Five thousand miles from Ukraine, an island nation with a population of 23.9 million is closely watching Russia’s devastating war in Ukraine. As the rhetoric “Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow” resonates across Taiwanese and international social media, many international relations pundits have reflected upon the likelihood of China launching a military invasion of Taiwan.
For those with a less pessimistic viewpoint, Beijing is more likely just going to step up its intimidation of Taipei. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders’ calculations about attacking Taiwan “are political decisions that Moscow’s actions will not influence,” said David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Russia’s colossal missteps in Ukraine are unlikely to reduce Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) determination to annex Taiwan. To Xi and the CCP, China’s unification with Taiwan has been framed as a “historic mission and unshakable commitment” on which Chinese leaders would never make any concessions.
Meanwhile, China is closely monitoring the war in Ukraine and Russia’s countermeasures to the West’s sanctions on Moscow.
The flashpoints in Ukraine and Taiwan are not identical, but China might have learned invaluable lessons about Russia’s military tactics and its blunders as it faced Ukraine’s strong determination and heroic resistance. Yet one should not downplay the scenario of a cross-strait conflict.
China’s reining in of Hong Kong and its strong will to reinforce Sino-Russia ties with “no limits” have compounded the fears in Taiwan, presenting “the danger of a more immediate crisis over the Taiwan crisis than one might expect,” said Steven Goldstein of Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies.
If Beijing launches a war against Taiwan, economic sanctions, reputational costs, military support and diplomatic boycotts would likely have a seismic effect on China’s reputation and economic strength.
Nevertheless, China has extensive experience in bearing these costs, especially with its repression of people in Xinjiang and intimidation of smaller states in the South China Sea.
Taiwan is not a passive learner. The government has bought US-made weapons to bolster the country’s capability of embracing asymmetric warfare, but the consensus between Taiwan and its counterpart has not been reached regarding Taiwan’s procurement of weapons not listed as “asymmetric.” Taiwan needs long-term and transparent support from the US and its allies.
For the US, efforts to support Taiwan should be in sync with Washington’s commitment to ensure a peaceful environment surrounding the nation and to promote regional security, as stated in US President Joe Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
As for Washington’s commitment to Taiwan, “the morality of a foreign policy should be judged not by words or intent, but by how well it does that,” American Global Strategies senior adviser Elbridge Colby aptly said.
The US has embraced “strategic ambiguity” to maintain a peaceful, albeit rocky, status quo in cross-strait relations.
However, during a news conference in Tokyo, when asked about whether the US military would intervene to defend Taiwan, Biden said “Yes,” adding: “That’s the commitment we made,” which seemed to undercut Washington’s longstanding “strategic ambiguity” policy.
White House officials later walked back Biden’s comments, saying he meant the US would continue to supply Taiwan with military equipment rather than send troops to defend its democratic partner.
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at Washington-based think tank German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that Biden’s Taiwan gaffe and confusion are likely to “undermine deterrence than strengthen it.”
Moreover, Biden’s equivocal stance and misstatements imply that Washington’s commitment to defending Taiwan is not guaranteed.
Accordingly, the US should embrace “strategic clarity” and confirm that the superpower would defend Taiwan and gather like-minded powers to preserve regional security should China risk an all-out war. As China has become more assertive, the US cannot rely solely on economic sanctions or Beijing’s concerns about being condemned.
The US was naive in supporting China’s global integration, hoping that China could become a responsible stakeholder. Washington has paid a price for China’s growing belligerence and its deliberate attempt to overlook its assurances.
It is of utmost importance for the US to be “sharp and clear” in its Taiwan policy, as Taiwanese are skeptical about the US’s commitment to support them militarily.
A poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation in March showed that only one-third of respondents believed that they would receive US military support in the event of a Chinese invasion. Such skepticism, in the long run, could hinder diplomatic and economic ties between Washington and Taipei.
Biden has not made any guarantee of deploying troops to Ukraine. China could interpret this as Biden seeking a prudent approach for fear of inflaming a disastrous war with a nuclear-armed rival. A credible pledge to support Taiwan and enhance its asymmetric defense strategy, while highlighting a US guarantee to come to Taiwan’s defense, is imperative in these uncertain times.
Washington’s “asymmetric” policy of limiting Taiwan’s access to US-made defense equipment could likely make Taiwan “more vulnerable to a successful Chinese attack,” the American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan and the US-Taiwan Business Council said in a letter to US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mira Resnick.
To resolve this issue, the US should maximize Taiwan’s ability to conduct anti-submarine warfare and defend Taiwan’s airspace ahead of Beijing’s incursions into Taipei’s air defense identification zone. A clear and comprehensive blueprint to envisage potential scenarios in the Taiwan Strait and to formulate coherent strategies to enhance Taiwan’s wartime and peacetime deterrence should be among Washington’s priorities.
Strategic ambiguity failed grievously for Kyiv, and this mistake should not happen to Taiwan. From Ukraine to Taiwan, the same tragic fate could become a reality if Biden fails to hone a clear and comprehensive playbook to support the nation.
At the very least, Biden should not brew “strategic confusion” with confusing remarks when addressing the issue of defending or supporting Taiwan. Altogether, strategic clarity instead of strategic ambiguity should become essential, an approach the US could embrace as leverage to spearhead its Taiwan policy.
Huynh Tam Sang is an international relations lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities, and a research fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation. Chen Kuan-ting is CEO of the Taiwan NextGen Foundation and a former staff member at the National Security Council.
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