Last month’s Republican National Convention confirmed that for the moment, hardliners within the GOP are in control of the Party’s China policy. While Governor Romney’s aggressive China policy has received ample media attention – recently including a semi-official rebuke in China Daily – the broader GOP thinking towards China contained within the platform has gone virtually unnoticed.
And that thinking is deeply troubling.
In two massively confrontational proposals, the GOP platform for its national convention signaled an exceptionally hard-line towards Beijing. Should such thinking find its way into policy, the future course of the world’s most important bilateral relationship will be set in a dangerous direction – especially as the Chinese leadership transition proceeds.
First, despite unprecedented stability between Taipei and the mainland in recent years, the GOP platform asserts that if China were to attack Taiwan, “the U.S., in accord with the Taiwan Relations Act, will help Taiwan defend itself.” This is a puzzling position given that the Taiwan Relations Act commits the U.S. to no such thing. In fact, the law makes no reference to American obligations in the event of Chinese aggression whatsoever.
Moreover, making it the official position of the United States to help defend Taiwan from Chinese attack would jettison the long-standing American practice of strategic ambiguity. According to that practice, Washington has not committed itself to any course of action in the event of cross-strait hostilities. This has allowed the U.S. to balance the benefits of achieving deterrence in the Taiwan Strait while treading lightly on one of Beijing’s most sensitive security issues.
Second, the GOP platform takes another hard-line when it “condemn[s]” Beijing’s “destabilizing claims in the South China Sea.” This too would be a major reversal of longstanding American policy. Regarding maritime and territorial claims in the region, historically “the United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims,” as Secretary Clinton recently reiterated in a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang.
Instead, the central U.S. position has been on the conduct of the disputes, urging all parties remain peaceful. In that spirit, the United States has voiced strong support for Chinese participation in the proposed Code of Conduct, which enjoys broad regional support, and would implement stronger measures designed to prevent the disputes from escalating. To the extent Washington has been involved in the claims themselves, it has advocated multilateral negotiations between relevant parties.
The GOP position of condemning Chinese claims outright would all but guarantee that the Code of Conduct – currently the best hope for mitigating tensions – is rejected by Beijing. It would likewise torpedo any chance of convincing the Chinese to enter multilateral negotiations to settle the disputes amicably. Further, such a strong move against Beijing’s claims would destroy America’s ability to act as a moderating presence in future flare ups, hurting rather than helping the situation.
Disturbingly, the Republican platform gives no indication it is aware of the risks of pursuing such confrontational policies. And those risks are severe given that China considers Taiwan and, increasingly, its claims in the South China Sea as among its coveted “core interests”
The most immediate risk of hard-line positions on Taiwan and the South China Sea is stoking Chinese nationalism against the United States. The ferocity of Chinese nationalism was recently on display when protests erupted against Japan in connection with territorial disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Some signs reportedly read “even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese!” The result of stoking Chinese nationalism would be greater domestic pressure on Beijing to use a firmer hand in its disputes, including with the United States. In this respect, nationalistic sentiment has the ability to undermine the rational basis of Sino-U.S. relations in a real sense.
Further, the GOP’s hard-line on Chinese core interests would have significant military consequences. The buildup of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been guided by developing the capability to prevail in contingencies involving Taiwan and, increasingly, in the near seas where China’s maritime and territorial disputes are located. Moreover, on an operational level, this buildup has been intended to achieve “counter-intervention” capabilities against powerful militaries that may oppose Chinese interests in these areas, namely the United States. Thus, by threatening stronger political and possible military intervention in these precise issues, the GOP would actively encourage a more robust PLA buildup.
But the military risks are worse then they first appear for two reasons. First, the Chinese Communist Party may already be increasingly turning to the PLA for foreign policy solutions, as evidenced by the recent establishment of a PLA garrison on the disputed Sansha Island in the South China Sea. Second, the PLA has already unofficially voiced concern that US policy in the Pacific is designed to “contain China,” as Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan has commented prominently. Should this point of view become generalized – a risk that the GOP platform would dramatically increase – an empowered PLA may become a stronger advocate for confrontation.
Not only is the GOP platform blind to these risks, but it denies the possibility of their existence. The platform goes so far as to deny that any rational calculus whatsoever motivates Chinese military modernization, “condemn[ing]…China’s pursuit of advanced military capabilities without any apparent need.”
As the American elections and Chinese leadership transitions proceed, ignoring the risks of confrontation are too severe to ignore. Regardless of how or if the GOP platform finds its way into policy, its thinking should be recognized as dangerous. Moreover, Chinese strategic planners understand they must be prepared to deal with a United States in the future that may have policies very different from those today. In making those preparations, the suggestions of the GOP can hardly escape notice. In this sense, some damage may be done already.
Bill French is a policy analyst at the National Security Network.