“Correcting the Country’s Course”: Paul V. Kane, not Quite the Economist

Paul V. Kane, a former international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, advises the Obama administration to “ditch Taiwan”. In an op-ed for the New York Times, he wrote on Friday:

With a single bold act, President Obama could correct the country’s course, help assure his re-election, and preserve our children’s future.

Kane quotes Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as saying that “the most significant threat to our national security is our debt”. Besides, Kane argues,

America has little strategic interest in Taiwan, which is gradually integrating with China economically by investing in and forming joint ventures with mainland Chinese firms.

I’m not trying to judge America’s big or small strategic interest in Taiwan. Besides, I have the vague impression that advanced arms technology delivered to Taiwan may not be too well-protected from Chinese espionage.

But only a clear American decision for isolationism could be a cause for considering  “ditching Taiwan”.

Kane may have felt encouraged by statements like those made by U.S. president Barack Obama,  that the nation he is most interested in building is America itself. But that statement was made in context with Afghanistan (and possibly Iraq, the dumb war). And I haven’t read Mullen saying anything that would suggest that he would want to “ditch Taiwan”. Rather, according to Mullen, America’s military power needed a sound economy as its base – a point Obama, too, made in a speech in 2009.

But neither Mullen’s or Obama’s statements, nor much else in this world, would suggest that there were good reasons to believe that abandoning Taiwan would make the world – including America – any safer.

Probably some time in 2009 or 2010,  Beijing began to refer to the South China Sea as a core interest (核心利益) – a term which had been used to describe Beijing’s claim on Taiwan, but not for the South China Sea until then. In 2009, either a year prior to the South-China-Sea referral or about at the same time, Chinese state councillor Dai Bingguo (戴秉国) defined a – at least apparently – more “conservative” set of three “core interests”:

  • the survival of China’s “fundamental system” and national security,
  • the safeguarding of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (which in itself is, of course, pretty flexible after all, and may allow for a real lot of “core interests”), and
  • continued stable economic growth and social development.

Kane seems to believe that Beijing’s definitions of its own interests are stable. That doesn’t look like reasonable political judgment.

But above all, Kane’s argument makes no sense economically. Ten per cent of American foreign is certainly a huge amount – but it’s existence or non-existence would be no game-changer. Even if Kane started a global auction and found ways to please other creditors than Beijing into forgiving their shares of America’s debts, too (in exchange for similarly immoral offers), this wouldn’t change anything about America’s structural economic problems. Yes, it took America many decades to pile up its current debts – but it wouldn’t take America terribly long to incur debts of a similar dimensions again – not in the state it is in right now.If there is something America needs to worry about is that their leaders don’t seem to act their act together. The debt incurred so far won’t actually kill America.

What would make sense for America is to remind its allies – both formal and informal ones – that American commitment can be no one-way street. This isn’t targeted at Taiwan specifically, because it would seem to me that Washington actually applauded Taipei’s cross-strait policies of recent years. Rather, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and other countries who believe that America should strike a balance in China’s neighborhood need to be reminded that they, too, must do their share to keep the region – including Taiwan – safe. The current division of labor in the region – America projecting military power, and everyone else chumming up to Beijing in America’s shadow – is indeed unsustainable.

But if America wants its allies to doubt its commitment to regional security, there could be no better prescription for that, than Kane’s “recommendation”. It’s a safe way to lose credibility.

Apparently, Kane’s op-ed was no put-on, as The Atlantic‘s James Fallows initially  suspected. And anyway, I don’t know who Mr. Kane is, and I’m sure that he isn’t the only person who might come up with such bizarre ideas. What really makes me wonder is that the New York Times actually chose to print this kind of stuff.

Maybe they and Mr. Kane just want another tax break.

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Related

» “A Threat that Doesn’t Exist”, Business Insider, Nov. 11. 2011
» The Costs of Running a Trade Surplus, August 7, 2011
» Creative Destruction or Development, March 15, 2010

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