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Monday, April 22, 2024
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Will US ‘ambiguity’ mean abandoning Taiwan to China?

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EARLIER this month, the US and 25 other countries, including the UK, completed several weeks of Pacific Ocean exercises around Hawaii to demonstrate the awesome naval power the West can deploy against China if it attacks Taiwan. 

The US Navy led RIMPAC 2022, the largest-ever international maritime exercise, involving 38 warships including aircraft carriers, four submarines and 170 aircraft in a simulated defence of the island.  

Admiral Michael Donnelly said the US Navy would ‘not be dissuaded, bullied or forced’ by countries such as China into abandoning its mission to keep the seas open. 

However, as in Ukraine, the question is whether this array of conventional weaponry is not effectively useless against China, a nuclear superpower for whom – like Russia – defeat is not an option.  

Does the asymmetry between nuclear and conventionally armed powers mean that the former are immune to challenge when they turn rogue? The question answers itself, as the Ukrainians have found out. 

The West has been careful in Ukraine not to risk an atomic missile confrontation with Vladimir Putin, who put Russia on nuclear alert when he began his invasion last February. As a result, the war is lost in all but name – with Putin controlling the swathe of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine that he wanted. 

The current stand-off between America and China was provoked by US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which both President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi opposed.  

Whether it can be deemed a full-fledged crisis is moot. China, which can regain Taiwan only by force, staged large-scale mock air attacks on the island after Pelosi left, but there is no imminent evidence of a real attack. 

If and when Xi makes his move, it should be understood that he is capable of using nuclear weapons rather than let the US Navy’s aircraft carriers stop him – and that Japan and South Korea could be targeted, if not the US itself. Sparing the American mainland could be enough to keep the US at bay and avoid a similar fate. 

No less a figure than Henry Kissinger fears the US and China are on a heedless collision course that is due to the West’s lack of leadership under Biden. There is no European country capable of replacing the US. In fact, the war in Ukraine and the threat to Taiwan have shown the vulnerability of the West. Neither development has deterred the US or the EU from letting Iran go nuclear. 

‘We are at the edge of war with Russia and China on issues which we partly created, without any concept of how this is going to end or what it’s supposed to lead to,’ Kissinger told the Wall Street Journal

Biden has ruled out any direct Nato intervention in Ukraine and US policy towards Taiwan is called ‘strategic ambiguity’, which is self-explanatory.  

The White House had to correct Biden when he pledged the US, which has two carrier groups in the South China Sea, would fight to defend Taiwan. Kissinger counselled that strategic ambiguity was well understood by both sides, had worked for decades and should be maintained in the name of equilibrium. 

‘I think that the current period has a great trouble defining a direction,’ said the former US Secretary of State. ‘It’s very responsive to the emotion of the moment.’  

In other words, the liberal West wants confusedly to defend allied democracies such as Ukraine and Taiwan, but its hands are tied by fear of nuclear war for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago. 

The West made two crucial mistakes in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It reassured Putin that it would not fight on the ground or in the air, and imposed sanctions on Russia that have backfired catastrophically on the EU and other parts of the world. The intended projection of strength became a fiasco, though governments are not telling their peoples this. 

Some Western analysts are confident that the Chinese aerial exercises in response to Pelosi’s visit showed the impracticability of an invasion across the 90 miles of the Straits of Taiwan. This means the island could theoretically defend itself, despite having a population of only 43million compared to China’s 1.4billion. 

But what if President Xi, whose personal credibility is tied to his pledge to recover Taiwan, decided not to invade, but to ruthlessly flatten the island with air and missile bombardments and then walk in unopposed? China would inherit a ruin, but that’s what Putin has done without a qualm in Ukraine. 

With hindsight, the West could have done things a lot differently to deter Putin’s invasion. As the situation deteriorated through 2021, Ukrainian president Zelensky could have asked Washington to deploy US forces in his country pre-emptively. Biden could have done this under cover of joint exercises with a sovereign state. 

This is not an option in Taiwan, which, at Chinese insistence, does not have US diplomatic recognition. The US can put defensive weapons – the supply of Patriot surface-to-air missiles worth 100billion dollars is awaiting approval from Congress – in Taiwan, but not troops. The US Navy would be key in a conventional war. 

The independent Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, has war-gamed scenarios for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in 2026. The centre’s Mark Cancian told Bloomberg that the island could be defended, but at heavy cost ‘to the Taiwanese infrastructure and economy and US forces in the Pacific’. 

In 18 of the 22 rounds of the gaming, the Chinese mostly gained a beachhead, but were unable to take all of Taiwan. Cancian, a former White House defence analyst, said Chinese missiles would destroy much of the US and Japanese surface fleet, but the Chinese could lose 150 of their own ships.  

He conceded without giving details that ‘we have not yet run the most pessimistic scenarios that the Chinese might conquer the entire island’.  

Cancian did not mention the nuclear threat, but the costs of defending Taiwan with conventional warfare that his gaming foresees could mean the White House might prefer to retreat behind the safety of strategic ambiguity than run the risk. 

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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