Is Geopolitics Deterministic?

The US, China, and Taiwan context

In an online video interview, libertarian judge Andrew Napolitano asked University of Chicago political scientist and international relations professor John Mearsheimer to “translate” president Xi’s remarks in his New Year speech.

The professor answered, “There is no question that the Chinese want Taiwan back. They want to make Taiwan part of China…. There is also no question that the Taiwanese don’t want to be part of China. They want to be a sovereign state. These are two irreconcilable goals.”

First, it must be stated that much of what Mearsheimer says about geopolitical issues (particularly, with respect to the United States’ agenda in the world) comes across as arrived at by honest, factual, realistic appraisal.

It is axiomatic that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would like the Republic of China (ROC/Taiwan) fully back in the fold. As far as the PRC is concerned, Taiwan is de jure a part of China, and the United Nations and 181 countries concur that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. This includes the United States. Mearsheimer’s words elide this reality. His words also appear in contradiction since he admits that Taiwan is not sovereign. Taiwan is not a country. Mearsheimer’s wording aligns with the oleaginous US position toward the PRC and Taiwan.

In US diplomacy, words too often do not match facts or deeds. The US signed on to the One China policy. However, because of the increasing alarm that the economic, technological, military advancement of the PRC is eclipsing the US’s arrogant claim to full spectrum dominance, the US has precipitated, what looks on its face to be, an abject desperation to maintain its place in at the top of the world order, as it defines this order.

As for Mearsheimer’s evidence-free claim of there being “no question that the Taiwanese don’t want to be part of China.” That is disputable. Legacy media will point to the recent presidential victory of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s Lai Ching-te to buttress this claim of Taiwan’s desire for sovereignty.

While Lai led with 40.05% of the vote, the opposition Guomindang (KMT) presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih received 33.49% of the votes, and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) candidate Ko Wen-je received 26.45%. So roughly 60% of the electorate’s votes did not go to the DPP. Earlier Ko had proposed a failed KMT-TPP alliance, which suggests something other than a sovereignist agenda for 60% of Taiwanese voters.

Looking at the voting results might, therefore, lead one to refute the “no question” Taiwan wants to be separate from the PRC claim to be itself questionable.

Mearsheimer continued, “The interesting question, at this point in time, is whether or not the Chinese are going to try to conquer Taiwan by military force.”

To most of the world Taiwan is a part of One China. It is obvious that the PRC is not bent on militarily conquering Taiwan. It need not unless Taiwan crosses its red lines. Approaching these red lines is usually done in collusion with the US. This points to a historical fact that the reason Taiwan is in a sovereignty limbo to this day is because the US used its naval might to back the KMT and Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) at the time of a militarily exhausted China. One ought to consider that Taiwan has been a part of China much, much longer (since 230 CE) than the geopolitical entity called the United States of America has existed based on its dispossession and genocide of the Original Peoples. Therefore, American proclamations about the PRC and Taiwan must be skeptically scrutinized since they are based in hypocrisy and desperation, with crucial facts confined to the memory hole, to anchor in place the US conception of a world order. Mearsheimer does not dwell on the relevancy of this reality when discussing the PRC and Taiwan.

Mearsheimer reveals his patriotic realism: “We [the US] are not only concerned about maintaining Taiwan as an independent state because it is a democracy and we have long had good relations with it, but we also think keeping Taiwan on our side of the ledger is very important for strategic reasons…”

Mearsheimer needs to define democracy and support his contention that the US is supportive of democracy, let alone whether the US is a legitimate democracy. Genuine democracy represents the will of the people.

Taiwan was for decades a KMT military dictatorship which resorted to mass murder to consolidate its power. Finally, in 1996, the electoral vote came to Taiwan. Yet, does a vote every few years mean a country is a democracy? Is that all it takes?

Does Mearsheimer really believe that the US supports democracy? Is supporting so-called color revolutions indicative of an adherence to democracy? Did the US backing of the Maidan coup to overthrow the elected president Viktor Yanukovych indicate a support of democracy? The examples are myriad.

Is blocking a presidential contender from receiving votes in certain states (from Ralph Nader to Donald Trump) indicative of a fidelity to democracy? Or when a government ignores the will of a majority to follow a policy rejected by the masses, such as the US government’s vindictive agenda against publisher Julian Assange? So what does Mearsheimer mean when he posits an American support for Taiwan predicated on it being a democracy?

Does the PRC not have a claim to being a democracy? Does China not pursue policies for the good of the masses of Chinese? In his compellingly argued book, Democracy: What the West Can Learn from China, Wei Ling Chua makes the case for China as a democracy based on its devotion to the well-being of all its citizens. Harvard University’s Ash Center found in its last survey in 2016 that 95.5% of those surveyed reported being either “relatively satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with the Communist Party of China government.

Even if China attempted to take Taiwan back now, Mearsheimer opined, “I think Xi Jinping has lots of domestic problems that are more important to deal with at this juncture, and furthermore, I don’t think the Taiwanese [he meant Chinese] have the military capability to take Taiwan back at the this point in time.” (Read “How Does Technology Factor in for US Militarism Toward China?”)

Mearsheimer is opining through most of the interview. This is adduced by framing many opinions with “I think.” Even non-nuclear war simulations that predict a US victory point out that it would come at a staggering price. Would the US citizenry be willing to pay the price?

Mearsheimer is convinced that regardless of the cost of a military confrontation between China and the US that “… the United States is definitely committed to containing China and keeping Taiwan out of China’s hands, then the United States would axiomatically fight war with China over Taiwan.”

He predicates this commitment on the comments of, with all due respect, a brain addled president.

Napolitano asks, “Is China a threat to the United States of America?”

Mearsheimer sidesteps the “threat” and states “the Chinese are a serious competitor.”

“Furthermore, the Chinese are interested not only in taking back Taiwan, they are interested in dominating the South China Sea and the East China Sea; and the South China Sea is of immense importance to the United States and to the world economy. And the United States does not want China to take the South China Sea back or take control of it, or take control of the East China Sea. We’re opposed to that. More generally, we do not want China to be the dominant power in Asia.”

“Taking back,” says Mearsheimer. In so stating, Mearsheimer is acknowledging Taiwan was removed from China. It was removed by Japanese imperialism. And that removal was enforced after World War II by the US against its WWII ally, China.

And what does the professor mean by “dominate”? How is China dominating these waters? Is that not what the US attempts by sending war ships into the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, South China Sea, and the East China Sea? (Read “Who has Sovereignty in the South China Sea?”) Does China prevent innocent passage of shipping through these waters?
Does China prevent innocent passage of shipping through these waters? Noteworthy is a legal position that holds that military transit requires China’s approval.

Mearsheimer: “But China naturally wants to be the dominant power in Asia just like we want to be the dominant power in our backyard…”

Naturally, as if this is ineluctable. And again, this word dominate? The US dominates by having other countries adhere to its coercive demands, especially commercial demands, (read John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by for elaboration), by situating its preferred people in charge in targeted countries (e.g., splitting Korea and transplanting the dictator Syngman Rhee from the US to South Korea, supporting Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam before later abandoning him, and the installment of the unpopular Ayad Allawi as prime minister in Iraq).

The US is ensconced on ethnically cleansed Indigenous territory. It supported a corporate coup against the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and apologized for this in 1993, but still the US continues to occupy Hawai’i. There are also the cases of Puerto Rico, Guam, Saipan, Palau, the Chagos archipelago, the Marshall Islands, and others.

According to the reasoning proffered by Mearsheimer, the US was predetermined to pursue building an empire. And in his reasoning the US is unexceptional in this regard because China’s eventual imperialist path is also likewise predetermined.

Mearsheimer acknowledges that “China is ambitious for good reasons on their part, and the United States is committed to limiting China’s ambitions for good strategic reasons on its part.”

Usually to be ambitious is considered in a positive vein: learn all you can, develop, become independent, become a leader. However, in Mearsheimer’s wording one assumes ambition to be negative, as in dominating others and halting the ambitions of others, as the US wants to do to China. Limiting China’s ambitions — so much for win-win, as China is committed to. And why is limiting China good strategic reasoning by the US? Doesn’t the US trumpet so-called free markets?

Napolitano picks up on this and asks: “What are the reasons for limiting China’s ambitions if the ambitions are commercial in nature?”

Mearsheimer points to determinism,

And you know how the United States behaves. The United States is a highly aggressive state that runs around the world using its power quite liberally. Why do you think that if China had a powerful military that it wouldn’t do the same thing? The United States just doesn’t want any other power on the planet to be more powerful than it is. I think that any other country on the planet, if it had its druthers, would want to be the most powerful state in the system. And the reason is that the international system [Which system is Mearsheimer referring to: that overseen by the United Nations or the so-called rules based order? — KP] is a really dangerous place. It is in many ways a brutal jungle. All you have to do is look at what is happening to the Palestinians. If you were the Palestinians, wouldn’t you want your own state, and wouldn’t you want that your state to be really powerful, so that nobody, in effect, could mess around with you? I think the Chinese are driven by this mentality? [italics added]

Mearsheimer rejects that China’s reasons are just commercial. He posits instead a geopolitical determinism. Freedom for a country to choose its direction in the world apparently does not exist. Nation states are bound to follow a determined trajectory.

Mearsheimer assumes China will follow the US trajectory. He asks, “Why do you think that if China had a powerful military that it wouldn’t do the same thing?” [italics added]

Why did the Soviet Union dissolve? A commonly heard answer is that the military power that the Soviet Union once was was brought to its economic knees due to military overspending. Why is the US’s economic preeminence challenged by a serious competitor now? Does China have 700 to 900 foreign military bases (numbers vary according to source, but a lot)? This must cause a serious outpouring of money. Maybe that is why China wouldn’t pursue the same folly as the US? Moreover, China is steadfastly promoting peaceful win-win relations between and among countries. China’s economic success is based on these win-win relationships. By engaging in win-win relations, China wins and the other country wins. There is no need to dominate. China is able to receive the commodities, materials, and services that it desires (except when a competitor decides to limit “free trade”), and it continues to prosper as does its partner country.

Of course the Chinese don’t want to suffer another century of humiliation (but does that mean the Chinese want to oppress others as the West have been doing?) Besides, wasn’t Vietnam syndrome humiliating? Wasn’t the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan humiliating?

Relationships of domination and humiliation are not win-win. One side will be aggrieved in such a relationship and will seek another relationship, and more likely elsewhere with a trustworthy partner. It seems that China is aware of this dynamic.

Mearsheimer posits how the US should deal with China:

“I think the United States should go to great lengths to contain China.” Contain, meaning “to prevent China from dominating the South China Sea, to prevent China from taking Taiwan, and to prevent China from dominating the East China Sea,” and to make good relations with China’s neighbors in furtherance of this US objective; and avoid provoking a war with China.

Said the professor, “We should try to roll back Chinese military power; the United States should manage China-US relations to avoid war.” In other words, the US should dominate China, as is natural, according to the professor.

Given the multitude of wars carried out by the US abroad, it is surely self-evident that if a nation state wants to avoid wars and does not have a powerful ally, then a certain level of a defensive capability is a sine qua non. For the aggressive US, by far the highest spending military-industrial complex on the planet, to call out the strengthening of another country’s military, especially a country frequently excoriated and threatened by US government officials, must be viewed as blatant hypocrisy.

Hence, it is quite a conundrum Mearsheimer lays out: avoiding war by rolling back another country’s military power by virtue of it having greater military power. Supposedly, in this scenario, China will accede to the US curtailment (“rolling back”) of Chinese military might and not be provoked to war; it will give up its national aspiration to bring Taiwan fully back into the Chinese nation; it will allow itself to be humiliated once again by a foreign nation. Paradoxically, this scenario also calls on China to reject geopolitical determinism? It sounds a lot like Mearsheimer has constructed a pretzel of contradictions. How sensible, how probable is what the professor proffers?

Mearsheimer asserts that China seeks power that is self-serving – that is, power that is not shared as in a win-win scenario: “… We have a vested interest in not letting China shift the balance of power in its favor, and, therefore against us, in a major way.”

This raises many questions and requires elucidation. Who is the “we” here? One assumes Mearsheimer means the US. Is it in the “vested interest” of the masses in the US? It must be because to be vested otherwise would be undemocratic. While in the US millions sleep in their cars or under bridges each night, scrape through garbage receptacles for sustenance during the day, and beg for handouts, China has eliminated such extreme poverty. Shouldn’t that be a signal for the impoverished strata in other societies?

China is not the enemy. China is not perfect, and it doesn’t profess to be. It does not profess to be an indispensable nation. It does not proclaim to be a beacon on the hill. It does not list as a goal full spectrum dominance. Mearsheimer apparently thinks that the evolution of the capitalist US must also apply to socialist China. Nonetheless, it would seem more accurate to portray China, which in the earliest stage of socialism, as an alternative model to US capitalism, militarism, imperialism, and dominance.

Other nations state should seriously consider how socialism matched with their country’s characteristics might function for them.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.