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Welcome, China Watchers. Phelim Kine, your regular host, is on vacation this week. Your guest host is Tong Zhao, senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. His research focuses on strategic security issues, such as nuclear weapons policy, deterrence, arms control, nonproliferation, missile defense, hypersonic weapons, and China’s security and foreign policy. He is the author of “Tides of Change: China’s Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and Strategic Stability” and “Narrowing the U.S.-China Gap on Missile Defense: How to Help Forestall a Nuclear Arms Race.” Over to you, Tong. — John Yearwood, global news editor
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban may not have immediate implications for the credibility of U.S. commitment to Taiwan. But the Afghan National Army’s rapid collapse and the American military’s hasty withdrawal highlight an important fact for decision makers in Washington, Taipei and Beijing: The U.S.’ future commitment to defending Taiwan is inherently interconnected with Taiwan’s own commitment to defending itself.
If Taiwan will not fight for its own independence, neither will Washington; similarly, if Washington shows hesitation, Taiwan’s resolve may also break down. This reminds Beijing of some of the key vulnerabilities in the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship.
To some extent, the withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrates the U.S. seriousness in meeting the security challenges from the great power competition with China. On the other hand, as Washington recognizes Beijing as a rising peer competitor, the importance of working with Beijing to maintain bilateral strategic stability and avoid catastrophic conflicts and mutual destruction also becomes more obvious, not to mention the increasing need for cooperation to address urgent global challenges, such as the pandemic and climate change.
In this sense, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 provides a more relevant precedent than the current Afghan crisis. The fundamental challenge to the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is the growing tension between maintaining bilateral strategic stability with China and fighting China over Taiwan in a violent military conflict that has every potential to escalate into an all-out major power war.
Beijing has not been shy about its thinking of how to undermine the resolve of both Taipei and Washington. Believing that the relative balance of power ultimately determines the future geopolitical landscape, China has been focused on establishing military advantages against Taiwan and American forces at the theater level in the Asia-Pacific region. By the time Beijing can demonstrate clear military advantages, neither Taipei nor Washington would have the resolve to put up a fight that is doomed to fail. Indeed, as China moves the military balance increasingly to its favor, it feels vindicated to see a debate in Washington about whether the United States should cut loss in its failing military assistance to Taiwan.
In recent months and years, China dispatched air and naval patrols near Taiwan, conducted military drills in the region, and practiced new force mobilization and projection capabilities. In doing so, it signaled that China is not only accumulating greater military advantages but also better prepared and more willing to employ its newly gained power to achieve the goal of unification.
There is growing domestic discussion about the necessity for China to take the initiative and forcibly achieve unification sooner rather than later, although the government has so far remained silent on its position. The appearance of China pushing a more assertive and ambitious agenda could help the Chinese paramount leader secure a third term in 2022. But the growing ambiguity over the real Chinese intention also makes it harder for Washington and Taipei to coordinate and prepare. The risk of misjudgment and escalation of tensions will inevitably grow.
In the mid- to long-term, Taiwan likely sees the solution in its development of asymmetric military capabilities to deny China the ability to launch a blitzkrieg. However, to acquire such capabilities will take time and will require substantial and sustainable assistance from the United States and other partner countries. Meantime, China will certainly utilize its full economic, diplomatic and political leverage to block any foreign attempts to assist Taiwan. Beijing, Washington and Taipei will repeatedly test each other’s resolve in this constant arm wrestling, with implications for the rest of the world.
Image: iStock, Trent Inness.