There is one question with regard to China, Taiwan, and the US that is most interesting. Why does China care so much about Taiwan? It’s a simple question but seems to be very difficult to answer. There are many books looking at the issue from each side – books that describe why Taiwan should be defended from China, books that describe how America is interfering with China’s internal business with respect to Taiwan, and even books that attempt to explain why China cares so much. None of them have answered the basic question, though. It was not until I finished this book – Why Taiwan? Geostrategic Rationals for China’s Territorial Integrity by Alan Wachman – that I felt like I have been given a satisfactory answer.
Wachman’s thesis is that China cares about Taiwan (in a “I won’t stop until you’ve been defeated and absorbed into China” kind of way) because America uses Taiwan to counter Chinese power. Or rather, from the Chinese point of view, for the last sixty years America’s defense of Taiwan is an American effort to check China rise to regain its rightful place in the world order. China’s thought process with respect to Taiwan has been impressively consistent.
Wachman first shows the historical record of China’s thoughts on Taiwan. Until the 16th century China didn’t care about Taiwan. It viewed Taiwan as “beyond the boundary”. Beginning in the 16th century however, foreign powers began to use Taiwan as a launching pad to project power in the nearby China. The Qing dynasty recognized this and began extending their arm towards Taiwan with a “If we don’t take it, other powers will” mind set. This mindset meant that they didn’t really need to or want to include Taiwan in China proper, they just want to control it enough to deny it to others. For example, the local Chinese government didn’t even control the eastern parts of the island until the late 19th century, they were content to leave it to the aboriginal peoples.
This mindset continues to be applied but the power the Chinese fear is no longer the Dutch or Japanese, it is the Americans. From the time of the CCP’s beginnings until near the end of World War Two the CCP called for those lands taken from China – but not actually Chinese – such as Vietnam, Korea, and Taiwan to be returned to local rule. However, as the ROC vs CCP civil war was winding down with the ROC hiding on Taiwan the CCP realized the same thing the Qing Dynasty had hundreds of years earlier. Taiwan’s location makes it ideal for a belligerent foreign power to use against China. America tried to pacify the CCP, dropping support for the ROC and largely leaving the region. This changed because of the Korean War. America’s use of Taiwan as a regional ally confirmed Chinese suspicions – America want to use Taiwan as pawn to keep China divided.
In the decades since then America has done little to counter China’s suspisions. China wants the US to stay on the sidelines while it forces the issue with Taiwan, and has seemingly gotten that promise from the US several times. Each time however the US has found a way to come to Taiwan’s aid before China can “solve the problem”. In the most recent, and obvious, instance China attempted to scare Taiwan into line by mobiling its army near the coast and firing missiles into the water near Taiwan’s major ports. The US’s reaction was to send two carrier groups into the region, a reacion orders of magnitude above what the CCP expected.
This was a difficult book to write about. The book successfully tackles the most interesting quetsion about Taiwan and China head on. Wachman goes into depth, using a robust academically logical approach that results in many deep insights. After my reading I feel that I deeply understandt he mindset and expectations of all three sides of the issue.
For all that though, the book has problems. For one, Wachman writes in an extremely difficult style to read. He obfuscates and hedges so much that pages can go by seemingly without a dirct statement being made. Here is the first few lines from the last paragraph. I could not stop laughing at how absurdely wordy it ends up:
The book was prompted by a single stated question: why? Why is Taiwan worth fighting for? What does Beijing feel is at stake? It would be elegant to offer a response expressed parsimoniously. However, elegance and parsimony are not the progenitors of accuracy.
The book is short, less than one hundred fifty pages, but is just excruciating to get through. Another problem Wachman has is borne of his academic approach. For many of his points instead of just proposing it and moving on, he will go on and on proving it. This become difficult when a basic, obvious point gets tens of pages of redundant proof behind it. Finally, the book assumes the reader has quiet a bit of knowledge of the situation beforehand. For example Wachman went into multiple pages of depth proving the Qing Dynasty didn’t label Taiwan as part of China proper on old maps, but then skima over many China-Taiwan-US situations because they assume the reader already knows what happened.
In short: This is a great book for someone who wants to understand the current China, Taiwan, US situation, but perhaps not worth it for more casual readers.