“Taiwanese shrug off China threat and place their trust in ‘Daddy America,’” ran the headline of a Financial Times article on Aug. 23, bemoaning Taiwan’s apparent complacency in the face of China’s military intimidation and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) talk of “reunification of the motherland.”
The article cited a poll in April that found only 39.6 percent of respondents expected a cross-strait war, and noted that many Taiwanese beneficiaries of US-donated COVID-19 vaccines had expressed their thanks on Facebook with the words: “Thank you, Daddy America.”
Rhetoric apart, little is truly familial about the Taiwan-China-US tangle.
The communist “motherland” has never enjoyed custody of its recalcitrant “child.”
“Daddy America,” albeit an extremely distant blood relative, is the vastly preferred “parent,” but it does not seek custody.
As to whether it would protect the “child,” it is famously “strategically ambiguous:” It might do; it might not.
It is an alarming sign of the accuracy of the Financial Times’ view that one searches in vain for polls conducted since April, and, in particular, since the incursions by 150 Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military aircraft in the first five days of last month.
The article had the subtitle: “Anti-Beijing sentiment is growing, but the government has done little to prepare the public for war.”
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday last week, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) appeared with one sentence to prove the newspaper’s view.
Asked whether she had faith that the US would defend Taiwan if China attacked, she said: “I do have faith, given the long-term relationship we have with the US.”
Is there something about US policy that Taiwan and no less a figure than its president do not understand? Apparently, there is.
The unambiguous essence of strategic ambiguity is that there is nothing for either Taiwan or China to take for granted: the US might defend Taiwan, but it might not. The policy is an unequivocal message to both sides, saying: “Do not mess.”
Tsai’s words suggest that she was straining to schmooze ostensibly diplomatic language into the ears of a US audience and, in so doing, failing to seize the moment presented by such an opportunity for actual diplomacy.
For Taiwan to believe that, “given the long-term relationship” — or, for that matter, for any other reason — the US would defend it in the event of an attack by China defeats the very object of strategic ambiguity; Tsai undermined the policy of Taiwan’s most existentially important friend, biting the hand that feeds.
She breached the “do not mess” injunction, possibly antagonizing China in precisely the way the US seeks to avoid, by sending a signal of reliance upon unflinching US solidarity with Taiwan, a phenomenon whose existence strategic ambiguity implicitly and conspicuously denies.
One imagines US officials seething. Language about fully understanding the prerogatives and priorities of friends, and being resolved to fight one’s own battles — militarily, diplomatically and economically — would have been language that signaled full understanding of and conformity with strategic ambiguity — a policy that is not Taiwan’s to change — while also bolstering Taiwan’s position under it.
First, it would bolster Taiwan’s position by sending the right message to China: “You know as well as we do that the US has not committed itself one way or the other. We will not mess. You should not mess either. If you do, we will, on our own initiative and with total resolve, do our utmost to ensure that you fail.”
Second, it would bolster Taiwan’s position because its predicament calls precisely for this kind of fighting talk: Taiwan cannot count on the US. It has to find strategies to counter China that take account of that reality.
Third, it would bolster Taiwan’s position because the better it stands up for itself, the more it would appear a worthwhile, supportable cause, not least to the US itself.
One imagines the officials relaxing somewhat after a two-day seethe when in Taipei, Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng (邱國正) on Thursday last week told reporters, perhaps to limit the damage, that Taiwan “must rely on itself, and if any friends or other groups can help us ... we’re happy to have it, but we cannot completely depend on it.”
Quite so. It is time for the child to stop crawling and show its abusive mommy and distant daddy that it can stand tall and walk proud.
More than a year has passed since the Pentagon’s China Military Power Report noted that Beijing “has already achieved parity with — or even exceeded — the United States in three areas: shipbuilding, land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, and air defense.”
The International Institute for Strategic Studies later noted: “Unsurprisingly, all three capabilities are of key relevance for the PLA in a potential invasion of Taiwan.”
In the past two weeks, it has been widely reported that China has developed hypersonic missile capability.
China has denied the reports, but the US has not, and has appeared jolted.
US Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament Robert Wood on Oct. 18 told the BBC: “We just don’t know how we can defend against that technology.”
It was the realist Chiu who told the Legislative Yuan’s Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee on Oct. 7 that China would have the capability of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025, adding that with news of Chinese strength and perhaps too-little-noticed weakness, “it has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily, having to take many other things into consideration.”
It is the realist Chiu who recognizes that “friends or other groups” — one might ask what he means by “other groups” — have a critical role to play.
This is not wishful thinking.
Taiwan’s is the fifth-largest economy in Asia and 18-largest in the world by purchasing power parity. Its semiconductors and other high-tech products are critical to the world economy.
Politically, democrats around the world would be repelled by the extinction of democracy in Taiwan.
Militarily, many states other than the US have power and interests that could be brought to bear in Taiwan’s favor, especially in coalition with one another and the US. In the region, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are allies of the US.
Further afield, the UK and France recently sailed aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait, are given to projecting power around the world and have interests in the region in the form of erstwhile colonies.
Other NATO members, of course, have the capacity to respond militarily. The EU has the power to respond economically and diplomatically.
Tsai must take a leaf out of her defense minister’s book and get real immediately. She must start by placing the nation on a war footing at home and overseas, countering China’s strategic bullying and complementing US strategic ambiguity with Taiwanese strategic clarity.
Enough of strategic bewilderment. Taiwan must seek a coalition of military partners to come to its defense in the event of a Chinese attack. It must seek the diplomatic support necessary to ensure and clearly signal massive punitive political and economic action against China in the event of an attack on Taiwan that it renders the cost of any such attack nothing less than prohibitive.
The Normandy invasion and the moon landings were challenges. Taiwan has no choice. These are achievable objectives and are to be viewed as such.
Taiwan has lived with strategic ambiguity since the idea’s inception in 1971. It met that massive challenge to its identity, security and prosperity with radical action and acquitted itself with flying colors, liberalizing its politics and economy, eventually democratizing, and enjoying enviable economic growth and security.
The child with the mismatched “parents” is the little island nation that can. May it continue to demonstrate that to the world, whatever the parents throw at it or at each other.
Mark Rawson is a writer, translator and editor based in Taiwan.
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