Should the United States seek a Policy of Strategic Clarity towards Taiwan?

(Photo: US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)

Recently there has been much discussion towards the likely invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and how the United States should seek an unequivocal solution to the defense of Taiwan. As recently discussed by Richard Haass in Foreign Affairs he states, “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.”

The subject of ambiguity and unambiguity is entirely irrelevant as the Chinese capability to occupy Taiwan remains moot. The U.S holds many pre-existing leverages which China is unable to overcome anytime soon or in the immediate future. There is no doubt that the reunification of Taiwan is imperative for the Chinese nation. It was made clear by President Xi’s speech, where he stated, that the burden of Taiwan Straits should not be passed down to the future Chinese generations. Xi saying, “our country must be reunified and will surely be reunified” is nothing more than rhetoric for domestic consumption.

There is a long tradition of the Chinese Communist Party blaming foreign powers for problems that the country faces. It does this to unite the people under the government’s wing. Although this does not mean that the foreign powers are innocent, but after the Chinese revolution, the country cannot place all the blame for the issues it faces on outsiders. After China’s independence, and the expulsion of colonial designs from its mainland, it was the unfeasible reforms that Mao Zedong introduced, which generated further obstacles for domestic China. Today, the former trend still exists where the PRC possesses a fundamental difficulty in managing the affairs of the Chinese people where the government perpetually scapegoats’ foreign powers as a pretext to maintain its reunification and to control the public. Money and mass Chinese nationalism are the two primary components that support China’s unanimity.

Playing it Out

According to many pundits, China may be on the verge to occupy Taiwan due to its growing military and economic capability. However, this view is theatrically overstated.

The PRC indeed desires to make Taiwan an inseparable part of China. A key consideration for China is that the invasion of Taiwan should result in a clear-cut victory. Failure is not an option. If failure is the outcome, then the United States would ensure that it places China in an exceedingly difficult position since the United States would have no reason to apply restraint in its pressure towards the Chinese power. Something which China wants to avoid at all costs since the American superpower can thwart all its future ambitions from realization.

A successful invasion of Taiwan will aid China by loosening a share of America’s security alliances in the region since they would view America as an unreliable security underwriter who has failed to prevent Chinese aggression. Such an event would lead to a modest share of nations to transition towards Beijing as a viable alternative. Hence, China has a single opportunity to invade Taiwan, where failing is not an option.

Unfortunately, even if China is successful, it still would not spell the end of the American presence in the region since China would have only secured the first island chain. Therefore, from both scenarios, the U.S maintains significant advantages over China.

Comparing the Two

The U.S-Chinese issue must be put into perspective from all aspects to determine the prospects of China invading Taiwan and consequently, overcoming the U.S in the region.

From an economic dimension, the U.S continues to maintain a preeminent position owing to the dollar’s role as a world reserve currency. It is China that requires the U.S to purchase its exports as it would bring a perpetual flow of dollars into China which are needed for future transactions, including vital energy imports. China also heavily invests in U.S treasury bonds as a safe asset to increase the number of dollars in its possession. Till now, all of China’s major commercial projects, have been funded in U.S dollars. Under the global Covid-19 pandemic and even under the trade war, the U.S dollar appreciated, which signifies the vital role that the dollar plays whenever instability occurs in the global economy.

In truth, China is a paper tiger economy as most of its economic success is wholly contingent on the strength of the U.S dollar. The Chinese economic miracle is built upon attracting foreign corporations to invest in conserving on production costs by paying extremely low labour wages to Chinese industrial workers. Such wage handouts have created resentment amongst the Chinese workforce, which in the future can lead to potential industrial action or even a possible rebellion against the PRC. Moreover, an ageing population is not making things any easier for China as its ‘One-Child Policy’ has started to create obstacles to China’s future economic growth and prosperity.

In energy, the Chinese are heavily dependent on imports where Chinese fuel tankers need to transport crude oil from the Persian Gulf through the Straits of Hormuz, which can be intercepted by the U.S Navy ships in the region. Moreover, the Strait of Malacca poses another conundrum for China where its surrounded by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and where recently India has carried out extensive naval drills by the U.S Navy’s most massive ship formations, the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group. For China to remove these obstacles, it requires a navy that cannot just challenge its regional rivals but more importantly, the United States. On land, China’s energy pipelines import oil which needs to pass through its buffer Xinjiang. An area that currently poses a challenge for the PRC to neutralize without inviting foreign pressure.

Militarily, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is still far behind the United States. The recent Pentagon report on the Chinese military shows that China has surpassed the U.S navy in terms of quantity of naval vessels, but in terms of quality China has still not been able to exceed the U.S. The capacity of Chinese ships is significantly lighter in comparison to the total ship tonnage of the U.S, which indeed outweighs the Chinese Navy by a considerable margin. The Chinese navy has no experience in the navigation of seas or indeed warfare but the U.S, on the other hand, has decades of proficiency and expertise in this area. A typical U.S. warship is able to sustain assigned operations away from home than its Chinese counterpart. Plus, China only has two aircraft carriers; the U.S. has several.

Neither China’s amphibious capability is sufficient to penetrate, subdue, and occupy Taiwan. The U.S submarines alone would be able to destroy almost 40 per cent of Chinese amphibious shipping during a seven-day campaign. For China, winning a battle against Taiwan is one thing, and sustaining a long term occupation and invasion of Taiwan is entirely another.

Amphibious landings are not a simple undertaking; to transport land power into an insular nation like Taiwan requires considerable air and naval support to assist in transporting substantial quantities of ground forces. America’s formidable experience and strength in both air and sea power significantly reduce the chances for the PLA to maintain and sustain a successful occupation of Taiwan. Lastly, the PLAAF has a significantly high number of aircraft in its inventory, but there is a great disproportionality concerning its aerial refuelling assets. For this reason, it remains a temporary solution for China’s regional power projection capabilities.

As for the highlighted dangers of China’s area denial Weapon or Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) weapon systems are also overstated. The system’s core function is to prevent an adversary from occupying or traversing one’s homeland, therefore, it is a defense system that would only protect China from incoming attacks, but in the event of an invasion of Taiwan, it will not aid China in usurping Taiwan.

The sophisticated U.S alliance system in the region is another obstacle where all regional states perceive China as a security threat. This puts China in a difficult position. Moreover, China is unable to form balancing coalitions since such alliances occur in a multipolar world between great powers. China currently resides in a unipolar world where the U.S has rendered weaker states in the region severely contingent on its military strength. If Beijing is serious about countering this trend, it will require a substantial augmentation of maritime power to roll-back the U.S and simultaneously subjugate her allies within the region. Currently, however, the Chinese navy severely lacks long-range power projection capabilities and therefore, it does not pose a severe threat to America’s regional or global naval presence.

Politically, on foreign policy issues, China is incredibly weak. Since its rise, it has not been able to convert its economic power into political influence. For this reason, Chinese interests do not clash with American interests around the globe. Politics is the backbone of a nation not material heft; although this is important to possess, without politics, such material power becomes futile. If one examines the American superpower, its political acumen and ability help the nation in building foreign relations with other states, which serve and secure its interests.

Many analysts have provided analogies to China’s rise in securing regional hegemony to America’s accomplishments of reaching regional supremacy under the Monroe Doctrine, but what many forget is that the United States was not only materially powerful, it also had the political will and power to influence the outcomes of events outside its borders. The recent tensions between America and her allies are not a result of China’s game plan. Instead, it is a result of America’s own making. Moreover, China has not been able to exploit the former situation and cultivate a skilful relationship with such nations to its advantage.

Ideology in the U.S also plays a critical role where a viewpoint towards life and the systems (social, political, and economic) that emanate from it are promoted globally. Hong Kong is a clear example of where the public identifies themselves as being more aligned with Western liberal ideals and values than being viewed as Chinese. For this reason, China is not the Soviet Union of the past because China’s strategy is to use its economic muscle to appease nations and garner influence — a tactic it cannot operate against the U.S.

Holistically speaking, Beijing does not possess the necessary means to invade and annex Taiwan and consequently establish regional hegemony by displacing America. There is too much at stake for China than America concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea. The several advantages of America place China in a political, ideological and material disqualification.

The Other Front

More importantly, if China does in the foreseeable future tries to invade Taiwan, which is highly unlikely, American allies — India and Pakistan from the South can quickly generate fresh impediments for China during the event of Taiwan’s invasion. India despises China, and it would not be a surprise that it would, on behalf of America’s command, conflagrate border insecurity for China from the Southern flank. As for Pakistan, besides its friendly relations with China over several decades, politically it continues to remain pro-American where it has been aiding U.S foreign policies since 1961.

The Pakistani army is the most powerful institution in the country which possesses close links with the U.S. Therefore, to think that Pakistan would assist China in its time of dire straits is just a fanciful idea. Reality is that Islamabad would side-line itself in the event of a war and resist providing any form of real assistance to Beijing, and tacitly support U.S interests. War is all about deception, and just because China and Pakistan have been cooperating on a commercial level does not account for much in real political terms, something which China needs to take into consideration.

In sum, there is no need to exert such an effort in a debate about U.S adopting a policy of unambiguity towards Taiwan because the U.S has several advantages over China, and many in Washington are aware of this situation. Regardless, of what type of policy adoption takes place, China must think twice and thrice before going into a physical conflict with the U.S and her ally in the South China Sea. Lastly, today’s mainstream climate of the Chinese hype is much reminiscent of the 1980s. Similarly, back then, many stated that Germany and Japan were the new emerging powers which possessed the potential to challenge the United States owing to their economic dynamism. We all know how that turned out.

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Hashim Abid is an Analyst and a Researcher of Global Affairs. @LSe

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Hashim Abid

Hashim Abid

Hashim Abid is an Analyst and a Researcher of Global Affairs. @LSe

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