Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
The announcement last week that the U.K. and U.S. will help deploy nuclear submarines down under in Australia appears to be the first step in building a NATO for the Indo-Pacific. Coming less than a month after the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the new security pact, known as AUKUS, was meant to show that America can still be counted on where it matters most for the global order: constraining China’s power in the region and the world. In Noema this week, Bruce Jones calls it “the most important new defense partnership arrangement since the end of the Cold War.”
In this strategic competition, Taiwan is the immediate flashpoint. If anything trips the so-called Thucydides Trap of military conflict between the rising and established powers of the 21st century, it is that tiny democracy floating out there in contentious seas.
For China, reuniting the errant island under mainland sovereignty has always been an existential matter, a “core national interest.” Many are convinced that President Xi Jinping is intent on achieving that goal, by force if necessary, and sooner rather than later, as the crowning glory of his historic mission to rejuvenate the Middle Kingdom. For the U.S., rescuing Taiwan from such a fate will be the frontline test of credibility in the global match between democracy and autocracy that President Joe Biden has set out as his core strategic mission.
While every nation living under the ever-lengthening shadow of China’s economic and military might wants to retain its autonomy and not become a tributary to the top power in East Asia, none wants to be dragged into a war with the major trading power upon which their own prosperity rests. This is the case with Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and the ASEAN nations as well as India in South Asia.
By dint of mere geography, what can only emerge out of this dilemma is a schizophrenic alliance perennially on the brink of breakdown. If forced to decide between loyalty to the geostrategic priorities of a distant power bent on demonstrating its waning global clout and overwhelming economic self-interest at home, which way will America’s putative allies in the region turn as the limits of alignment exceed its beneficial logic? NATO never faced such fragility in Europe because the Soviet Union was a closed economy walled off to the West. Economic interdependence never stood in the way of collective security concerns.
Taiwan Built Its Own Nation
This is not an easy conundrum to sort out. The China threat to Taiwan is very real. And, unlike so many of its misadventures in places like Iraq or Afghanistan, the U.S. is not trying to “nation build” Taiwan. Over the decades, Taiwan has built itself up, organically installing a deep democratic culture with the most advanced practices of digital democracy anywhere. Its digital minister, Audrey Tang, is a folk hero among reformers across the West who want to fix their own democracies. Among other things, she conducts an annual presidential hackathon, in which 10 million people — half the population — participate every year in an online deliberation to help set the governing agenda. To allow the techno-totalitarians in Beijing to extinguish this light, as they have done in Hong Kong, would haunt anyone with a conscience and ounce of belief in popular sovereignty.
Yet, does that raise Taiwan to the rank of an existential issue for the West? Is it of such strategic value that it is worth sliding into a war between superpowers that could all too easily escalate into a nuclear exchange? Some of the more alarmist voices of the Washington “blob,” such as a former top U.S. Defense Department official, Elbridge Colby, are building the case that it is.
The Strategy Of Denial
Colby is calling for a “strategy of denial” on all fronts to thwart China’s ability to dominate the region where it is already the major power. He has trotted out what, in effect, is the old “domino theory” that drove the delusions of the Vietnam War. As Colby sees it, if Taiwan is allowed to fall into Beijing’s fold under force, or the threat of it, it is only a matter of time before the red menace takes over the Philippines and moves on to target others in its neighborhood.
Even if there were any evidence of China’s territorial ambitions beyond Taiwan and the island chains in the East and South China Seas it regards as a defense perimeter, the paradox of this course is that, if war comes predicated on that presumption, the dominoes may well fall in the other direction for the self-interested national reasons already stated. That would split apart any U.S.-led alliance in the region as China has long sought to do. In short, pushing allies to the brink may end up accomplishing the opposite of its intent in a war the more sober-minded believe the U.S. could never win at a cost of lives and treasure thousands of times greater than Afghanistan.
As the respected former prime minister of Australia, Paul Keating, put it last week: “If the United States military with all its might could not beat a bunch of Taliban rebels with AK-47 rifles in pickup trucks, what chance would it have in a full-blown war against China, not only the biggest state in the world but the commander and occupant of the largest land mass in Asia.” Keating added that the nuclear sub pact amounts to “a dramatic loss of Australian sovereignty” that would “lock-in” its forces with “only one underlying objective: the ability to act collectively in any military engagement by the United States against China.” No doubt this worry is crossing similarly wary minds in many capitals across the region, despite official applause for AUKUS.
As for China, even if its ambitions do stretch beyond its sovereign claims, an invasion of Taiwan would thwart those more thoroughly than the military alliance the U.S. is seeking to build by bogging it down in a conflict for many years to come, diverting the one-party system’s single-minded focus on achieving “common prosperity” and turning entire world opinion even more against it than it already is.
Taiwan is not Hong Kong, where the legacy institutions from British colonialism restricted democracy from the start. The take-Taiwan-now faction in Beijing is certainly underestimating how indigestible that firmly rooted democratic culture will be. Even if initially swamped by mainland military might, resistance will be widespread and protracted. It will get very ugly.
A Third Way Between War And Appeasement
It is here — making Taiwan highly indigestible by raising the costs of a Chinese invasion — that a “third way” between an “all-in” strategy leading to war or appeasement can be found. This would entail the U.S. foreswearing its untenable aim of trying to shut China out of the Pacific while declaring that its only intent is enabling the people of Taiwan to make their own choice over relations with the mainland and providing them with the means to defend it.
To that end, the U.S. and its allies should become the armorers, not guarantors, of Taiwan’s sovereignty, as Patrick Porter and Michael Mazarr propose in a thoroughly argued essay published by Australia’s Lowy Institute. While avoiding the redline of “an unqualified U.S. security pledge” for Taiwan that would compel war, the cost of Chinese intervention, they argue, could be raised significantly through the supply of “anti-ship missiles, more extensive ground-based air defense capabilities, smart mines, better trained and more effective reserve forces, a significantly bolstered capacity for offensive cyber warfare, a large suite of unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and strike systems and counterstrike capabilities able to hit coastal targets on the mainland.”
If the stakes are raised in this way, they argue, pragmatic minds in Beijing will surely realize that China “can either have ‘national rejuvenation’ or take Taiwan by intimidation or force. But it cannot have both, at least on anything like the schedule the CCP has set for itself — a schedule designed to culminate by 2049 with China being firmly established as a fully developed, prosperous, regionally and globally predominant world leader.”
The biggest worry is that China’s hawks now view the U.S. as a paper tiger licking the wounds of its retreat from Afghanistan, prompting a preemptive attack on Taiwan before it becomes too costly later on. This miscalculation will force the U.S., ready or not, to put up or shut up. That is how war between major powers happens.
Both the U.S. and China should be looking intensively for a third way out that avoids these missteps toward war and allows each other to save face. Brinkmanship that waits for the other side to blink in such unsettled times would be the most foolish endeavor of all.
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