Then Assistant Secretary of Defense, Joseph Nye was asked in 1995 if the United States would fight to defend Taiwan? His answer: “It would depend on the circumstances.”
“Depends” sounds clever to American ears, but one suspects the Chinese heard it as: “Maybe not” and perhaps even “Probably not.” Either way, there’s room for a big difference between what Nye said and what the Chinese might have heard.
Maybe it is time to make it clear to the People’s Republic, one way or another.
Even the American chattering class – some of it, at least – is saying “strategic clarity” is needed. Taiwan’s representative in the United States mentioned recently that some “clarity” would be helpful.
So let Beijing know that if it uses force or otherwise attempts to intimidate and strangle Taiwan, it will result in a full-bore American response – to include using military force.
Chinese leaders should be left with the near certainty they will lose everything if they attempt to snuff out Taiwan’s democracy – and deprive its 24 million citizens of their freedom in the process.
Lose everything? Yes. Starting with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders’ overseas real estate and bank accounts, and their relatives’ green cards. Let them know that all international trade with the PRC will end – except trade with North Korea and maybe Cambodia.
And try paying for things in Chinese currency. Nobody much wants it outside of China. There will be no more access to U.S. dollars – except perhaps for what they can grub up by counterfeiting, smuggling, and running Chinese restaurants overseas. North Korea can provide advice.
And a fight would be bloody for all sides. The People’s Liberation Army has made immense progress over the last 20 years, while the U.S. floundered in the “sandbox” in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
But even so, the U.S. will give at least as good as it gets in a fight. And now that Washington has sort of awakened to the Chinese threat, things would be even more painful for Beijing in a shootout.
China’s friends won’t be much help either. That is because it is a really short list. Remove countries whose leaders and elites haven’t been bought or rented and for at least as long as U.S. dollar payments last it’s an even shorter list.
It’s not what you say …
But here’s the catch: The United States government can use whatever language it wants to end strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan. The wording can be lovingly crafted and approved by “the interagency.”
But the Chinese are presumably aware of Art Sheehan’s advice to his sons about dealing with bullies in school:
“Watch what they do. Not what they say.”
And before Donald Trump, it seemed that the departments of State and Defense and successive administrations considered Taiwan an irritant in the larger and more important U.S.-China relationship. Indeed, one often got the impression that Foggy Bottom and most of the rest of the foreign policy class wished Taiwan would just go quietly into the PRC’s loving embrace.
Trump has done more for Taiwan than his predecessors. And in recent months, perhaps fearing the outcome on November 3, the administration is offering to sell it more – and more useful – weapons and equipment. It has sent a real cabinet-level officer to Taiwan and has been speaking out publicly about Taiwan’s importance and supporting Taiwan.
And finally, a free trade agreement seems to be in the offing. Now that Taiwan has approved U.S. meat imports, the U.S. Trade Representative apparently has more bandwidth to handle FTA negotiations.
This is all good, and selling HIMARS and SLAM long-range missiles is important and falls into the “doing” category.
But there’s one thing that can be done – not said – that would make a huge difference, way beyond an official statement clarifying American support for Taiwan.
That is: Break Taiwan’s military out of 40 years of isolation. Relations between Taiwan’s armed forces and the U.S. military have been minimal and even furtive for decades.
This is wholly inadequate – and dangerous as the PRC’s military advantage now dangerously outweighs Taiwan’s own defense capabilities.
What is needed is day-to-day interaction, joint exercises, and training between U.S. and Taiwan forces. This is what matters. The only known case of joint training happened in 2017 when a Taiwan Marine Corps platoon trained with the U.S. Marines in Hawaii. Apparently this was a one-off, but it showed what can be done.
Until the U.S. stops treating Taiwan’s military like pariah, the claim that American has Taiwan’s back is all mostly talk. And don’t think Beijing doesn’t notice.
This brings to mind a guy who tells his girlfriend:
“I love you baby, but do you mind if we don’t go out in public together?”
“You see, there’s this other gal. I don’t really like her all that much. But she gives me a lot of money – and she’s really scary. If she sees us together she’ll have a fit – and she might even take a swing at you.”
“But really baby… you’re the tops. I swear.”
Neither the girlfriend nor the ‘other gal’ is likely to be convinced.
Even if the guy adds, “Swear to God!”
The United States has been telling Taiwan this for years. But until U.S. forces and Taiwanese forces actually get together and plan, train, and exercise – like allies do – it’s more talk than action.
Taiwan knows it, and Beijing knows it.
So message to Washington: It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.
And if you’re not willing to be seen in public with Taiwan’s Armed Forces, you’re not all that serious.