In everything from deciding whether to cut defense spending to making alliances and trade policy, the United States and allies like Canada, will have to guess what China wants to do with its growing power. Can we assume her ambitions are insignificant and, therefore, will challenge us little?
The status of the island of Taiwan provides a pesky litmus test. Those who see China as exceptional suggest that its claim to Taiwan is an internal matter, not a challenge to a more collegial post Cold-War world. Charles Foran put their case forthrightly in an essay entitled “What kind of superpower will China be?”
“But China is an empire without conventional imperial ambitions. Aside from its familiar self-declared historic “possessions” – Tibet, Taiwan, scattered islands along its eastern seaboard – the country shows no appetite for actual expansion. . .
Finally, China will be “benign” as a superpower only from an outsider’s perspective.”
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Mr. Foran is a finalist in the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction. His writing on China may be non-fiction. However, that doesn’t make it realistic or grounded in fact.
The assertion that China’s ambitions are merely historic and, consequently, needn’t be addressed by conventional balance of power arrangements is unconvincing. Invariably, emergent superpowers merely wish to reclaim what was once theirs. Ask the Poles, the Czechs, the Austrians, the Ethiopians, the Tibetans and farmers on the Falkland Islands.
Surely, China would not be acting as a “benign” superpower from an outsider’s perspective, if it seriously challenges the independence of Taiwan. It is one thing for the West to not publicly reject Beijing’s “one China” policy and to continue to deny Taiwan international recognition in order to maintain sound relations with mainland China. However, in practical and moral terms, China’s conduct toward Taiwan must be treated as a matter of foreign, not domestic policy.
Taiwan is hardly an insolent fragment of China or merely a right-wing haven for aging anti-communist Cold warriors. Its 23 million people have been living democratically for a generation and it has been independent of mainland China for over 100 years. Taiwan is now one of the world’s significant market economies. According to the Economist’s 2011 Pocket World in Figures, its economy ranks 19th in purchasing power terms—half the size of Canada, but larger than the Netherlands, Poland, Argentina, South Africa and Sweden and twice the size of Israel.
The Taiwanese would rather prosper than risk war with China in order to win legal recognition as a nation-state. However, in truth, China’s claim to Taiwan is imperial by any known definition of the term. Taiwan has earned its independence. And neither internationalists, the UN or literary non-fiction writers should be free to look away if, one day, its independence is threatened.