By Patrick Mendis and Corey Lee Bell –
In the popular narrative of the Chinese history, the Qing Dynasty ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain in the wake of the First Opium War (1839-42). It ushered in a century of humiliation in which China was picked apart and forced to make degrading concessions to foreign powers.
This historic event marked the most pivotal juncture of an epoch-making transformation in China. Today, the surrender of the strategically important territory once under the suzerainty or protection of a Western great power can have enormous implications on Beijing’s prestige and influence.
Likewise, if the United States proves unwilling or unable to prevent Taiwan from surrendering to China, it could well face its own American “century of humiliation.” In effect, it could mark the end of American supremacy and its capacity to project military power and democratic values beyond the Indo-Pacific region.
The Return of General MacArthur
It is in America’s best interests to defend Taiwan. In the wake of WWII, General Douglas MacArthur said that the island of Taiwan is akin to an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Captured by China, it could pose an immediate threat to Okinawa and Guam and eventually push the US Navy out of the Western Pacific completely. If China controls Taiwan, in conjunction with controlling Sri Lanka—the other “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of the Indian Ocean where Beijing recently secured a 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port—Beijing could become well-positioned to wrestle control of the whole Indo-Pacific region. This would effectively limit the US power projection capacity not only in the Indo-Pacific but also in the Atlantic and beyond.
Undoubtedly, the perception of American prestige and credibility seems to be in jeopardy. The global influence of the United States rests on the confidence of its allies and partners. Their trust in the United States retains only if Washington is willing to and capable of protecting those who share American values and democratic ideals. If Taiwan fell to China, regional allies such as Japan and South Korea could be dragged out of the American security umbrella in the Western Pacific. Moreover, the loss of American authority in the Indo-Pacific region would have global consequences—and they would be irreversible.
This loss would be solidified by China’s ability to reshape the international order by forming the bigger blocks of ‘client’ or ‘vassal’ states. As a result, laws unfriendly to Western interests and democratic values could be pushed through both by international organizations and individual countries – as it happened in the case of Sri Lanka and its Chinese-building Colombo Port City and the Lotus Tower. The American leadership, based on authority of liberal institutions and republican ideals, would decline or get replaced by regimes and systems considered by the democratic countries as oppressive.
Perception Drives Reality
The United States—and the West in general—must reconsider whether the strength of democratic nations’ resolve accords with the gravity of the stakes, which are now at play. Washington should then consider explicitly switching from the 42-year-old policy of “strategic ambiguity” to “strategic clarity” (i.e., unconditional commitment to defend Taiwan)—and doing so while the United States still retains regional supremacy.
At the same time, there is a general perception that the American military and economic power is declining. The cost of doing nothing means taxing American humiliation.
Indeed, the Biden White House is trying to change the perception of America’s relative decline. The Biden administration will soon need to begin: a) A process of preemptive rebalancing in the South and East China Seas, b) Shifting the modus operandi by intensifying engagement with partners and allies in Europe and Asia, and c) Pursuing strategic gains through adopting asymmetric measures like China does.
The Water and Rock Doctrine
Aside from these measures, the United States could seek to not only counter China, but also learn from the Beijing strategy itself.
The American approach to great power “competition” has always been the guns and butter—investing its massive economic surplus into dollar diplomacy and sustaining a formidable military. By contrast, Beijing’s strategy follows the Water and Rock Doctrine. This doctrine draws upon the idea—expounded in the Daoist classic, Daodejing, by Laozi—that water could flow around obstacles while retaining the power to erode and penetrate rock.
China’s approach means malleability—when the Communist Party of China faces determined pushback, it retreats and emerges elsewhere or at another opportune moment by taxing the resources and patience of its opponents. It can take the form of sharp incisions like the incremental occupation of islands in the South China Sea, the tidal wave of the massive maritime militia incursion into the Philippines’ Whitsun Reef, or a slow drip-drip that erodes its opponents resolve – like constant Chinese military aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s airspace.
China has a geographic advantage. Beijing has taken the initiative to set the parameters of the ‘gray zone warfare’ that is now prosecuting across the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific. Since the only valid response is kinetic warfare, the West would perhaps do-well to spend less time bashing China’s methods and more time studying them. The reality is that the shift from a unipolar to a bipolar Pacific—which involves a rival with far more economic power than the former Soviet Union ever had—means the ‘vassal states’ of China will take the opportunity to redraw the terms of their relationships with the United States and other democracies.
As the American guns and butter advantage erodes, the United States and its allies will need to better leverage and coordinate their ‘soft power’ as well as their diplomatic, economic, information, and intellectual resources. President Biden’s success in reaching the consensus with the other Quad nations—Australia, India, and Japan—is a proof that his strategy is beginning to take shape and pay dividends. Signaling the priorities, the first foreign head of state invited by the Biden White House was the prime minister of Japan, followed by the president of South Korea.
However, the United States and its allies and partners still have plenty of learning and catching up to do if they intend to master the Water and Rock Doctrine of China.
*Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and military professor, is a distinguished visiting professor of culture and diplomacy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan. Corey Lee Bell, a postdoctoral researcher in Taiwan, has a PhD from Melbourne University’s Asia Institute and is a former editor of Taiwan Insight. Their analysis is partially based on the speech delivered by Prof. Mendis at the Legislative Yuan (Parliament) in Taiwan on April 30, 2021.
GATAM / May 28, 2021
If USA builds infrastructure in SL, grants foreign aid and support SL at the UNHRC against human rights claims, USA can very easily replace China in SL. Cheaper too.
SL is open to the idea of large US military bases in Trinco at an annual fee if the US military engages with the SL military more constructively.
Dinuk / May 29, 2021
US is a stingy, broke, intellectually and morally bankrupt Rogue State at this time, sorry to say Gatam!
This Guy Parick Mendis has delusions of grandeur, thinking that US is nor a thing of the past – the end of American supremacy and its capacity to project military might and export Fake Democracy and Fake Human RIghts values is here and NOW.
So the US is burning Ships in the Indian Ocean and causing huge environmental crisis in revenge for the Chinese Port City Bill passing in Sri Lanka. USA is finished and Asia has risen.
ReginaldShamalPerera / June 1, 2021
I absolutely agree with you. If US has any power remaining, it is it’s economic power thanks to the locally headquartered and well running Corporations.
Even an impoverished nation whose people’s staple diet is the Kentucky blue grass like North Korea could scare the crap out of a megalomaniac like Donald Trump.
Whenever the Americans talk big, show them a picture of the Taepodong-2 ICBM of North Korea that could reach Denver, SFO, LA and even parts of the state of Indiana.
old codger / May 28, 2021
“China controls Taiwan, in conjunction with controlling Sri Lanka—the other “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of the Indian Ocean where Beijing recently secured a 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port…..”
Perhaps Dr. Mendis should read up on history before indulging in sensationalist astrology. As far as I can determine, the US last used Trinco in 1945 to bomb a refinery in Java. Even the British left in 1957.
chiv / May 28, 2021
Regarding Taiwan it is author’s speculation. It may end up a historical humiliation to China too. Lanka is nothing but a LIABILITY.
Lester / May 28, 2021
I have been saying on this website that Taiwan issue is very important. Not only will China’s military power increase exponentially, but it’s economic leverage will also do so, as it gains control over TSMC. This will be a major shock to the world economies. A global recession is possible, if they do not accede to the demands of the Chinese, especially the removal of various trade sanctions. Do not forget that China is also the world’s largest manufacturer. USA is now planning to invest $52 billion to produce semiconductors domestically, but the output will take several years to materialize. Lastly, Chinese presence in the Middle East is rapidly increasing, again putting them in competition with the Americans. It is clear now why Gotha has aligned the country with China and not the West, as a shift in balance of power is underway.
ramona therese fernando / May 28, 2021
Water and rock doctrine. My foot! These fellows think they are so very clever. Indeed they are not. Just see the White elephant projects they have built up in so many countries. Now China is desperate because they can’t get payback, and is only now realizing that things like hotels and holiday resorts are the actual things that bring in money from these countries, and is in a mad scramble to buy these up. They realize that even Port City is going to be a dud. Such madness is what will create WW3.
It’s like Japan pre- WW2 with its mad emperors building up its military arsenal because it made them feel macho….. then looking for places to invade to make up for the cost of the arsenal.
China’s policy should be called raging river and flood doctrine.
Sinhala_Man / May 31, 2021
Now, now, RTF,
You must be more respectful towards Patrick, because he began life in someplace near Anuradhapura, and I’ve met him here in Bandarawela. So, he’s a real “Sinhlaya”.
You talk so much, RTF, but you remain stuck somewhere near Pittsburgh, PA.
ramona therese fernando / June 2, 2021
By “these fellows” I mean the Chinese.
ramona therese fernando / June 2, 2021
Why should I insult Patrick Mendis and Corey Lee Bell? They have written a perfect article.
SJ / June 2, 2021
Did they not teach you respectfulness at school?
Will a civilized person call any people “these fellows”?
Where did you have your education?
Some quick bucks ‘International School’?
Village schools teach good conduct.
ramona therese fernando / June 3, 2021
Cheap shot SJ. Rather than using invectives like you and your kind do for miscreants, I call them “these fellows.” Guess from your school you don’t have the ability distinguish the borders of propriety, and instead go on the bullying and/or violent spree ( like in our famous unis.). Typical.
soma / May 29, 2021
Is this an internal document declassified by Biden administration?
Andare 2.0 / June 1, 2021
Taiwan has always been a part of China so is Hong Kong. Bidumb could do nothing about it. Read the history. China is the oldest nation on earth. And we have a long history of good relations with China. Since China has abandoned disastrous Marxist commie policies we got nothing to worry about them.