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Can the West save Taiwan from China?

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COMMUNIST China has accelerated its intimidation of Taiwan this year. In January, while America was wallowing in a disputed political transition, China started sending more warplanes and warships into Taiwanese territory. China can keep this up indefinitely. It has the world’s third-largest air force (after the US and Russia), and the biggest navy (777 warships; the US has 490).

Over the summer, superforecasters estimated war between China and Taiwan as unlikely (14 per cent), in part because they envisaged US intervention as likely (83 per cent). But Joe Biden has undermined US deterrence. He has reduced America’s foreign interests to climate change and social justice.

In March, Biden’s top foreign minister Antony J Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met their Chinese counterparts in Alaska. The Americans said in advance that they would hold China to account for its belligerence towards Taiwan. Instead, Blinken admitted America’s ‘imperfections’ after the Chinese painted the US as the biggest abuser of international law and human rights. China highlighted America’s impotence by sending a record number of warplanes over Taiwan in the final week of March. It set a new record in April, and another in June. The US did nothing to curb these provocations. Instead, in July, Blinken confirmed China’s narrative by inviting the United Nations to investigate ‘systemic racism’ in America.

In August we had the debacle in Afghanistan: Biden proved himself irresolute, unilateralist – even isolationist. China’s official newspaper titled its report: ‘US No Longer Has the Position of Strength for Its Arrogance and Impertinence.’ Its English-language newspaper opined: ‘From what happened in Afghanistan, the Taiwanese should perceive that once a war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defence will collapse in hours and the US military won’t come to help.’ This month, the same newspaper warned that the Taiwanese had ‘better not believe the “rock solid” promise of the US because Washington will never fight to the death with the Chinese mainland for the island’s secession’. Subsequently, an American analyst lamented that ‘America Won’t Save Taiwan . . . some time around 2025, the besieged democracy of Taiwan will face a brutal Chinese invasion of its territory’.

A few Western states, belatedly, are leaning in. In September, Boris Johnson abandoned the kowtowing of his progressive predecessors, from Tony Blair to Theresa May, by signing the AUKUS agreement, aligning the UK with Australia and the US in the development of technologies useful to the defence of sea space and cyber space. But two members of the Five Eyes have eschewed participation (New Zealand, Canada) although other regional partners (India, Japan) are interested in further integration. Such integration is undoubtedly useful in containing China generally, but not necessarily any help to Taiwan, which is geographically remote from everybody except China.

Britain’s presence in the Pacific is not the same as a focus on the Pacific. Russia is still Britain’s ‘most acute threat’, as the security defence review put it in March. Yes, the review stated that the ‘Indo-Pacific’ will be the ‘front line of new security challenges’ in the future, but Britain will continue to lead the defence of Nato’s northern flank (against any wartime Russian movement out of the Arctic into the Atlantic Ocean).

Biden was persuaded over AUKUS, but remains ambivalent on Taiwan. At the least, he could have sent fighters and warships to help the Taiwanese to patrol their borders. Instead, he and his floundering appointees downplayed the issue. This helps to explain why a poll from Opinium in late September (after the announcement of AUKUS) suggests that only 57 per cent of Americans would place China in the top three threats to their country. 

Worse, back in July, more than 40 self-described ‘progressive’ groups wrote to the US President and Congress urging them to ‘prioritise multilateralism, diplomacy and co-operation with China to address the existential threat that is the climate crisis’. Biden has complied. Even during the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, he quickly pivoted back to climate change. The culmination of his first year as President will be the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow from October 31 until November 12. Then the US government will wind down into the long holiday period from Thanksgiving to New Year.

Not surprisingly, China is further emboldened. In early October, its incursions into Taiwan reached a new record: 39 warplanes in one day. A few days later, on October 9, President Xi said that ‘reunification must be fulfilled’.

If Taiwan is to survive, the West needs to clarify that the island comes within its protection. Taiwan is not anybody’s ally in the treatied sense: it receives arms and liaisons from the US, but not guarantees. In 1971, Richard Nixon sought Communist China’s favour by supporting its replacement of Taiwan on the United Nations Security Council. In 1979, Jimmy Carter recognised the Communist Party as the legitimate government of China, stopped acknowledging Taiwan’s independence and terminated the US-Taiwan mutual defence treaty. Some analysts now urge Biden to restore the treaty and to base nuclear weapons in Taiwan.

The US doesn’t need to go that far. It just needs to station a token force on Taiwan indefinitely. That way, both sides know that Americans would be harmed by China’s attack. Ideally, the US would lead a multinational force, as Britain is leading in Estonia, on the border with Russia.

As we know from history, small states survive an aggressive neighbour only if an equal weight of friends are prepared to expose their forces on their friends’ borders.

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Bruce Newsome
Bruce Newsome is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas Permian Basin. He is also the author of the anti-woke satire "The Dark Side of Sunshine" (Perseublishing, 2020).

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