Lessons for Taiwan

This morning’s news is that US president Joe Biden has spent more than two hours in a phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in which they discussed (among other things) the status of Taiwan. The topic, never very far from the headlines, has enjoyed some prominence in the last week with a projected visit to the island by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi.

No such high-ranking American has visited Taiwan this century (Newt Gingrich, one of the least admirable of her predecessors, did so in 1997), so the adverse reaction from the Chinese government is no surprise. Pelosi has avoided direct comment on her plans, but she is a long-time supporter of Taiwan and of human rights in China, and approaching retirement she apparently sees this as a fitting climax to her career.

As Speaker Pelosi holds a powerful position in American government, but separation of powers means that she is not part of the executive and is not subject to direction from the president. The Biden administration, however, has indicated that it is not happy with the projected trip. This morning’s phone call is clearly an attempt to soothe feelings, apparently with limited success.

We had a look at the Taiwan question a year ago, when I expressed the view that “the odds against [a Chinese invasion] – in the absence of some new and quite unexpected provocation from the Taiwanese side – are very high.” I also pointed out that regardless of one’s view on that question, the policy implications (both for the US and for Taiwan itself) “are much the same either way.”

Since then, however, while east Asia has been relatively quiet, opinions about international affairs generally have been upended by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many observers have tried to draw parallels between the Ukrainian situation and that of Taiwan.

From the American perspective, whether or not you think this is a particularly good or particularly bad time to be showing some solidarity with Taiwan could depend on what lesson you draw from Ukraine: specifically, on whether you focus on the lesson for China or the lesson for Taiwan.

The lesson for China is fairly obvious. It’s that a military operation to conquer an unwilling neighbor can be much – much – more difficult than it looks. People fighting to defend their own homeland have big advantages that might not be apparent when an operation is in the planning stage, especially when that planning takes place in an environment where military experts are afraid to contradict the leader.

Vladimir Putin evidently expected that Ukrainian resistance would be brittle, that collaborators with Russian occupation would be easily found, and that the western response would be slow or half-hearted. None of those assumptions turned out to be true, and there is no reason to think their equivalents in the case of Taiwan would fare any better.

But while Ukraine has performed better than almost anyone expected, the difficulties of the invasion were not, in general terms, hard to predict. It was clear beforehand that occupation of Ukraine would be a mammoth task, riddled with uncertainty, and that a full-scale invasion would involve enormous risk for little tangible benefit.

That led many people, including me, to conclude that it wouldn’t happen. We were wrong. And that is the lesson for Taiwan: that authoritarian rulers do not always act rationally, or at least that their calculation of costs and benefits may work in a way that defies rational interpretation.

Xi certainly conveys the image of a cold and calculating leader, not one who would be prone to over-optimism or let nationalist enthusiasm run away with him. But similar things were said about Putin, and they turned out to be badly mistaken. The detached observer can see that an amphibious invasion of Taiwan would be courting disaster, but there is no guarantee that the view from Beijing looks the same.

My view is that China will take the lesson of Ukraine to heart and that a move against Taiwan, never likely, will have been shuffled even further down the agenda. But I can’t blame the Taiwanese for taking the opposite moral and deciding that the risk is too great to be ignored (and, as just noted, I’ve been wrong before).

Either way, I think it’s obvious that the extremes of provocation and appeasement should be avoided; the question is how to fine-tune the relationship so as to avoid unnecessary tension while preserving the strength of the deterrent. Perhaps a “good cop/bad cop” routine by Biden and Pelosi will do to keep things ticking over.


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