Unless Hollywood movies like Greenland, Deep Impact, and Armageddon have predictive powers and a rogue space rock is heading our way, stopping Chinese Communist Party expansionism is likely to prove the single most challenging and dangerous problem of our lifetimes.
How can the United States, Taiwan, and other liberal democracies prepare for and prevent attacks from China? How can Washington bolster Taipei’s confidence when it doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a real country and, so far, lacks the political will to make major adjustments to its ossified China policy and Taiwan policy?
How can Taiwan make itself heard on the world stage when all the doors of the United Nations are closed? Today, Taiwan’s democratic peers are too scared of China to treat Taiwanese diplomats on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and inclusion. Can Taiwan’s government maintain a credible self-defense? It is diplomatically isolated, has zero nuclear weapons, and faces a much stronger enemy.
The somber reality is that our governments are unprepared for the future and rarely able to shape decisions made in the People’s Republic of China. A growing body of evidence suggests that Xi Jinping (習近平) is a megalomaniac. He is a dictator like no other in modern times. In his zeal for self-aggrandizement, Xi has turned China into a super predator on the world stage, and, so far, the international community’s response has been to blink in astonishment and disbelief.
Consider the democracies’ collective paralysis in the face of Xi’s ongoing genocide, his weaponization of trade, his crushing of Hong Kong’s freedoms, his Covid-19 coverup, his militarization of the seas and outer space. When massive numbers of Chinese warplanes swarmed into Taiwan’s air defense zone this month, did President Biden call President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to express support and demonstrate solidarity? Did any other Western leader?
This all constitutes a picture of complacency and fecklessness that, while devoid of intentional complicity, is not entirely blameless. Our elected leaders are full of humane goodwill, yet they could be playing a definitive part in unleashing events that spread tyranny.
Soaring rhetoric about alliances and partnerships means little when little is being done. Watching the evolution of the threat from China is like watching bamboos grow. Bamboos, of course, are some of the fastest growing plants in the world; some species will grow three feet (one meter) in less than 24 hours. Watching the evolution of US-Taiwan relations is like watching a glacier move. Things are happening, but you really need time-lapse photography to see progress. Today it remains difficult to observe a palpable sense of urgency in Washington or Taipei. Little appetite seems to exist for matching grand speeches with grand actions.
Senior-level visits between Taiwan and Washington remain rare and opaque. The Pentagon continues to have a colonel representing America’s defense interests in Taiwan and a few dozen troops in country. Compare that with South Korea, where the US stations a four-star general and tens of thousands of troops. This is remarkable because South Korea is far more structurally stable (Seoul far outguns Pyongyang). And, unlike the case with South Korea, the US military doesn’t do large-scale military exercises with Taiwan.
When the next Taiwan Strait crisis happens, the President of the United States will be relying on senior military leaders who have never seen the battlespace with their own eyes and have never interacted with their Taiwanese partners in the field. This is akin to asking a dentist to perform brain surgery because he knows about drills. It’s not hard to visualize the likely outcome.
Carl von Clausewitz famously observed that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The implication, of course, is that a nation’s defense situation is in grave doubt when its policies are divorced from reality. This is precisely the situation that exists today in Washington and in Taipei.
The policy of strategic ambiguity no longer makes sense and, indeed, remains an obstacle to stability and lasting peace. It is obvious to the eyes of everyone that Xi Jinping is dragging Taiwan into a dark alley. But State Department officials seem more concerned with adhering to the inane trivialities of their “one China” policy (a policy they can’t even articulate) than doing what is required to preserve the rules-based order. How is peace going to prevail if the US continues to diplomatically isolate Taiwan and take a minimalistic approach to bilateral defense and security contacts?
America and Taiwan do have defensive war plans. Whether those plans would work in the supreme emergency is unknowable. But clearly steps are being taken to make them more credible. Nonetheless, military efforts to improve deterrence are undermined by policy mistakes all the time. Neither the United States nor the Republic of China (Taiwan) has a national strategy for winning that matches ends, ways, and means.
To understand why that’s the case, imagine an alternative history where the US in the Cold War had a team of leaders who refused to visit Berlin and West Germany because they thought it would provoke war with the Soviet Union. How do you think that story would have ended?
If American and Taiwanese leaders are serious about deterrence, the boldness of their actions must match the magnitude of the shared threat facing their democracies. The security of their citizens, their allies, and their friends depends on an ability to keep the authorities in Beijing from breaking the peace.
Unless a giant extraterrestrial body is blistering its way toward Earth, fixing this problem should be the number one priority.
Ian Easton is a senior director at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia.
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