In the Wake of the Afghanistan Withdrawal, the US Must Send the Right Signals on Taiwan (Part I)

Written by Corey Lee Bell.

Image credit: AFGHANISTAN-CONFLICT by 李 季霖/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

There is little doubt that America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a propaganda boon for Beijing. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Chinese state media’s efforts to draw parallels between Afghanistan’s abandonment and the potential fate of Taiwan. Already, Chinese press, and pro-China media and political allies in Taiwan, are telling the Taiwanese people that America cannot be relied upon, with one article, from China’s state-mouthpiece Global Times, warning that if ‘total war’ broke out in the Taiwan Strait, ‘America will not rush to the rescue.’

Beijing’s private views are likely to be different. Chinese analysts know that when former president Donald Trump formally announced plans for a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, he did so in a backdrop of an ‘America First’ policy that advocated redirecting resources away from the Middle East and towards the Indo-Pacific. This, of course, relates directly to Taiwan, where former president Trump, who saw protecting Taiwan as a matter of defending America’s interests and not just its values, was widely celebrated as a staunch supporter of the democratically run island. Biden may well not be Trump, but the withdrawal from Afghanistan is consistent with Trump’s strategy. With the new administration sending mixed signals on its Taiwan policy, it is still likely to be a moot point for Beijing whether the move out of Afghanistan speaks of a greater or lesser resolve to protect America’s Pacific allies.

How Beijing will eventually interpret the ramifications of the Afghanistan withdrawal will likely play out through renewed attempts to probe American resolve. This has arguably already begun with the very recent staging of large scale People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air and naval exercises, ostensibly in response to ‘provocations’ by the United States and Taiwanese ‘independence forces.’ But this interpretation also comes back to how Beijing has hitherto assessed America’s willingness to back the island. On this point, there is indeed cause for consternation.

For instance, the Global Times produced an opinion piece on August 8 titled ‘Strategic ambiguity or clarity? China’s power will crush all US’ Taiwan calculation.’ Its focus was on recent American debates on whether the Biden administration should retain the US’s long-held policy of being ‘ambiguous’ about whether it will defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion or make an unambiguous, ‘clear’ commitment to do so.

What was interesting about this article was not its conclusion to step away from strategic clarity and cease emboldening so-called ‘Taiwan secessionists.’ Instead, what was peculiar was the article’s strange reading of Washington’s current stance on Taiwan. Particularly noticeable were its contradictory claims that Washington had concomitantly returned to and shifted away from its long-held strategic ambiguity position.

This article is far from alone in expressing confusion on where America stands. For instance, the retired yet influential People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force major general Qiao Liang revealed mid last year that PLA planners had long felt that what ‘strategic ambiguity’ meant was that America would almost certainly NOT directly engage Chinese forces in the event of an invasion (a translation of the article in question can be found here). However, the more recent confusion does appear to have some roots in American incertitude instead of PLA triumphalism.

Momentum for a shift towards strategic clarity began in September last year, when Richard Hass and David Sacks, members of the Council on Foreign Relations, advocated that the ‘time has come’ for abandoning America’s long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity. In February, this position was supported by Robert M. Gates, a former CIA director and defence secretary, and Republican Senator Rick Scott. In that same month, they reintroduced the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act. By May, the Biden administration appeared to have rejected this idea when their so-called ‘Asia Tsar’ Kurt Campbell stated that adopting strategic clarity had ‘significant downsides.’ Yet as it downplayed strategic clarity, Washington was moving away from the position that ambiguity and clarity are mutually exclusive and was trying to find a middle way. With the administration seeking to reposition itself along a clarity/ambiguity spectrum, indecision became manifest in a disjunction between the administration’s words and actions. The former did little to evince a profound shift occurred – an exception being the Department of State’s vague assertion that ‘our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.’ The latter, however, signified a strengthening American resolve, such as the passing of legislation reducing the hurdles to military personnel travelling to Taiwan, the regular dispatching of military aircraft and warships in the vicinity of the island, and American participation in multilateral naval training exercises in the region, such as this month’s descriptively named Large Scale Global Exercise 2021.

Several well-credentialed scholars and analysts, such as the military historian Peter R. Mansoor and T. Y. Wang, Chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, have backed such a ‘move to the clarity end of the spectrum’ that stops short of formally declaring strategic clarity. In mid-July, Therese Shaheen, the former chairman of the State Department’s American Institute in Taiwan, made a similar point. She said that the US is ‘past strategic ambiguity, and strategic clarity is a false alternative.’ However, Shaheen also bought into relief the problem this amorphous positioning creates for policy ‘cohesion.’ Not only does Washington need to be more explicit about where it lies on this ‘spectrum,’ but it needs to make sure that China gets the memo.

On this point, Shaheen’s point about cohesion reflects the fundamental problem made evident in the Global Times article. This is that navigating between ambiguity and clarity is causing China to be confused about where America stands. The greater danger of this is feeding a ‘perception gap’ between Washington and Beijing. As China continues to aim for regional hegemony, addressing this gap is essential for the long-term stability of the Taiwan Strait. This is even more urgent in the wake of America’s Afghanistan withdrawal, where likely attempts to probe America’s resolve could result in miscalculations. If this remains unaddressed as America is suspected to be retreating from its global responsibilities—and if China chooses to invade or take other hostile actions against Taiwan on the basis that it underestimates America’s resolve to defend it—both China and the United States could find themselves stumbling into a conflict neither side wants.

The Urgent Need to Close the Perception Gap

Taking on the perception gap has become more urgent because of the events that have just unfolded in Afghanistan. Yet, it also becomes critical since the deterrent power of US military intervention is more crucial for cross-strait stability than it has been for half a century. This is due to three reasons, each of which has been much discussed in recent times.

Firstly, unprecedented public opposition to ‘unification’ in Taiwan, and the recent passing of expansive anti-infiltration and national security bills, is making China’s preferred method of peaceful unification an increasingly remote prospect.

Secondly, if non-peaceful measures are on the cards, it is doubtful whether Taiwan’s military will provide a sufficiently potent military deterrent against the rapidly expanding and modernising PLA.

Lastly, China’s strategic calculus is currently undergoing a profound shift. The CPC has long feared that if China invades Taiwan, the economic and diplomatic costs of doing so could undo decades of Chinese progress and derail Beijing’s agenda of surpassing the United States as the world’s preeminent superpower. Increasingly, however, analysts on both sides are taking the view that Beijing gaining control of Taiwan could dramatically reduce American influence and prestige and open a pathway for the PLA navy to cut through the region’s island chains and project power globally.

All this means that America must send the right signals to ensure that China recognises its strengthening resolve. To do so, in my view, four things need to be considered: Firstly, America should act quickly so that China cannot capitalise on the Afghanistan withdrawal. Doing so may also help convince Beijing that the events in Afghanistan were not a symbol of the US weakening its global presence but were rather part of a shift of attention and security resources to the Pacific. Secondly, if America stops short of formally declaring strategic clarity, it should take a leaf out of China’s book and demonstrate its resolve through actions. Thirdly, the actions chosen need to speak a language China understands. Finally, like China’s island-building project in the South China Sea, the actions America takes must not merely show it is willing to risk a conflict but that it is preparing for one.

The key question, then, is what America should do? There are many valid answers to this question. But in my view, each option should include taking measures to strengthen strategic, operational, and tactical interoperability between America and its allies and American and Taiwanese forces. This could be done and outwardly showcased through joint Taiwan-American naval exercises. I discuss this suggestion, and the rationale behind it, in part two of this two-part series.

Corey Lee Bell is a former editor at Taiwan Insight and is currently serving in a postdoctoral position in Taiwan. He is the editor in chief of NEASAIR, which provides translations on articles from East Asia on regional security and diplomacy. This article is Part 1 of a two-part series of articles.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Reflections from Afghanistan to Taiwan’.

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