Sir Edward Grey’s Ghost on the Taiwan Strait

Some times events outrun the good idea for a blog post you somehow don’t get around to typing up. I had an idea a while ago that the “strategic ambiguity” which had been, for some unaccountable reason, US policy regarding Taiwan, was dangerous and stupid.

The analogy I saw was with the position of Britain vis a vis Kaiserian Germany in the period prior to World War I. Britain refused to make an unequivocal, publicly acknowledged alliance with France. Britain’s liberal government, led by Prime Minister Henry Asquith and Foreign Minister Edward Grey, seemed to think that they were preserving a balance between Britain’s interests and the isolationist and pacifist sentiments of many of their liberal colleagues. Also, by refusing to commit, they were able to get away with smaller defense budgets than an open military commitment would have required. They refused to come to grips with realistic eventualities, and willed the ends without willing the means.

What they got was the worst of all possible worlds. When the Germans were deciding, in a crisis atmosphere, on what to do in 1914, they were able to delude themselves that Britain might not come into the war when they marched through Belgium into France. Britain had, after all, not clearly said it would do such a thing. Also, Britain had not made the effort to build a continental-scale army. So, the Germans reasoned, the war will be decided before Britain can make more than a token contribution to the defense of France. But, when push came to shove, Asquith and Grey couldn’t turn their back on centuries of British foreign policy: no country could be tolerated to become a European hegemon, and no major European power to could be tolerated to occupy Flanders, Antwerp and the estuary of the Scheldt, the ideal base for an invasion of Britain. Lord Grey, in his Memoirs, notes the various factions in Britain which opposed any involvement by Britain in the war, but concludes that his cabinet colleagues ended up with this consideration:

We felt that to stand aside would mean the domination of Germany; the subordination of France and Russia; the isolation of Britain, the hatred of her by both those who had feared and those who had wished for her intervention in the war; and ultimately that Germany would wield the whole power of the Continent. How would she use it as regards Britain? Could any feel comfortable about that question? Could anyone give it truthfully in his heart any but a sinister and foreboding answer?

Britain delivered an ultimatum to Germany, which was not responded to, and Britain then went into the war. Lord Kitchener, brought in as Defense Minister, put it well. “My cabinet colleagues,” he said “are very courageous men. They have declared war on the foremost military power in the world, and they have no army.” General Henry Wilson ordered the four infantry divisions of Britain’s expeditionary force across the Channel. “Fifty divisions too few,” he said. The rest of the story, the mud, the barbed wire, the rows of troops mowed down at the Somme, the mud of Passchendaele, the whole rotten business, need not be dwelt on here.

The analogy to China is obvious. The United States had chosen for years to avoid an express commitment to defend Taiwan. I always believed that we would do so, but I also always believed that the ambiguity left the mainlanders an opening to believe their own propaganda, and convince themselves that the Americans would sit it out if they attacked Taiwan. But President Bush, to his credit, has chosen to end that ambiguity. He has repeatedly said we would defend Taiwan. He has also, now, put it to the Taiwanese that we will not support any bid for de jure independence, which would be jamming a stick in the Chicoms’ eye for no substantive gain. So both sides now have clearly marked lines to live within.

This end to ambiguity is 100% positive. Everybody now knows the rules. The mainlanders cannot attack, unless they want war with the United States. The Taiwanese have to live with de facto independence, which provides a fig leaf of eventual unification for the Beijing regime, in return for our security guarantee. A good deal they are probably smart enough to hold onto.

So, Bush has wrecked my Lord Grey analogy. Good. I’m glad.

This article, A Step in the Right Direction, is a good summary of recent developments. The author notes that during the December visit to the United States of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, President Bush clarified his administration’s stance when he warned both sides of the Strait, “We oppose any unilateral decision, by either China or Taiwan, to change the status quo.” The author also rightly notes that this clarification will help keep the peace. I agree.

Ambiguity about when a country will go to war is virtually never a good idea. Strong fences make good neighbors. So do well-marked boundary lines.

  1. Excellent post. Earlier I had been critical of Bush’s posistion on Taiwan, but now that I understand it more fully, I believe he is right. After all, it was in part our failure to indicate Korea as an area of American concern that led to the Korean war.

    Anyhow, the sooner Taiwan becomes capable of defending itself, the better for everyone (except China).

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