From the Source: On Location Interviews with Taiwanese Government, Military and Academic Leaders

Five PhD students from the Schar School had a unique opportunity to travel to Taiwan where they interviewed top military and governmental policy makers and met with leading academics and Think Tank experts. They had an in-depth and behind the scenes look into cross-Strait relations and the future of deterrence in Taiwan. Three students were interviewed about their experience- read on for their unexpected takeaways.

Rebecca Ames, April 13th, 2018

In late January of this year, Schar School Assistant Professor Michael Hunzeker led a team of five PhD candidates to Taiwan for in-depth, first-hand research to assess Taiwan’s conventional deterrence capabilities. The doctoral students, funded by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), engaged in targeted and highly relevant research for academics and current policy-makers in Taiwan and the United States. They held dozens of face-to-face interviews with top-level Taiwanese officials, military leaders, and academic experts. What they learned merits serious thought from students and strategists of cross-Strait tension.

Their research is particularly timely. As recent events demonstrate, longstanding policies on trade and security have entered a period of change and uncertainty. The existing equilibrium has recently been buffeted by a range of challenges, including the 2016 Taiwanese presidential election; consolidation of power by the People’s Republic of China’s president Xi Jinping; the recent appointment of John Bolton as head of the United States’ National Security Council; and uncertainty surrounding a potential trade war between the US and China.

The Schar School team will independently publish its findings later this year. Ultimately, the research hopes to influence political, military and academic approaches to cross-Strait relations, both in Taiwan and in the United States. The researchers suggest that the experience has challenged many of their assumptions and shifted how the think about the situation.

The following is a partial transcript of my interviews with three of the five doctoral students who participated in the research project. The interviews have been combined in this post for readability.

R: Tell me about the project and the trip to Taiwan.  

Matthew Fay: Meeting with the ministry of defense and the chairs of their national defense and foreign affairs committees of their legislature was a highlight. The experience was fascinating. A lot of what we assume about international politics and the way countries think about and provide for their security got challenged by what we saw there, and that made it such an interesting intellectual experience.

Erik Goepner: What struck me was how wrong all of my assumptions were going in. They got obliterated. I assumed the Taiwanese government viewed China as an existential threat and the population held a negative view of China, but instead, the threat did not appear to dominate government planning efforts and the population largely views China as a legitimate political actor who will push their agenda like anyone else. The Chinese are much more sophisticated in their approach to Taiwan than I previously thought.

Brian Davis: We had exclusive access that only our current senior faculty could have arranged. One night, at 6 pm at night, they pulled two Senators off of whatever they were doing and put them in a room with us and then looked at me to translate. We got to spend two hours talking about military doctrine, weapons, technology, and politics.

R: What did you take away from your time in Taiwan?

Erik: 180 degrees, it changed my perspective. I have served twenty-three years in the world’s coolest air force, and I now think we as Americans are underestimating some of China’s game: they are much more successful using their soft power with a little bit of hard power mixed in.

Brian: Where do I start? We had a lot of top-level access that I don’t think I would ever have been able to coordinate for, and we were able to hold some fairly candid discussions off the record. Having the access and conversations behind the scenes to see what these guys are really thinking was enlightening in itself, in a good way and a bad way. When you see the doors close and you get the perspective you wouldn’t get in the newspaper and articles.

Matt: I was looking for an interesting research project and experience. I had not done first-hand research like that before, especially in a country like Taiwan and with interviews with high ranking military and government officials. Being there with Mike, Erik, Brian, Joe, Alexa – people with military and academic experience, seeing the things we saw, and then coming back and talking about them and wrestling with them was exactly what I’d hoped for.

R: How do you hope this work will be utilized in the future?

Erik: This project has a lot of potential meaning for those interested in cross-strait issues and international security going forward. In addition to the report, we anticipate publishing a short monograph with an academic publisher. The projects pump me up, influencing public policy debates regarding a significant issue like this. China is arguably America’s most important competitor, and the world changes if great powers don’t manage their relationships well.

Matt: I am personally interested in how US domestic politics affect our generation of military power, force posture and the doctrine they choose and develop. Seeing how the dynamics of Taiwan have affected the choices they’ve made provided a lot of new insights into how we make decisions. One of the big things in Taiwan is the level of political polarization. It was actually shocking. The two political parties have diverged over the last decades and occupy different universes. It has had an effect on their security policy, and we see something similar here [in the United States].

Brian: I was going to focus on something else for my dissertation, but with this experience and my new job as an East Asian political-military analyst I am trying to shift my topic to be more Taiwan focused. I can see weaving this work back and forth into the dissertation.

R: What has your experience been like as a PhD student at the Schar School?

Erik: I don’t think I would be here at the CATO Institute as a research fellow if it weren’t for my time at GMU. I’ve had work published in CATO, Washington Post, USA Today – all opportunities derived from the GMU experience.

Brian: It’s better than being in the DC crush. It makes for a better education and a better experience and you still get the access.

Matt: I’m in my third year there, and it’s been a wonderful three years. I’ve been in school for a long time now at several different schools, and it’s been the best experience out of them. Supportive faculty and those that are willing to go out of their way to help you, and I got to do something I would otherwise not have been able to do.

The research project was led by Michael Hunzeker, an Assistant Professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Participating researchers are:

  • Alexander Lanoszka, lecturer in the Department of International Politics at City University London’s School of Arts and Social Sciences
  • Brian Davis, Political Military Affairs Program Specialist at American Institute in Taiwan and Schar School PhD student
  • Matthew Fay, Director of Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Niskanen Center and Schar School PhD student
  • Erik Goepner, visiting research fellow in the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign Policy Department, retired colonel from the U.S. Air Force and Schar School PhD student
  • Joe Petrucelli, Assistant Program Manager at Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc and Schar School PhD student
  • Erica Seng-White, Teacher’s Assistant at George Mason University and Schar School PhD student

Rebecca Ames is a second-year graduate student in the International Security program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science in international relations and American public policy from Boise State University. Rebecca is an IT program manager for JPI at the Department of Homeland Security Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), a platform for homeland security mission operations including Federal, State, Local, Territorial, Tribal, International and Private Sector security partners. Her areas of professional interest include grand strategy, leading-edge practices, conflict prevention and de-escalation, and decision making in the international security arena. Rebecca also pursues her interests in music, art, and international travel.

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