Whenever I think about what to blog about, I ask myself a question that I first heard one of my all-time writing idols answer many years ago when he faced similar decisions. The occasion came during a college writing seminar where the guest lecturer was none other than Norman Mailer.
The seminar probably took place sometime in 1974, and one of my fellow students asked Mailer why he hadn’t turned out anything about the Watergate scandal. I had been wondering this myself. After all, Mailer’s world renown by then stemmed both from his novels and from his forays into the “new journalism” that was emerging in that era, in which gifted writers tried to employ some key techniques from fiction (especially their keen insights into human nature and their considerable descriptive and narrative skills) to shed light on the events of the day. On top of turning out numerous important non-fiction works, Mailer had also run (unsuccessfully) for Mayor of New York City in 1969. So he was by no means shy about sounding off on headline subjects, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one of his fans anxious to hear about the Nixon-centric drama.
But his answer was disarmingly simple. He decided to give Watergate a pass because he couldn’t think of anything distinctive and important to say.
And that’s an (admittedly roundabout) way of explaining why today’s post won’t be about any aspect of President Trump’s contraction of the CCP Virus. At the very least, events are moving so quickly that it’s hard to know the score. Instead, I’m focusing on foreign policy, and in particular two major, under-reported developments in U.S.-Asia relations that are underscoring the return of Cold War-like challenges across the Pacific, but that should be teaching American policymakers very different lessons.
I’ve already dealt to some extent with the first here on RealityChek: The U.S.’ loss of global leadership in the manufacture of cutting-edge semiconductors to companies in South Korea and especially Taiwan. In a journal article scheduled for publication this week, I’ll be laying out the key the technical details and some of the main policy implications. But in brief it amplifies my argument that the location of the world’s most advanced producers of the vital building blocks of modern economies and militaries right at China’s doorstep means that the defense of Taiwan in particular has now become a vital U.S. national security interest that requires the kinds of military forces and strategies (including a threat to use nuclear weapons) employed to protect major treaty allies like Japan and Western Europe both during the Cold War decades and since.
After all, those Cold War commitments – which exposed the United States to the risk of Soviet and to a lesser extent Chinese nuclear attack – were reasonably justified by the belief that Japan and Western Europe were centers of industrial and technogical power and potential that could create decisive advantages for the communist powers if they gained control or access to their assets. The importance of advanced semiconductors today means that Taiwan now belongs in the same category.
As I detail in the upcoming article, Washington has rightly been building closer diplomatic and military ties to Taiwan in response (though I also argue that it’s ultimately far more important for the United States to restore its semiconductor leadership ASAP). But this fall, an article in an official journal of the U.S. Army argued for taking a net step that, however logical, would be nothing less than momentous – and comparably sobering. In the words of Marine Corps Captain Walker D. Mills,
“The United States needs to recognize that its conventional deterrence against [Chinese military] action to reunify Taiwan may not continue to hold without a change in force posture. Deterrence should always be prioritized over open conflict between peer or near-peer states because of the exorbitant cost of a war between them. If the United States wants to maintain credible conventional deterrence against a [Chinese military] attack on Taiwan, it needs to consider basing troops in Taiwan.”
To his credit, Mills goes on to make explicit that such troops would in part be performing the kind of “tripwire” function that similar units in South Korea serve – ensuring that aggression against an ally ensures the start of a wider war involving all of America’s formidable military capabilities. The benefit, as always, would be to prevent such aggression in the first place by threatening consequences the attacker would (presumably) find prohibitive.
Where Mills (like U.S. strategists for decades) should have been much more explicit was in explaining that because the threatened major conflict could easily entail nuclear weapons use, and since China now in particular, has ample capability to strike the U.S. homeland, the deployment of tripwire forces can result in the nuclear destruction of any number of American cities.
So this course of action would greatly increase at least theoretical dangers to all Americans. But what’s the alternative? Letting Beijing acquire knowhow that could eventually prove just as dangerous? As my upcoming article demonstrates, the blame for this agonizing dilemma belongs squarely on generations of U.S. policymakers, who watched blithely as this dimension of the nation’s technological predominance slipped away. And hopefully, as I just stated, this predominance can be recreated – and dangerous new U.S. commitments to Taiwan’s security won’t become permanent.
But that superiority won’t come back for years. Therefore, it seems to me that, as nuclear deterrence provided for Western Europe and Japan succeeded in creating the best of both possible worlds for the United States, this strategy could well work for protecting Taiwan for essentially the same reasons.
I’ll just insist on one proviso: At some point before it becomes a fait accompli, this decision should be run by the American people – as has never been the case.
Unfortunately, as I’ve also pointed out, Taiwan has become so important to the United States that even an America First-inclined U.S. President will have to look the other way at its longstanding trade protectionism and predation in order to maintain close ties – just as it winked at German, Japanese mercantilism in particular during the Cold War. But that kind of linkage needn’t apply to other countries in East Asia (and elsewhere in the world), who lack the kinds of assets Taiwan possesses, and in that vein, I hope the Trump administration (and a Biden presidency, if the former Vice President wins in November) won’t let strategic considerations prevent a thoroughgoing probe of Vietnam’s possible exchange rate manipulation and one other trade offense.
The former concern, of course, stems from the effects of countries’ sometime practice of keeping the value of their currencies artificially low. An under-valued currency just as artificially lowers the prices of a manipulator’s goods and services in markets all over the world vis-a-vis their U.S.-origin counterparts, and therefore makes the latter less competitive for reasons having nothing do with free markets.
The argument against the investigation (which I’ve so far seen only on Twitter, but by folks who are thoughtful and well-informed) is that in an economic conflict with China, the United States needs all the friends it can get. In addition, these critics point out, if tariffs are placed on Vietnamese goods, then companies thinking of leaving China because of the Trump levies on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Beijing’s exports will face greater difficulties exiting, since Vietnam is such a promising alternative for so many products.
What these arguments overlook, however, is that, as a neighbor of increasingly aggressive China, and a country that’s struggled for centuries to prevent Chinese domination, Vietnam has plenty of powerful reasons of its own to help with any anti-China efforts initiated by the United States So it’s highly likely that Vietnam will keep cooperating with American diplomacy and other policies regardless of what the United States does on the trade front.
Moreover, Vietnam lacks Taiwan-style leverage over and value to the United States because it’s not a world-class producer of anything. So there’s no need for Washington to grin and bear Vietnamese trade abuses that may be harming the U.S. domestic economy.
And finally, although it’s great that Vietnam has been a prime option for companies thinking of moving factories and jobs out of China, it would be even better for Americans if those companies seeking low-cost production sites moved to Mexico or Central America, since greater economic opportunity for those Western Hemisphere countries will be so helpful to the United States on the immigration and drugs fronts.
Mark Twain is reputed (possibly incorrectly) to have said that “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.” That is, it holds important lessons, but discovering them can be challenging, and both American security and prosperity are about to depend heavily on U.S. leaders getting them right.