I want to return to a topic with which I have dealt several times: Taiwan. Further, I want to revisit an article upon which I have already commented: “American Support for Taiwan Must Be Unambiguous: To Keep the Peace, Make Clear to China That Force Won’t Stand,” By Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and David Sacks, a research fellow a the CFR, which appeared in Foreign Affairs last September.
“For four decades,” the authors remind us, “successive Republican and Democratic administrations resisted answering the question of whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China mounted an armed attack. Washington’s deliberate ambiguity on the matter helped dissuade China from attempting to “reunify” Taiwan with the mainland, as it could not be sure that the United States would remain on the sidelines. At the same time, the policy discouraged Taiwan from declaring independence – a step that would have precipitated a cross-strait crisis – because its leaders could not be sure of unequivocal U.S. support … [but that policy, known as strategic ambiguity, which is supported by all of America’s allies, has they say] … run its course. Ambiguity is unlikely to deter an increasingly assertive China with growing military capabilities … [and thus, Messers Haass and Stacks say, and I agree] … The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United States would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Washington can make this change in a manner that is consistent with its one-China policy and that minimizes the risk to U.S.-Chinese relations. Indeed, such a change should strengthen U.S.-Chinese relations in the long term by improving deterrence and reducing the chances of war in the Taiwan Strait, the likeliest site for a clash between the United States and China.“
China is ratcheting up the pressure ~ every sort of pressure, economic, diplomatic and military ~ on Taiwan. My guess is that China, under Xi Jinping, is doing that for a couple of reasons:
- To divert the world’s attention away from, inter alia ~
- China’s repression of Hong Kong,
- China’s military attacks on India, and
- China’s role in the spread of the COVID-19 virus; and
- China’s failure to make as much progress as it had hoped on Xi Jinping’s over-hyped mega-projects like ~
While none of those projects are actually “off the rails,” none seem, to me, to be going as planned and most of the world is looking askance at China’s political and military actions.
I have another guess: A few of the members of The Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党中央政治局常务委员会) (which currently consists of Xi Jinping plus six other men …
… Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng ~ a few of whom might be familiar from media reports but most of whom are mysterious, even in China ~ who work from Beijing’s Zhongnanhai (中南海) complex (a former imperial garden adjacent to the Forbidden City for those who have visited Beijing)) might be getting restless.
It is common, in the West, to assume that Xi Jinping is all powerful. Nothing, in my opinion, could be further from the truth. While he has purged most of the “old guard” ~ the men who came to high office under Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao …
… their influences remain strong and, as almost always is the case in autocracies, the “succession” is not mandated by rule of law or even deeply respected social custom and we may safely assume that more than one of the current six “henchmen” (or any of hundreds of other very senior and powerful officials) has leadership ambitions of his (or her) own. (Remember that Xi Jinping rose to power outside of Beijing, mostly in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and he was an unknown until he was elected to the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007. Even then his wife, a well known entertainer, was far better known that he was until 2012.)
I will not be surprised to wake up, one morning, maybe even in early 2021, to learn that Xi Jinping fell ill with a virus and died in his sleep. Who, I wonder, will be Brutus and who Cassius to Xi’s Caesar?
I suspect that Xi Jinping knows that the knives are drawn and that may be reason for the quite (politically) unnecessary crackdown on Hong Kong and the equally unnecessary aggression in the Himalayas. Xi Jinping, just like Justin Trudeau, needs to change the channel away from bigger problems. If the Belt and Road initiative, for example, is not going as planned or if the Chinese economy is not performing as hoped then he may want to look at Taiwan as a major military distraction. If he does then a friendly, Western democracy, a major trading partner and a free nation could be extinguished.
For that reason, Messers Haass and Sacks are correct: “Maintaining this policy of ambiguity, however, will not keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait for the next four decades. Too many of the variables that made it a wise course have fundamentally shifted. China now has the capability to threaten U.S. interests and Taiwan’s future. China’s defense spending is 15 times that of Taiwan’s, and much of it has been devoted to a Taiwan contingency. Chinese planning has focused on impeding the United States from intervening successfully on Taiwan’s behalf.” The strategic calculus has new variables. The old result is not longer guaranteed and, as they say, “In light of these trends, China’s aim to gain control of Taiwan, through force if necessary, needs to be taken seriously. There is speculation that Xi will marry his ambitions with the new means at his disposal to realize his “China Dream” and force “reunification” with Taiwan, potentially as soon as 2021. No one should dismiss the possibility that Taiwan could be the next Hong Kong.“
That would be a major defeat ~ let me emphasize that word, DEFEAT ~ for President Biden and the US-led West. Thus, it must not be allowed to happen. Richard Haass and David Sacks say that “To … continue to deter Chinese adventurism, the United States should adopt a position of strategic clarity, making explicit that it would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait.” The tools are at hand …
… all that is required is the will.
In my opinion, China will not risk an all-out shooting war with the USA. While it remains true that America cannot invade and conquer China ~ that’s a pretty much agreed, even in the Pentagon, military fact ~ it can punish China such that it will become, once again, a poor, powerless, hungry backwater in Asia, as it was in the 19th century. China does not have the strategic muscle to do anything similar to America ~ damage, yes, even serious damage, but the strategic military scales are still very much weighted in America’s favour.
Even though it will annoy the loony-left wing of his party, President Biden needs to take the threat to Taiwan seriously because it is a threat to liberty and democracy everywhere. If America will not stand up for Taiwan then the USA is finished as a beacon of freedom for the world … it is just another fast-fading empire.
And, Canada needs to stand with the USA, and with Taiwan, when President Biden does do the right thing, as current reports suggest (and as I am almost certain) that he will.
We, Canada and the West, faced an analogous situation almost 85 years ago. A few people, Winston Churchill amongst them, were doing what Richard Haass and David Sacks are doing today: sounding the alarm from outside of the corridors of power. Sadly, Chamberlain and Roosevelt and Mackenzie-King in Canada didn’t listen and we were unprepared for a great war when it became inevitable. Canada, and the whole of the US-led West, needs to learn from history so that our foreign and defence policies and especially our defence budget and forces are better prepared.