A series of increasingly menacing flybys in Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) by Chinese fighter jets has ramped up fears over a not-so-far-off invasion of the island Beijing claims as part of the “motherland,” and the nagging question of what Taiwan and its American ally must do in response to such provocations.
Is China actually contemplating military action? Or is the saber-rattling no more than noise aimed at frightening its neighbor away from a path to independence? Should the United States rattle sabers in response? Is war between China and America a real possibility?
These are some of the questions that policymakers in Washington, Taipeh and European capitals are losing sleep over these days.
And well they should.
Again, the U.S. is faced with a dilemma involving commitments to an ally versus the cost of those commitments. What price is it worth paying to keep China from imposing what President Xi Jinping calls “peaceful reunification” on the island nation that wants to be left alone?
At this point, it is fair to say that no one knows the answer to these questions.
But judging from a recent op-ed by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Foreign Affairs magazine, the threat must be taken seriously. As she wrote, “If Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system. It would signal that in today’s global contest of values, authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy.”
Still, opinion as to the right response is divided. Especially in the wake of the ignominious withdrawal from Kabul, there are those who argue that a get-tough policy is necessary to convince the Chinese regime that Taiwan is different. The U.S. must project more military power in the region to discourage Beijing from acting aggressively, they say.
Then there are others who argue that diplomacy and economic leveraging would be a more effective — and safer — course to pursue.
In fact, both the U.S. and Taiwan itself have already taken steps to deter Chinese recklessness: The U.S. has upgraded military operations in the region, and the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. special-operations teams are in Taiwan providing training to its forces.
Taiwan, for its part, has committed to increase defense spending to 3 percent of GDP, which compares favorably with that of allies Germany and Japan, who invest less than half that in their own self-protection.
Diplomatically, Washington has realigned protocols with Taiwan to more accurately reflect the reality of a working alliance. Just before leaving office in January, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted restrictions on contacts between U.S. officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. Among the restrictions: Taiwanese officials were prohibited from entering the State Department, and meetings had to be held at hotels.
“The United States government maintains relationships with unofficial partners around the world, and Taiwan is no exception. … the U.S.-Taiwan relationship need not, and should not, be shackled by self-imposed restrictions of our permanent bureaucracy,” Pompeo said.
The reference to “unofficial partners” was an acknowledgment that the U.S. still recognizes only “one China,” the one on the mainland, even if interactions with Taiwan may now be more open and dignified.
In January, President Biden became the first American president since 1978 to host Taiwan’s envoy at his inauguration. In April, other diplomatic easements were announced. And though it has no binding effect, last summer Democrats removed the phrase “one China” from their platform.
These measures would seem only right and proper, ways to grant Taiwan the status it deserves as a firm ally.
But getting friendly with Taipeh while getting tough with Beijing can potentially set off a major conflagration.
Thus, the Biden administration has avoided taking actions that might push China over the edge. For example, it reinstated a rule swept away by Pompeo that prevents Taiwan from displaying its flag at bilateral meetings.
One encouraging argument being made by some analysts is that, as big and bad as China is, we tend to overestimate its capacities.
They compare its economic and political condition today to that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It had become a pillar of foreign policy that the communist regime in Moscow was there to stay for the forseeable future and that the West must accommodate to it. But President Ronald Reagan perceived that the Soviets were much weaker than they appeared, and was able through bold rhetoric and economic pressure to hasten their downfall without resort to war.
Much the same can be said of present-day China, these analysts claim. Economically overstretched (with a debt level over 300 percent of GDP) and making enemies every day through its human rights and economic abuses, China is not the “forever power” that it’s made out to be.
Yet this alone does not present a path to curbing Chinese belligerence without risking war. May Hashem grant the makers of U.S. policy the wisdom to choose the right path of how best to stand up to the Chinese without provoking a violent confrontation.