Putin thought he could get away with his invasion. Xi Jinping must be deterred from making a similarly fatal miscalculation
It is generally acknowledged that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, drawing in the US and possibly Japan, Australia and Britain, could dwarf the Ukraine crisis both in scale and danger. Top US generals and officials have repeatedly warned an attack is becoming more probable and more feasible. And yet it remains spectacularly unclear what the Biden administration would actually do in response.
The longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity”, designed to leave Beijing guessing about Washington’s intentions, has helped keep a lid on cross-strait tensions. But the dynamic has changed radically with the rise of China’s president, Xi Jinping, to a position of supreme power and the advent of his aggressive approach to Taiwan and international relations as a whole.
Xi vowed again last month to annex the self-ruled island, which he regards as China’s property. “We should actively oppose the external forces and secessionist activities of Taiwan independence. We should unswervingly advance the cause of national rejuvenation and reunification,” Xi told the National People’s Congress. Xi pointedly did not rule out the use of force.
American ambiguity becomes more problematic as time passes. US president Joe Biden has confused matters further with unscripted remarks. Asked in September whether, unlike in Ukraine, he would send US troops to defend Taiwan, Biden replied: “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”
This is not official US policy – although it probably should be. Biden’s words were swiftly disowned by his senior officials amid furious Chinese protests. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the US is committed “to provide Taiwan with arms of defensive character”. The aim is deterrence, not war-fighting.
The marked deterioration in US-China relations consequent on Xi’s rise and Donald Trump’s presidency has led to much unhelpful posturing by US and Chinese politicians. They include Democrat Nancy Pelosi, whose needlessly provocative visit last year supercharged military tensions, and Beijing’s hawkish foreign minister, Qin Gang.
Another row, and more military threats, may be expected if Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, meets Kevin McCarthy, Pelosi’s Republican successor as House speaker, in California this week. Tsai will make an unofficial stopover after visiting two of Taiwan’s few remaining allies in Central America. Honduras recently defected to Beijing.
The planned McCarthy meeting will be symbolic, lacking practical import. What it will do is advertise the Republicans’ hardline anti-China stance before next year’s US elections. By demonstrating leverage with Washington, it may also boost Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) before national polls in January 2024.
Ambiguity, strategic or otherwise, extends to the Taiwanese side, too. Tsai cannot run again, and it is uncertain who will succeed her as president or whether the pro-independence DPP can retain power. Her party’s main opponent, the Kuomintang (KMT), claims the DPP has trashed relations with China, which it promises to repair.
The KMT has long maintained it is not “pro-China” but pro-peace and prosperity – an attractive message after years of cross-strait turmoil. Last November, the party swept to victory in local elections, capturing the capital, Taipei. Yet suspicions about its willingness to stand up to Beijing persist. When Biden talks about defending Taiwan, he should understand not everyone wants to be defended.
This ambivalence was on dramatic show again last week, when Ma Ying-jeou became the first former Taiwan president and most senior KMT-linked figure to visit China since 1949. Ma, in office from 2008 to 2016, claimed his trip was not political, but evidently it was. Such outreach has positive and negative implications for KMT’s electoral prospects.
Ma, who once said he would “never ask the Americans to fight for Taiwan”, explained his visit in remarks Xi could have written himself. “People on both sides of the Taiwan strait are Chinese people,” Ma said. “We sincerely hope the two sides will work together to pursue peace, avoid war, and strive to revitalise China.”
Few people want war. And Ma’s “we are all Chinese” comment ignored the fact that more than 60% of the island’s people now identify as Taiwanese only. While most favour the status quo over a formal declaration of independence, a huge majority opposes rule by Beijing. China’s ruthless Hong Kong takeover set a fearsome precedent. Some fear a KMT sell-out.skip past newsletter promotion
It’s plain that Taiwan’s situation is more complex and nuanced than American rightwingers (and former UK prime minister Liz Truss, who advocates supplying British arms and military support) maintain. The oft-conjured, black-and-white picture of a tiny democracy united in valiant defiance of towering tyranny is simplistic – and potentially dangerous.
Dangerous, too, is the continuing confusion about US guarantees, real or imagined. Richard Haass, president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, warned in an influential article published just before the Ukraine invasion that Biden’s lack of “strategic clarity” could lead Xi, like Vladimir Putin, into fatal miscalculation.
“The best way to reduce the risk of war would be to make explicit to China that the US would respond to an attack against Taiwan with all the tools at its disposal, including severe economic sanctions and military force. Washington needs to make it clear to Beijing that the cost of aggression would vastly outweigh any potential benefits,” Haass wrote.
An American shift towards deterrence with teeth could help head off an Asian Ukraine – and is necessary and urgent. But it won’t resolve the wider Taiwan conundrum. That requires the political vision, moderation and disinterestedness that is in global short supply these days.