past decade, however, all three of these factors have evolved dramatically. Perhaps the most obvious change is that China’s military has vastly expanded its capabilities, owing to decades of rising investments and reforms. In 1995, as the United States sailed the USS Nimitz toward the Taiwan Strait, all the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could do was watch in indignation. Since then, the power differential between the two militaries has narrowed significantly, especially in the waters off China’s shoreline. Beijing can now easily strike targets in the waters and airspace around Taiwan, hit U.S. aircraft carriers operating in the region, hobble American assets in space, and threaten U.S. military bases in the western Pacific, including those in Guam and Japan. Because the PLA has little real-world combat experience, its precise effectiveness remains to be seen. Even so, its impressive force-projection capabilities have already given Beijing confidence that in the event of conflict, it could seriously damage the United States’ and Taiwan’s forces operating around Taiwan.
Alongside China’s military upgrades, Beijing is now more willing than ever to tangle with the United States and others in pursuit of its broader ambitions. Xi himself has accumulated greater power than his recent predecessors, and he appears to be more risk-tolerant when it comes to Taiwan.
Finally, the United States has abandoned any pretense of acting as a principled arbiter committed to preserving the status quo and allowing the two sides to come to their own peaceful settlement. The United States’ focus has shifted to countering the threat China poses to Taiwan. Reflecting this shift, U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that the United States would intervene militarily on behalf of Taiwan in a cross-strait conflict. [Emphasis added].2
Hass and Blanchette’s three reasons for the shift are all bound up in the particulars of Sino-American relations. Crisis is a product of Washington’s view of Beijing, Beijing’s view of Washington, and the military balance between the two powers. But there is a third leg to the stool, and it is there the most important changes to the old status quo have taken place. Events in Taiwan also pull towards predicament.
The place to start this story is with a few words spoken by the recently deceased Jiang Zemin. These words are not particularly recent; Jiang delivered them in a 2001 address. Said he:
At present, the internal political situation in Taiwan is in a state of turmoil and their economy is in a state of recession. The mainland is more attractive to Taiwan. In addition, both sides of the strait will soon join the World Trade Organization, and Taiwan’s economy is becoming increasingly dependent on the mainland. This provides advantageous conditions and opportunities for us to comprehensively strengthen all aspects of our work on Taiwan, be they political, economic, or cultural.
We must continue to promote cross-strait dialogue and negotiations on the basis of the One China Principle, and strengthen cooperation and communication with people from all walks of life and all political parties in Taiwan that oppose “Taiwan independence” and advocate reunification. We must strengthen the reciprocal flow of political officials across the strait, as well as the reciprocal flow [of people in the] fields of commerce and culture. We must strengthen our work with the people of Taiwan. As the economic and cultural interflow across the straits continues to strengthen, “peaceful reunification” and “One Country, Two Systems” will be accepted ever larger number of the Taiwanese people.3
Here Jiang articulates the basic reunification strategy operative from the mid ‘90s through the late 2010s. There are eerie parallels between the Chinese strategy for cross straights reunification in this era and America’s parallel bid to incorporate China into a Western led world order. Both strategies assumed that a web of integrated supply chains, transnational trade flows, and overlapping cultural ties below the state level could induce a recalcitrant polity to slot themselves gladly into an unequal political order.
Both were also spectacular failures.
The two engagement bids failed for similar reasons. In both cases political leaders (and in the Taiwanese case, activists) understood the strategy they were subject to and reacted accordingly. In both cases these leaders took drastic action to limit unwanted cultural influence. In both cases they moved decisively to retain control of their national economy. In both cases they presented the question as a choice between popular sovereignty and private gain; in both cases they described their choice as a nationalist victory over internal greed and outside subversion.
I do not draw these parallels to make some moral equivalence between Taipei and Beijing. My point is simpler: engagement strategies are hard to pull off—especially when the other side understands the end state you seek. The tools to defeat engagers are clear. A determined opponent will use them. If they do so, engagement fails to achieve its aims. At that point the frustrated power invariably turns from engagement to more coercive measures. Thus America’s rough handling of China in the Trump and Biden eras—but also China’s rough handling of Taiwan in the same time frame.
This is an important point to grasp—Forgive me for pursuing it a bit further. If we back up to the aughts and observe the Bush administration see-saw between Taipei and Beijing, it is obvious they were doing exactly what Hass and Blanchette recommend: kicking the Taiwan can further down the road. But that bit of can-kicking was predicated on a less reactive policy for China as a whole. When Robert Zoellick introduced the phrase “responsible stakeholder” he was endorsing an active strategy for managing China’s rise. The China problem was not being deferred to the next administration.
It was only in this broader context that the Bush administration’s Taiwan can-kicking made sense. Taiwan could be kicked down the road because that road led towards China as a responsible stakeholder. The Taiwan issue was not just being deferred to “the future,” but to a very specific future—a future where the issue would be easier to manage. Solve the problem of China’s rise, and the Taiwan issue would largely resolve itself.
This gambit failed. Engagement did not pacify China. Cultural ties did not accommodate the Chinese elite to an American led world order. Economic integration did not lessen the Party’s fear of subversion. China’s economic rise strengthened, not weakened, nationalist narratives of humiliation and rejuvenation. And of course, Taiwan remained the sticking point it has always been. Thus two decades after the last straits crisis we face another—but this time the military balance does not tilt so decisively in our favor.
Hass and Blanchette advocate deferring to the future again. But unlike the engagers of yore, they do not offer a theory for why “the hard questions at the root of the confrontation” will be easier to answer in the years to come. We may hope for something miraculous: the collapse of one party government, the rule of some mild mannered reformer, some magic abandonment of the nationalist narrative sustaining Communist rule. But I am not hopeful. I fear that each kick just knocks the can further down a ravine we cannot kick it back out of.
When Chinese look at the political situation in Taiwan many feel the same way. Party leadership was not can-kicking when it set in motion its scheme to swallow the Taiwanese economy whole. We might have been deferring the Taiwan issue to an unknown future; they were deferring nothing. They were using economic, cultural, and political means to produce a settlement in their favor. There was a moment in the Ma administration where this looked like a winning strategy. That moment is passed; it will not return. The trajectory of Taiwanese politics from the Sunflower movement to the present day has delivered engagers in Beijing one resounding defeat after another. What is more: the Chinese know it.
If China coerces Taiwan more viciously than it dared a decade ago, this is because Chinese leaders recognize that the softer reunification strategy they pursued over that decade failed to achieve its aims. If they still believed that economic engagement and cultural infiltration could deliver them political results, they would not need to turn to military coercion to secure the ends they seek. This would be true regardless of Xi’s internal position, the PLA’s military strength, or any particular of plank of American China policy. Those things matter; they enable China to make decisions they could not have made in days past. But the need to make these decisions at all are downstream of internal political and cultural developments within Taiwan itself. Thus these developments, not policy decisions in Washington, are the most important input into Beijing’s Taiwan policy calculus.
This is hard for official Washington to hear. In their essay Hass and Blanchette describe how Pentagon planners fixate on “blockades and invasions because such scenarios line up most favorably with American capabilities and are the easiest to conceptualize and plan for.”4 In a similar fashion, Washington policy circles focus on the elements of a problem most tractable to officialdom. Taiwanese identity is not a tractable problem. Washington has no control over Taiwanese national sentiment. It has only limited influence on Taiwan’s domestic politics. The policy levers just are not there.
Blanchette and Hass, “The Taiwan Long Game.”
So we focus on the areas where the lever are more easily pulled.
Consider again the three reasons Hass and Blanchette provide for the cross strait descent. They attribute our problems to China’s growing military power, Xi’s particular assertiveness, and zealous American support of Taiwan. Nothing can be done to solve the second problem, and they have little to say about it. That leaves them with the two more tractable factors. Unfortunately, reducing American zeal and blunting Chinese military power work at cross purposes. Deterrence requires steadiness and sacrifice. Only an American people more zealous for the Taiwanese cause than now exists will provide that. At every turn Hass and Blanchette argue against the forces that might muster this sort of popular support. In rapid succession they endorse quiet diplomacy over open showmanship, ambiguity over clarity, nuance over ideology, negotiation over mobilization, and cool professionalism over democratic passion.
One could say Hass and Blanchette conceptualize the problem in a way that keeps it in the hands of people like themselves. Who else might hope to balance so carefully the demands of reassurance and deterrence? Only policy practitioners both sober and expert, deft yet determined, could hope to navigate such a narrow space.
Perhaps the whole thing is a bit illusionary. Hass and Blanchette speak in certainties. I wish they spoke in probabilities. They are certain that a successful PLA campaign over the strait “would be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.” Can we be so sure? Is it so difficult to imagine a scenario where the conquest of Taiwan and the defeat of American power redounds to China’s benefit? I would like to know the odds here: are we 95% confident the Chinese victory will be Pyrrhic? Or are we floating closer to the 65% level? And then what is the probability that the Chinese calculate these things the way we do? It was obvious to many military analysts that the Russians were not properly prepared for a Ukraine invasion. This caused some of them to doubt that an invasion was in the offing even as it happened. Is there reason to believe we will do better at discerning the designs of this opaque autocracy? Just how confident can we be?
I am a complete pansy on questions like these. I will make no predictions. Human affairs are complex and near impossible to forecast. Intentions can sometimes be known beforehand. How human passions will warp those intentions cannot. The Chinese may well intend to keep their military activities in the “gray zone”—but can they keep them there? Do the Chinese need to be planning a scheduled invasion years ahead of time for a vicious war to erupt? Is that proposition really so dubious?
One of the things missing from these debates is the old Cold War insistence on uncertainty. In those days it was well understood that geopolitical flash points posed a constant risk of unwanted escalation. Escalation might come even if it seemed unlikely or unnatural before the crisis began. Thomas Schelling’s entire theory of conflict was built on the insight that one state could coerce another simply by provoking crises whose outcome was uncertain. Can we be so sure that this logic is a relic of the Cold War past?
There are other lessons to draw from the Cold War experience. I am reminded of that old Lynn Rees essay “The Tragedy of the Geopolitical Nerd.” In the essay Rees dissects the failures and frustrations of George Kennan. Contra popular stereotypes, Kennan spent most of his life a bitter Cold Warrior. The nation took “containment” to mean something he never intended. When Kennan wanted a policy of political containment. This sort of containment was to be guided by a long term vision and a nuanced understanding of the international scene. It would be cool in its tone, varied in its instruments, flexible in application, yielding when required, firm when needed, and carefully calibrated to never humiliate the Soviets nor box them into a “position where [they] cannot afford to yield.”5
George Kennan, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, July 1947.
Containment as implemented looked nothing like this. Most American policy makers conceived of containment as a strategy of military counterpressure. Its application was fitful and fickle; its rhetoric was bombastic and violent. It was marked by swings of fervor that sometimes matched external realities, but was more often synced to election cycles. Kennan hated it all.
Kennan was calling for an end that Americans could rally around yet he expected to fight it with a non-existent means: a subtle and nuanced American public and politicians, a quantity that’s breathtakingly rare to the point of extinction.
Americans do not see the world in black and white. Yet they don’t see it as an infinitude of subtle grays either. The world view of the average American is painted in primary colors with broad and sweeping strokes. There is room for distinction but not too much distinction. There has to be a readily digestible end and a readily digestible plan. Hopefully, whatever plan that’s adopted will achieve results quickly, with a definite ending achieved in thirty minutes, an hour, two hours, or, at most, a single TV season. If it goes over that time limit, progress must be demonstrable. Prolonged tension will simply lead to a strong desire to return to normalcy.
In Kennan’s vision of containment, America rediscovered moral fiber at home and State department Brahmans frustrated the Russians by finding clever ways of saying no across the negotiating table. The Russians would be morally hemmed in by American virtue on one side and politically hemmed in by frowning diplomats on the other. In other words, Kennan’s original vision was dead on arrival. The United States had neither the historical tradition, culture, politics, or personnel to carry out such a policy. America would continue to be a flawed, fractious, rather obtuse world power whose foreign policy was forever subject to the fits and starts of the American political cycle.
Kennan was fundamentally a flawed strategist. He accurately diagnosed the strategic goal of any American strategy, the containment of Soviet Russia in order to let its internal contradictions tear it apart, but he failed to propose a strategic implementation that would have to be executed by real Americans living in a real America operating in a real world.6
Lynn Rees, “The Tragedy of the Geopolitical Nerd,” Committee of Public Safety, 6 June 2009.
I see shades of Kennan in Hass and Blanchette’s approach. Rees’ “geopolitical nerd” operates quite effectively when the issue in question is not important enough to rise into the public consciousness. But when the question requires us to mobilize the entire bureaucratic blob to solve? When the question is already a central plank in election day platforms? When a policy is acknowledged by all to be of such titanic importance? When the costs of failure are so destructive to so many? At one point or another a policy domain reaches the point where democratic buy-in becomes a necessary prerequisite for success. Has China policy not reached that point?
Taiwan’s problems have escaped the realm of sober expertise. I do not believe they can can be forced back into it.
These are limits then to a strategy of deft diplomatic can-kicking. There are fewer deft diplomats than believers in deft diplomacy. Even the deftest and most diplomatic among them cannot always protect her schemes from the erratic outbursts of the demos or the unpredictable blunders of a dictator. And those are the easy issues. No matter how well they are handled, the truth is that no one in Washington has the power to turn back the clock on Taiwanese patriotism. No amount of deftness can cool the main engine of this conflict.
But the more serious problem with can-kicking is this: we are not just kicking down the road the core problems that divide Taiwan and China, but also a necessary debate among ourselves about our commitment to the Taiwanese cause.
Our commitment to Taiwan is a promise to safeguard the freedoms and autonomy of 23 million people and a determination to preserve America’s elect position in East Asia. It is also a commitment to risk a high intensity war—and a possible nuclear exchange—with the most fearsome military power the United States has faced since the Second World War. These are incredible stakes. Most Americans have yet to realize that these are the stakes. That was fine in the world of yesterday. Then Chinese military ambition could be deterred easily, without fear or sacrifice on the part of our people. Things have changed. It now strikes me as unwise, and potentially quite dangerous, to commit ourselves to contests that the American people have not been steeled for.
The can-kicker may hope that this too can be deferred to the future. Our people can be spared both fear and fury if we can get the Chinese to lengthen their timelines. There will be no need to steel the American people for anything. But here again we have that problem of probabilities: just how sure are we this plan will work? Just how confident can we be that this can will kick? What happens if we calculate things wrong? What if our schemes go awry? Then we find ourselves a bit down the road facing the same problem we do now, but with the military balance even more tilted against us, and with our own people less prepared to deter or defeat an unexpected enemy. Better we begin to prepare for that eventuality now—or decide to get out of the game of Taiwan protection entirely. Either option requires open discussion of the problem well before we face the sharp edge of crisis. Some things simply cannot be kicked down the road.
At the end of the day I am glad that Hass and Blanchette have made the case for balance and sobriety. I worry, however, that they value too highly what American officials can control and fear too little the forces they cannot.
For more writing on Taiwanese military affairs, you might also like the posts “Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power,” “Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet or Not At All,” and “Losing Taiwan is Losing Japan.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage Substack mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.