The vagaries of US ‘commitment’

By Strobe Driver  / 

Sun, Aug 05, 2018 - Page 6

The unremitting cacophony of Taiwan-China relations continues from the numerous sides that command their own dialogue in the debate about claims and counter-claims. This is normal for countries that have a stake in regional power plays: It happened in the Balkans crisis of the mid-1990s, it is happening with the Syrian war against the Islamic State and continues to happen among regional actors in the Horn of Africa.

The dual articles in the Taipei Times, “Referendum on ‘Taiwan’ is facing challenges” and “Three big lies you probably believe,” (both July 30, page 6) are just the latest in the ongoing domestic and regional challenges for Taiwan.

While both articles are informative, “Three big lies,” written by Ian Easton, touches on the untouchable: What if war is coming and what if war comes?

Needless to say, there are the usual components of “American assistance” being possible and the lies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) being believed by Taiwanese.

While this is good, robust debate, there is some rhetoric within the article that is troubling. The first that needs examining is what if war comes?

Acknowledging that if a war between Taiwan and China broke out, it would be a devastating and furious happening, Easton, in his article states: “With American assistance and grit, Taiwan could hold out for as long as it took to defeat the [Chinese] invader.”

The question that is begged in the rhetoric is, and remains: What exactly does he mean by “American assistance”?

A broad overarching series of questions stem from this statement, starting with: How long would the assistance last? One week, one month, one year or five years?

What would the assistance consist of? “Boots on the ground” and a willingness for Americans to take casualties and, if so, how many? Would the words of former US president George W. Bush and the “whatever it took” analogy of 2001 remain and be applied unconditionally?

If the People’s Liberation Army began winning against Taiwan and (let’s assume) US forces, would the US commit more? How many aircraft carrier battle groups would the US be prepared to lose to protect its bastion of democracy near China?

As one can observe when drilling down into the details of Easton’s comments, there is nothing to be found with any conviction beyond the comforting term of “American assistance.” Whatever that actually means remains a mystery.

The Project 2049 group does not precisely convey what it means to Taiwanese and therefore, it is simply feel-good rhetoric.

The assistance alluded to has a troubled past and tends to dissolve when situations become too difficult. It did nothing for the Southern Marsh people of Iraq when the assistance failed to materialize after the First Gulf War; the Hmong tribes of Central Vietnam were deserted by the US as they fought against the Viet Cong; and when the North Vietnamese forces made a final push into the south, US forces flew out from the top of their embassy in Saigon — so much for defending the South Vietnamese democracy in its “hour of need.”

Could this be a warning for the future?

Back to the point, and reflecting on the above and the possibility of war. Are Taiwanese to believe that the US — if indeed it does give assistance — is going to remain for a decade to continue the fight? Let us face it, that is how long it could take.

The prospect of long-term commitment is doubtful. Why? The US is a war-weary nation and it remains a moot point whether it is so because of a genuine concern for liberal-democracies flourishing, its state of being trapped within its own appalling political decisionmaking, or a genuine compassion and belief that countries should be saved from the scourge of powerful groups.

The point is that part of the reason that the American public has come to be so wearied by their sacrifices is because the adversaries they have been fighting — such as the Taliban in Afghanistan — refuse to submit, have no timeline for victory and will expel the invader — whoever it might be — through the auspices of generational inculcation.

In simpler terms, the fight will go on until this happens. This has worked for tribal groups in Afghanistan for about three centuries, so they are unlikely to give up on the strategy.

As much as this is a digression, it is important, as only recently the US — having been worn down by the ongoing recalcitrance and determination of the Taliban — decided to have peace talks (“First Taliban-US talks held,” July 29, page 4).

Where have the billions of dollars spent and the lives lost gotten the US? The answer barely needs a mention: Nowhere.

This has shaped US views and reflects badly on the amount of time, energy and effort that it would expend on Taiwan. Make no mistake about this factor.

Assuming that the US does come to Taiwan’s aid in a shooting war, it beggars belief in the current political climate that the US would — based on its history and the domestic discontent with other countries — be crazy enough to commit money, personnel and materiel to a war that could continue for years.

The US public simply does not want another war. It does not need it. And after then-Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s comment in 2011 that he would support Pakistan if there were a US-Pakistan war caused a massive wave of disbelief, it is safe to argue the US would be very, very disinclined to get involved in a Taiwan-China war beyond arms sales and political hand-wringing.

Moreover, and unfortunately for Taiwan, Central Asia and the Middle East have bled Americans dry in terms of commitment and input. The West would not want to get involved in Asian countries to uphold a traditional, albeit maligned, view of the world that it could bring “civilization” to the lives of those who have been defeated on the battlegrounds of Central Asia.

While this notion is being reversed by EU involvement, for instance, the wars in the East did start with a notional understanding and while this needs to be examined, it is also important from the perspective that Taiwan could yet be lumped into the basket of being “just another Asian country.”

If this happens, Taiwan would be on its own and it is important to note that this could happen. US history and that of the West is rife with this reality.

The deeply inculcated understanding in many parts of the West about the East, or “Asians,” is that they are not as intellectually astute and therefore not as politically capable as their Western counterparts.

A cursory reading of Edward Said’s work — in particular Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient — shows that the West sees itself as intellectually and culturally superior to the East, and moreover has a deeply patronizing view of it.

The implication is that the East is not as culturally diverse, civilized and articulate a group of people. This smacks of the Roman Empire and its accusation that any group of people that did not want Rome’s view of the world and its “civilization qualities” must be inherently stupid — the Romans even invented a word for these types of people, barbari,” or as the vernacular of the English language stipulates, “barbarians.”

Harnessed within the advice that the West offers Asia in general is that the ideals of previous centuries have not diminished as completely as they should have, which is resplendent in a speech that then-US president John F. Kennedy made during the early phases of what would become the Vietnam War.

Kennedy suggested that if Vietnam fell to the communists, the doors of communism would be “open wide” and the defeat of all of Southeast Asia would follow. As communism made its way throughout Southeast Asia, it would be blindly and humbly accepted by each Asian nation-state — each of which would be too stupid to respond in a proactive or articulate way, due to its dire political consequences.

Once again, the question is: Why would a US president think and say such a thing? The answer lies in the homogenization of the Asian population — the assumption that all Asians are the “same.”

For a privileged, xenophobic, culturally isolated, God-fearing, eurocentric, “civilized” and wealthy white, elite male — and his advisory group — he had absolutely no understanding of Asia. That an Indonesian could possibly be culturally, religiously and politically different from a person born in the Philippines was simply beyond Kennedy’s and his advisers’ thinking. All these people were simply a “bunch of Asians.”

That the Vietnamese fought against the French, that Malaysians defied the English and that Indonesians reacted violently to the Dutch had no place in their understanding of the East.

To be sure, some Western institutions, such as the EU, do not accord with past practices of Western idealism and promote a much more moderated version of good government and governance practices. This stated, one does not need to look far to find that there still exists in some Western nation-states a residual of Kennedy’s notions of homogenization — take far-right groups for example.

As the West begins to lose its unipolar grip on the world, it is these groups and their power through voting blocs that are a worrying precedent for nations having difficulties.

What would happen if far-right groups — such as the Tea Party in the US — revert to the past and observe all of Asia as a homogenous group not worthy of US intervention?

This is a real and present danger for Taiwan, as it would put paid to any commitment beyond supplying military hardware and political handwringing. Taiwan would become just “another Asian country.”

Taiwan as a part of Asia should be wary of any advice given to it by the West — in particular the US — when it comes to “commitment,” bearing in mind the history of the West and its fickleness when staying in the fight to the very end.

Whatever government is in power is by and large capable, and an astute and articulate regional actor.

While there might be problems at times (“Trump still a wild card for Taiwan,” July 22, page 8) and the CCP continues to put pressure on foreign actors (“US lawmakers condemn PRC pressure on airlines,” July 27, page 1), if Taiwan is to go down the path of the commitment of others in a Taiwan-China shooting war, it needs clear and concise understanding from its allies of what a commitment comprises of.

For instance: How long would it last? Would it be susceptible to domestic US political vagaries? And would it involve boots on the ground?

The government and Taiwanese need to ponder what the US sending two guided-missile destroyers through the Taiwan Strait (“US signals a new approach to China,” July 12, page 8) means. It is without doubt a show of force to China, but is it a direct and unambiguous commitment to Taiwan?

Strobe Driver has a doctorate in war studies and is a recipient of the Taiwan Fellowship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The views expressed here are his own.