At stake in the Taiwan crisis

Haro Karkour , Tuesday 30 Aug 2022

The current crisis over Taiwan is the result of policies of national prestige that can only be tamed by prudent decision-making.


On 2 August, Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. The visit triggered a crisis. The Chinese government declared it as “irresponsible and highly irrational” and fired ballistic missiles over the island. It conducted live-fire drills in a rehearsal of a blockade of the island and imposed economic sanctions on Taiwan. 

Prestige is at stake in the Taiwan crisis, and it can only be tamed by prudent policy decisions.

A policy of prestige, as US political scientist Hans Morgenthau defines it in his book Politics Among Nations, is designed “to impress other nations with the power one’s own nation actually possesses, or with the power it believes, or wants other nations to believe, it possesses.” One example of a policy of prestige is the preparation for war. Its purpose is to showcase the nation’s power and to deter an opponent from embarking on war. 

The US policy towards Taiwan hinges on this type of policy. Its purpose is to convince China that the US preponderance in the region is unchallengeable and thus not worth the challenge. This policy has been advocated by US commentator Elbridge Colby in a recent piece in the US journal Foreign Affairs

“Why isn’t the United States doing more to prepare for war with China over Taiwan,” he asks. “Precisely to deter and thus avoid it.” 

China’s response, in turn, has been its own policy of prestige. This involves sending military ships and aircraft across the Taiwan Strait and a rehearsal of a blockade in the event of a war. The purpose of this policy is to deter Taiwan from proclaiming independence and the US from encouraging Taiwan to do so. Pelosi’s recent visit, from China’s standpoint, is a violation of US commitments to China’s sovereignty since its recognition in 1979.

There is no question that Taiwan is strategically important. The possession of Taiwan would enhance China’s military position in the region and undermine US naval and air operations, thus potentially impeding the US ability to defend its Asian allies. 

Strategic calculations, however, stand in a vacuum without the narratives that the US and China present to their publics and to the world. In the Chinese narrative, China was humiliated by British imperialism during the Opium Wars in the 19th century and later by Japanese imperialism in the 1930s. Its refusal to budge over Taiwan is thus framed as a refusal to accept further national humiliation. The Chinese state, personified in the saviour figure of former leader Mao or current President Xi Jinping, comes to rejuvenate the nation.

In the US narrative, the US is the protector of the “free world” and the “rules-based” international order. The US president is thus the “leader” of the “free world.”

These narratives underlie the US and Chinese policies of prestige over Taiwan today. They are selective, however. The Chinese narrative omits events such as the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), one of the deadliest civil wars in human history and one which had little to do with imperialism. The US narrative omits the US role as an imperialist power from the Mexico War (1846-1848) up to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Despite this, domestic opinion in both countries is largely supportive of the US and Chinese national narratives and policies of prestige. 

In a recent article published in the US journal International Affairs, for example, US commentator Jeffrey Friedman argues that the US strategy of “deep engagement,” which entails maintaining the US military posture overseas, has popular and bipartisan support. Similarly, a recent study by political scientists Ric Neo and Chen Xiang shows that public opinion in China is even more hawkish than the Chinese government towards those humiliating the nation.

Yet, despite their popularity the US and Chinese narratives risk driving policymakers towards their nemesis in policy terms. They remove the necessary moral limitations on the nation’s pursuit of power. The US insistence on the status quo and Chinese revisionism are thus two sides of the same coin. Imperial and anti-imperial hubris mortgage the future of peace on the belief that a great power war can be won. 

Alas, history is full of contingencies. Policies of prestige, pace their advocates, do not guarantee peace. Rather, they lead to the misjudgement of power. Germany and Japan misjudged US power in the 1930s. Italy misjudged its power in Abyssinia in the same decade. In all these instances prestige needed to be tamed by prudent policy decisions. 

US and Chinese policymakers face the same challenge today: to bring prestige under control by taking prudent policy decisions that are politically costly and psychologically unsatisfying.

* The writer is a lecturer in international relations at Cardiff University, UK.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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