Debating Taiwan

With the collapse of the American-backed government in Afghanistan, questions are understandably being raised in other parts of the world about the wisdom of relying on the United States military. Taiwan is an obvious point of comparison: if China were to attempt to incorporate the island by force, would American support be as useless as it ultimately proved to be in Kabul?

The analogy is less than compelling. Taiwan’s government is not a creature of the US; it is well established in control of its own territory, with an impeccable democratic mandate. But it’s no doubt true that its plans for its own defence depend on the idea that in a worst-case scenario, American help in some form would ultimately be forthcoming.

If Taiwan’s generals and politicians – and for that matter its ordinary citizens – were to be convinced that such help would never arrive, it’s possible that it would shift their attitude towards the possibility of reunification with the mainland. It could also lead to a military buildup in Taiwan, including potentially the development of its own nuclear deterrent.

It’s therefore opportune to consider the debate on just what the Chinese government’s likely intentions are in the matter. There’s a very interesting discussion this month in Foreign Affairs, in which a range of experts respond to Oriana Skylar Mastro’s argument from the previous issue that a Chinese invasion is a serious risk, together with Mastro’s reply.

It’s well worth a read. My view is that Mastro’s critics have the better of the argument, and that while a Chinese invasion is not something that can ever be completely ruled out, the odds against it – in the absence of some new and quite unexpected provocation from the Taiwanese side – are very high.

As Bonny Lin and David Sacks put it:

Beijing still sees an invasion of Taiwan as a last resort, one that would be incredibly difficult, risky, and costly for the People’s Liberation Army … It is true that China possesses a more advanced military than it did five or ten years ago, but China also intentionally exaggerates its capabilities and confidence as part of its campaign of psychological warfare against Taiwan and the United States. Analysts should not accept at face value China’s claim that it could easily win a fight against Taiwan.

Note, however, that the relationship between one’s perception of the Chinese threat and the consequences for American (and Taiwanese) policy is far from straightforward. Mastro is arguing for a firmer American posture to deter Beijing, but some of her critics suggest that exaggerating the threat may end up encouraging the supporters of appeasement. In Kharis Templeman’s words,

[Mastro’s] assumption that Beijing will spare no expense and bear any burden to conquer Taiwan is shared both by those who call for urgently strengthening U.S. military capabilities in the western Pacific and by those who would abandon Taiwan to avoid war.

No-one having seen the last year’s events in Hong Kong will trust to Beijing’s benevolence. But its policy towards Taiwan has been driven by a cold calculation of self-interest, and there is no evidence to suggest that that has changed. Xi Jinping is a ruthless and unprincipled ruler, but he is no fool; he has little to gain from recklessness towards Taiwan and a great deal to lose.

And even if that assessment is wrong, the policy implications are much the same either way. Avoid unnecessary provocation, press for peaceful engagement where possible, but also do whatever is necessary (including a degree of “strategic ambiguity”) to maximise the force of the deterrent. While Afghanistan has certainly not helped the prestige of the US government and military, it has not really changed the fundamentals of the situation in East Asia.

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