It might have been an inelegantly, even ineptly, executed pivot, gratuitously alienating key allies, but by leaving Afghanistan and forming a security pact with Australia and the UK in the Indo-Pacific, US President Joe Biden has at least cleared the decks to focus on his great foreign policy challenge — the systemic rivalry with China.
Yet the concern now is how quickly this rivalry could escalate, especially regarding Taiwan. The linchpin of the US alliance system in south-east Asia, Taiwan is the biggest island in the first island chain, the group of islands that keeps China blocked in.
It is China’s next target, and as former British prime minister Theresa May said, no one quite knows if the West is prepared to fight to save Taiwan or whether the new tripartite pact in some way places a new obligation on the UK to come to the country’s defense.
Chinese nationalist outlets, enthusiastic chroniclers of the end of the US empire, have certainly interpreted the US pullout from Afghanistan through the prism of Beijing’s claim on Taiwan.
The Global Times said Afghanistan showed that in the event of a war in the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan’s defense would “collapse in hours and the US military will not come to help.”
The US had shown it did not have the stomach for a fight, it said.
US policy for 40 years has been one of strategic ambiguity, leaving unanswered what it might do in the event of an invasion. Tracts predicting conflict with China have been pouring out for decades. In what is often called the bible of the modern China threat school, Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro wrote The Coming Conflict With China as early 1997.
Since then, whole libraries have been filled discussing this theme, including one by Project 2049 Institute senior director Ian Easton mapping how the invasion would pan out hour by hour.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, author of Demain la Chine: guerre ou paix?, has been writing about a possible invasion of Taiwan for nearly two decades.
He worries whether a turning point has been reached.
“Beijing’s project becomes a little more obvious every day — to become the world’s leading power and so dethrone Washington from its pedestal, dominate east Asia and thus oust America from the western Pacific,” he writes.
“The [People’s Liberation Army] is preparing a little more every day for an armed conflict with Taiwan,” he adds.
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said that with Hong Kong firmly in its grip, China sees Taiwan as unfinished business.
“I think what we’ll then be moving into is a period in which China will be looking at its options to leverage Taiwan back into a form of a political union with China by the time we get to the late 2020s and into the 2030s, and that’s when I believe it does get dangerous for us all,” Rudd said on CNBC.
At a confrontation between Chinese and US officials in Alaska in March, White House officials were left struck by the strength of the lecture on Taiwan by Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪). Soon after, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) inspected Fujian Province, across the Strait from Taiwan.
In June, Yang followed this up with a call to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, telling him: “The Taiwan question concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and involves China’s core interests. There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of China.”
Chinese planes in the past few months have stepped up incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
Earlier this month, Blinken reiterated the US’ commitment to helping Taiwan defend itself.
It would be a “serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force,” he said.
An invasion would be catastrophic, US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell said.
Taiwan has begun to realize it needs to do more to protect itself. It is to spend an extra US$8.7 billion on defense over the next five years, including on new missiles.
This is necessary because Taiwanese have in effect given up on training draftees and its military command is isolated and outmoded, said Tanner Greer, a expert on Taiwan.
Unless Taiwan mobilizes its society, the US cannot provide a defense guarantee, he said.
It would be too hard a domestic sell for the White House.
A Chicago Council poll last month found that only 46 percent of respondents favored explicitly committing to defend Taiwan if China invaded, even if a far larger number — 69 percent — supported US recognition of Taiwan.
The key debate is about China’s true intentions, its time frame and the depth of its resolve to assert its claim, including over Taiwan.
“There are those that say China has aggressive intentions and global ambitions, and is acting on those global ambitions because that is what great powers do, and as they get more powerful they get more ambitious,” said David Edelstein, author of Over the Horizon, a study of how declining and rising powers interact.
“Another school of thought sees this as a classic security dilemma in international relations. Both the US and China are seeking to secure their interest, and in the process threaten others. A third argument believes China is really motivated by domestic security. What matters most to Chinese leadership is that it wants a world that is safe for Chinese authoritarianism, and as long that it is safe, they do not have much ambition beyond that,” Edelstein said.
Within US government circles, concern about China’s intentions has only grown. The thesis expounded by former US president Barack Obama, that the US could use its power to nudge and reassure China toward better behavior, no longer holds sway.
An example of the latest thinking comes from US National Security Council Director for China Rush Doshi.
Before he took up his post he completed his analysis The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace the American Order.
Doshi detected three strategies, each based on evolving perceptions of the US threat. The first 20-year period started with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War and the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and was dedicated to blunting sources of US power.
Then after the 2008 financial crash, Beijing, confident that the US model was flawed, shifted to building foundations for a Chinese order within Asia.
This was set out best by the then-Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) at China’s 11th ambassadorial conference in 2009.
Hu said that there had been “a major change in the balance of international forces,” and that China now had to “actively accomplish something.”
It moved away from mines and missiles, and invested in aircraft carriers and amphibious vehicles. It militarized islands in the South China Sea. It began building more surface ships for its navy.
At the political level, China switched its focus away from participating in international organizations to blunt US influence. Instead, it started to launch its own initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative.
The third and current era is described as “great changes unseen in a century.”
This coincided with former US president Donald Trump’s election and Brexit in 2016, symbolizing a breakup of the Western political engine, Doshi said.
The global order is once again at stake because of unprecedented geopolitical and technological shifts.
For Doshi this strategy requires China projecting new leadership and advancing its norms at institutions such as the UN, turning the Chinese military into a world-class expeditionary force with bases across the globe and solidifying China’s place at the center of global supply chains. It also implicitly accepts that the opportunities to overtake the US surpass the risks.
“China can already look at the world on an equal level,” Xi told the annual legislative sessions in Beijing in early March, a remark widely interpreted in Chinese media as a declaration by the president that China no longer sees the US as a superior force.
The stark strategic frame through which Doshi and other Biden policy analysts view China’s intentions is shared by key military commanders.
Speaking to the US Senate Committee on Armed Services in March, Admiral Philip Davidson, who was then commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, put a stark time frame on a potential invasion, saying: “I think the threat is manifest during this decade — in fact, in the next six years.”
“I worry that they’re accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order, which they’ve long said that they want to do by 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer,” he said.
Testifying to the same committee, Davidson’s successor, Admiral John Aquilino, gave no date for the expected confrontation, but said: “My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think, and we have to take this on, put those deterrence capabilities like [the Pacific Deterrence Initiative] in place, in the near term and with urgency.”
Davidson has since expanded on his view about the imminence of the threat to Taiwan.
“The changes in the [People’s Liberation Army]’s capabilities, with their missile and cyberforces, and their ability to train, advance their joint interoperability and their combat support logistics, all those trend lines indicate to me that within the next six years they will have the capability and the capacity to forcibly reunify with Taiwan, should they choose force to do it,” he said.
“At the same time, within the next six years, it is clear to me that China is pursuing an all-of-party approach that seeks to coerce, corrupt and co-opt the international community in a way in which they may be able to achieve their geopolitical edge, in what some describe as ‘the hybrid zone’ or ‘the gray zone’ or the ‘three warfares’ or ‘lawfare,’ any of those things, to force Taiwan to capitulate because of extreme diplomatic [and] economic pressure and strain.”
It is this kind of assessment that explains the diplomatic risks Biden was prepared to run in forming the new tripartite security pact.
He says the pact and the Afghan withdrawal have to be seen as one.
If the Indo-Pacific is critical to the 21st century, and the US believes China is seeking global supremacy, Biden needed a credible answer to the Chinese threat manifested most immediately toward Taiwan.
The Taiwanese navy says the logical area for deployment of the pact’s nuclear submarines would be in the deep waters of the western Pacific near Taiwan. As such it is a message of intent to China that whatever the formalities, the US will seek to defend it.
Oppression is painful, and not being able to express it increases the pain 10-fold. This level of pain is something that Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians understand all too well. A question often posed to Uighurs in the international arena is: “You say you are facing genocide, but why don’t we see corpses, like in Rwanda and in Bosnia?” If you were a Uighur, what would you say? What if you replied: “The source of the problem is your lack of vision. It’s an indication of your weakness and China’s strength, and it is not a matter of our sincerity.” Such a harsh response would
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Double Ten National Day address has attracted a great deal of analysis and many different interpretations. One core question is why Tsai chose this occasion to discuss Taiwan’s national status. What was her main motive and what effect did she intend to have? These are issues that clearly need further clarification. The section of Tsai’s speech that attracted the most attention internationally was, not surprisingly, the part where she laid out “four commitments” that she said should serve as common ground for all Taiwanese, regardless of political affiliation. The commitments were to liberal democracy and constitutional government; that the
Double Ten Day, Oct. 10 every year, is an important day for Taiwan, as it marks the Republic of China’s (ROC) National Day. Major holidays are usually a time for celebration and commemorative activities, but among all the clamor and excitement, Double Ten reflects one essential fact: that Taiwan is still not a normalized society. As usual, there was a large parade in front of the Presidential Office Building, displaying to the world Taiwan’s social diversity and its soft and hard power, and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) gave an address, relaying her message to the nation and to the world, while the
Ever since former Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was recalled last year, “Han fans,” as well as the KMT hierarchy, have made pro-Taiwan lawmakers their enemy No. 1, and Taiwan Statebuilding Party Legislator Chen Po-wei (陳柏惟) has been on top of that list (“Recall part of ‘generational war’: expert,” Oct. 19, page 3). Chen has always been one of Han’s harshest critics, and Han fans have vowed revenge. Former legislators Yen Kuan-hen (顏寬恆) and Yen Ching-piao (顏清標), being such sore losers, were not amused about losing to Chen democratically and have amassed significant resources backed by