The conventional history of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy has traced the ascendancy of the neoconservative ideologues in his administration to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the ensuing “War on Terror,” the invasion of Iraq, and regime-change schemes in the Middle East.  The common assumption among analysts is that, were it not for the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the White House’s approach to the world would have followed the more traditional and realist stance adopted by former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.  If it were not for September 11 (it is supposed), the neocons would not have been able to hijack U.S. foreign policy and reorient it toward its current global hegemonic direction.  Most observers assume, moreover, that the foreign-policy hardliners in the Bush administration have focused much of their attention on the Middle East, a preoccupation that reflects their concerns with Israel’s security as well as their obsession with Saddam Hussein and the mullahs in Tehran, and their long-term grand strategy of establishing a Pax Americana in the region.  Yet the fact that the neoconservatives were emerging as leading players in devising and implementing President Bush’s foreign policy was obvious well before September 11.  It had nothing to do with Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East.

Rather, it was in shaping Washington’s policies in East Asia, and toward China in particular, that the neocons demonstrated their willingness to challenge the policies of President Bush’s predecessors.  On April 1, 2001, an American EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter while flying a mission over the South China Sea and was forced to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island.  Both sides alleged that the other was at fault, and a nasty diplomatic spat ensued.  The Chinese pilot had perished in the collision, and Beijing held the crew of the EP-3 for more than a week, until the State Department issued a statement expressing regret that the Chinese pilot had been killed and that the U.S. plane had been forced to enter Chinese airspace for an emergency landing.  Although the statement was short of the formal apology that Beijing had been demanding, it successfully resolved the incident.

As Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute, recalls in A Collision Course Over Taiwan: America’s Coming War With China, the incident provided an opportunity for the neoconservative ideologues inside and outside the administration to flex their political and bureaucratic muscles as they pressed the White House to adopt a more confrontational policy toward China regarding Taiwan, human rights, and other issues.  Hence, Robert Kagan and William Kristol at the Weekly Standard charged that President Bush has presided over a “national humiliation,” demonstrating a policy of “weakness and fear” regarding China, and urged him to change course.  The two men and their allies in the White House, the Pentagon, and the many satellites of the neocon-controlled Ideas Industry in Washington insisted that the spy-plane incident showed that the United States and China were headed for a new global diplomatic and military clash, one not unlike the old Cold War with the Soviet Union, and that the American people and their leaders needed to mobilize their economic and military resources to prepare for the coming war.

Moreover, the neocons and the powerful pro-Taiwan lobby in the administration and on Capitol Hill insisted that the confrontation with China reflected major ideological differences between the two governments that would make it necessary to move gradually to overturn the policy, embraced by all U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon, according to which Washington sought both to preserve friendly ties with Beijing and to protect Taiwan’s de facto independence.  Developed during the 1980’s and 90’s, that policy incorporated the doctrine of “strategic ambiguity.”  “On one hand, Washington officially adheres to a one-China policy and does not dispute Beijing’s contention that Taiwan was part of China,” Carpenter explains.  “On the other hand, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act mandates that the United States sell defensive arms to Taiwan and regard any PRC effort to coerce Taiwan as a grave breach of peace.”  Left ambiguous was whether the United States would intervene with her own military forces in the event of a Chinese attack on the island.  The rationale was that Taiwan “would have to wonder whether the United States would really come to its rescue if Taiwanese leaders needlessly provoked Beijing by pushing an independence agenda,” Carpenter writes.  Conversely, Beijing “would have to suspect that the United States would defend Taiwan.”  Hence, both sides would have an incentive to act cautiously.  From the perspective of the neoconservatives and the Taiwan lobby, it was time to make the U.S. policy less ambiguous and to send a clear message to Beijing that, with regard to its confrontation with Taipei, the United States would provide all necessary political and military support for Taiwan, including direct military intervention if Taiwan were to be attacked by the Chinese.

Neither the Bush administration nor Congress has made a decision to take the giant step of abandoning strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan.  But the incident involving the American spy plane demonstrated, according to Carpenter, the risks posed by Washington’s “zigzag” policy of trying to balance friendly relations with the PRC with its desire to shield a vibrant democracy in Taiwan.  Facing mounting domestic pressures to toughen its stand toward China and strengthen its relationship with Taiwan in the aftermath of the spy-plane incident, the Bush administration announced its approval of the largest arms sale to Taiwan since 1992, and the President himself stated in a television interview that the United States has an obligation to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack—an assertion perceived in Beijing as a dramatic departure from the previously “ambiguous” U.S. policy.  In the context of the rising power of the pro-independence political parties in Taiwan, the apparent policy shift played into the hands of the hawkish members of the Chinese political and military leadership, causing relations between Beijing and Washington to deteriorate toward global confrontation.  At that point, it might have been argued that Washington’s China policy was being “hijacked” by the neocons and their allies in the hope that rising tensions with Beijing would create the global and domestic environment desired by those in Washington pressing for American hegemonic policies.

In this sense, “9/11” superseded “4/1” as the “War on Terror” and the burgeoning North Korea crisis created strong incentives to treat China with greater care.  But Carpenter believes that this change in the American attitude could prove to be short-term.  If anything, the rising sense of separatism in Taiwan and of expansive nationalism in China—coupled with the growing political strength of hardliners in Washington concerned not only for Taiwan but for issues of trade, technology exports, human rights, and nuclear proliferation—will make the White House’s strategic ambiguity steadily more difficult to sustain.  “The United States may be satisfied with the status quo, but the evidence is mounting that both Taipei and Beijing are increasingly dissatisfied,” Carpenter argues.  Taiwan lobbies for staunch U.S. support, even as she pursues initiatives that suggest that her ultimate goal is to win independence.  Conversely, Beijing is growing more insistent that Washington rein in its Taiwanese client.  “It has reached a point,” Carpenter writes, “that Washington’s admonitions to Beijing and Taipei to be cautious merely confuse, frustrate, and annoy the two capitals—and indeed the populations—on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.”  And, as the regional economic and political environment in East Asia is shifting rapidly to China’s advantage, Beijing could “become bolder in challenging the U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan.”

Carpenter’s concern is that the zigzag policy on Taiwan could end in a strategic train wreck, a costly collision between the United States and China as imagined in a colorful and dramatic fashion in the first chapter, “2013: How the War Began.”  Like the events that led, in 1914, to the onset of World War I, the War of 2013 represents a classic case of multiple miscalculations.  “Neither Beijing nor Washington thought that the other side would escalate the long-standing tensions over Taiwan to the point of armed conflict,” Carpenter writes.  “Yet armed conflict was the result, and the world has been paying the price ever since.”  The prospects for global peace and prosperity that looked so promising in the 1990’s, following the end of the first Cold War, have turned into ashes.  “U.S. policymakers have undoubtedly asked themselves many times whether the brief but intense war that broke out in July 2013 could have been avoided,” Carpenter “recalls” after the conclusion of hostilities later in the year.  “They probably have asked themselves at least as many times whether defending Taiwan was worth the price.”

This last is precisely the question that Carpenter poses in 2006.  His answer is a loud and clear “No!”  But, unlike the proponents of what he calls the “accommodationist option”—that is, those in Washington who are willing to move toward revising strategic ambiguity by accommodating Beijing on the issue of Taiwan’s political status and by discouraging the Taiwanese from pushing the envelope in their quest for independence—Carpenter insists that the Americans should leave the decision regarding independence to the Taiwanese themselves.  Indeed, he believes that any effort to placate the Chinese short of foreswearing independence forever would be unlikely to satisfy Beijing and would invite just the sort of miscalculations that often lead to a major war.  At the same time, the hawkish alternative to the neoconservative ideologues—who also want to erode the foundations of strategic ambiguity by adopting a confrontational stance toward Beijing over Taiwan and other issues—is not going to deter the Chinese from attacking Taiwan.  The Chinese understand that, while Taiwan may have some importance for the United States, the Americans would not risk a major war that could include the use of nuclear weapons to defend Taiwan.

The Bush administration has adopted the worst possible combination of policies regarding Taiwan, Carpenter contends.  On the one hand, the administration “is pressing a sister democracy from exercising some of its important democratic prerogatives,” while, on the other, it has been stressing its promise to protect Taiwan’s security.  “Although it is imprudent for the United States to pledge to defend Taiwan, it is equally inappropriate for Washington to tell Taiwan what its policies ought to be.”  Rather than risk going to war to defend Taiwan or kowtowing to Beijing over Taiwan’s political status, Washington should adopt an entirely different approach.  It should, Carpenter argues, state that the United States takes no position on the question of Taiwan’s independence, but, at the same time, make it clear that we have no obligation to defend an independent Taiwan.  According to Carpenter, a policy of arms sales to Taiwan—but no security guarantee—is an approach that would “respect Taiwan’s dignity as a democratic society while limiting America’s risk exposure” and making it less likely that the United States and China will find themselves on a collision course over the future of Taiwan.


[A Collision Course Over Taiwan: America’s Coming War With China, by Ted Galen Carpenter (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 224 pp., $26.95]