Symposium | Les Gelb, in Memoriam

China: Heeding Les’s Principles

By Elizabeth Economy Adam Segal

Tagged ChinaForeign PolicyLes Gelb

See the other tributes to Les Gelb here.

Les Gelb would likely not recognize today’s China as the one he depicted a decade ago in Power Rules. No longer committed to a low-profile foreign policy in order to maintain its focus on domestic economic growth and stability, Beijing has emerged today as a global power bent on asserting its values, interests, and priorities on the international stage. And contrary to the hopes and beliefs of many, it has not fully liberalized its economy or liberalized its polity in doing so; nor has it become a standard bearer for the liberal international order. Instead, the United States faces a competitor prepared to evade, exploit, or replace the international institutions and organizations that have brought stability and prosperity to East Asia for more than seven decades.

The current landscape of U.S.-China relations reflects this new reality. Conflict, not cooperation, now characterizes most interactions between Washington and Beijing. The United States and China trade accusations, for example, around industrial policy and investment practices, illegal activities in the South China Sea, and meddling in the internal affairs of the other.

It is immediately apparent that U.S. policy falls far short of meeting Les’s practical admonitions for a commonsense foreign policy. While the Trump Administration has highlighted the strategic, economic, and technological threats China poses, it has not ensured that we have the resources necessary to accomplish our objectives through investments in U.S. education, infrastructure, immigration, and innovation. It has failed to effectively lead a coalition of allies and partners to tackle the various challenges that China presents. And, unsurprisingly, it has not heeded the fourth principle of Power Rules: International power works best against problems before, rather than after, they mature.

In this context, the future of Taiwan and its autonomy should rise to the top of the U.S. agenda with China. Xi Jinping has made clear that he is not prepared to wait indefinitely to unify Taiwan with the Mainland. In his January 2019 “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” he not only reiterated his belief that reunification with Taiwan was essential to “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” but also vowed not to let anything deter Beijing from achieving its objective: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.” Xi’s implicit deadline for reunification, 2049, is less than 30 years away; and Beijing has increased its military and economic abilities to pressure Taipei.

The United States has clear strategic, economic, and political interests in Taiwan. The Taiwan Relations Act commits the United States to provide the “defense articles and services” necessary for Taiwan to maintain a self-defense capability; and the United States has clear strategic, economic, and political interests in Taiwanese democracy. In addition, Taiwan sits in the center of the strategically important first island chain: As many analysts have pointed out, mainland Chinese control of Taiwan would offer Beijing a greater ability to threaten the Philippines and Japan. In addition, any indication that the United States was prepared to abandon Taiwan would send a negative signal to other allies and partners concerning U.S. resolve. Taiwan also serves as an important example of a successful transition to democracy, and, in this respect, as a reminder to mainland Chinese of an alternative political future. Finally, the United States has a vibrant trade and investment relationship with Taiwan.

Following Les’s rules, the United States should strengthen its hand by coordinating its strategy with allies and partners. For example, it should encourage Taiwan’s participation in multilateral arrangements, such as the Free and Open Indo Pacific, the Blue Dot Network, and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership, with like-minded partners such as Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. Washington should also engage Taipei in multilateral military exercises and encourage other naval powers to sail through the Taiwan Strait. Bilaterally, Washington should work closely with Taiwan to ensure that it has the capability to deter, and if necessary, repel an attack by the PRC; this includes Taiwan increasing its own defense spending. Military power, however, must be joined in a package that includes diplomatic, political, and economic instruments: Washington should, for example, advance discussions with Taipei on free trade and investment agreements as well as ensuring supply chain security.

Les argued that proponents of common sense should not concede values to the extremes of U.S. foreign policy. They should, instead, stand for freedom and democracy the practical way. While the prospects of an agreement across the Strait certainly look bleak today, it is in the U.S. interest to defend Taiwanese democracy and ensure the Taiwanese people can engage Beijing from a position of confidence and strength.

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Elizabeth Economy is Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University (on leave). She previously was C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director, Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of four books and co-editor of two volumes, her most recent book, The World According to China (Polity Press, 2021), explores China’s foreign policy ambitions and their impact on the international system. She is a frequent commentator on radio and television programs, including PBS Newshour, Fareed Zakaria GPS, and Bloomberg Surveillance.  She also is a member of the Board of Managers of Swarthmore College and of the Aspen Strategy Group. She is currently serving as Senior Advisor for China to the Secretary of Commerce. The research for this piece was completed before her government service and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government.

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Adam Segal is the Ira A. Lipman Chair in Emerging Technologies and National Security and director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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