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How progressives and restrainers can unite on Taiwan and reduce the potential for conflict with China

Military, diplomatic, historical, and environmental imperatives dictate that the U.S. disengage militarily from the volatile Taiwan issue. Washington should instead focus on facilitating a compromise.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Observing the practice of U.S. foreign and defense policy these days can lead to despondency.  American forces continue to fritter away scarce resources and lives on highly ambiguous tasks in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Squabbling continues over cost-sharing formulas with key allies, such as South Korea.

Meanwhile, the nation’s military (National Guard forces aside) — with its vast logistics experience, equipment stores, and discipline — seems to be taking a backseat role in the fight against COVID-19.

Still, it could get worse — much worse. U.S.-China relations have been in a steady tailspin, since at least December 2016. Of course, that has aggravated the current pandemic crisis, since personal protective equipment, or PPE, (often made in China) is at an absolute premium, and one would have hoped that American and Chinese health experts could work together with an apolitical, cooperative demeanor. Yet, the very low level of trust pervasive in current U.S.-China relations has generally precluded such cooperation and more often yielded to pointless, bitter diatribes on both sides.

One significant reason (among many) that U.S.-China relations have reached a new nadir, not seen since perhaps the 1950s, is due to emergent tensions around Taiwan, an issue about which foreign policy progressives are curiously silent. This is problematic given that the Taiwan issue may represent the singularly most dangerous issue confronting international security today.

Yes, this danger actually eclipses the current pandemic, as well as volatile (nuclear) tensions in Kashmir, the Persian Gulf, and even with North Korea. Before delving into the logic of that danger, a doomsday scenario in every sense, which will be spelled out below, the political landscape, particularly in Washington, DC, regarding the Taiwan issue needs to be examined.

The current administration has leaned hard in Taipei’s direction, shredding any semblance of reasonable balance in the U.S.’s Taiwan policy. There was the unprecedented phone call from Trump to Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016, but this has been followed by visits by senior State Department personnel, a $250 million new embassy-like structure in Taipei, the dispatch of Marines to guard that structure, as well as an increase in U.S. military deployments proximate to Taiwan.  To be sure, Beijing has also been provocative, deploying fighters and bombers to regularly circumnavigate the island. Aside from these obvious irritants, three additional factors explain why the Taiwan issue has gone from reasonably quiet to explosive over the last two years.

Most prominently, the Hong Kong protests have dramatically changed the calculus of both sides of the cross-Strait issue — effectively transmuting what is, after all, a rather similar crisis concerning autonomy and “Greater China.”

Second, a closely related point is the recent result of the January 2020 presidential elections in Taiwan, in which the incumbent Tsai won a major victory over Beijing’s preferred candidate from the Chinese nationalist party Kuomintang, or KMT, in an election result that seems to have been strongly impacted by the unrest and bad feeling about Beijing flowing from the Hong Kong unrest. Unfortunately, these factors have combined to create a sense in Beijing that former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s clever formulation of “one country, two systems” is now dead.

Finally, U.S.-China relations have also worsened on a number of other fronts (e.g. trade, the anti-Muslim campaign in Xinjiang, and the South China Sea), and this has caused the Taiwan issue to return to the fore as the scab that neither superpower can quite resist picking at during times of increasing tension.

The U.S. Congress, cheered on by the DC punditocracy in its default bellicose torpor, has given into this temptation more often over the last year, eliciting bitter rebukes from Beijing. Human rights activists have been stirred up into a furor by the Xinjiang issue, and then inspired by the gas-mask laden youngsters in Hong Kong. Neo-liberals argue that China’s remaking of global norms, whether concerning 5G or the Belt and Road initiative or the South China Sea, are allegedly a grave threat to the “rule-based order.”

Their neoconservative cousins are even bolder, actively seeking a return to the 1950s, concocting schemes to destabilize CCP rule in China, and viewing Taiwan as the paramount beacon of democracy, which represents a good old “unsinkable aircraft carrier” to boot. From this perspective, it’s time to dust off the Solarium Project, which was the active consideration of preventive war against the Soviet Union during the Eisenhower administration. Fortunately, Ike was a wise leader, who had seen global war up close, and he emphatically rejected the option of preventive war. Instead, he decided to de-escalate many tense situations and also railed against the “military industrial complex.”

There are at least three vital reasons for today’s progressives and restrainers to apply Ike’s cautious realism to the Taiwan situation and rule out sending American military forces to aid the defense of Taiwan.

First, progressives jumping on the neo-liberal bandwagon should realize that they are creating almost irreparable damage to U.S.-China relations. Not only will military support for Taiwan fuel a multi-trillion dollar arms race with ever more destabilizing weaponry, for example hypersonic missiles, but this new weaponry will inevitably siphon off massive resources from other, more worthy priorities, such as the creaking American public health and transit systems. Moreover, progressives who believe that climate change is the most pressing global problem will be distressed to see that Washington and Beijing are increasingly at loggerheads and thus completely unable to cooperate against this dire common threat to the planet.

A second issue progressives need consider is historical. Why, after all, is the island of Formosa formally called in its own documentation (e.g. passports, constitution) the Republic of China?  That simple, seemingly inconvenient semantic fact implies not Americans, but rather Chinese people should decide the future of Taiwan. In other words, this is a civil war — plain and simple.

FDR, one of our greatest presidents, clearly understood this, as did Truman. And later American leaders codified this historical fact — namely American recognition of Taiwan’s status as part of China — in the famous Shanghai Communique that set the stage for bilateral U.S.-China relations. Going back further in history reveals that Taiwan was originally separated in 1895 from Mainland China by Japanese militarists — a force our grandfathers fought so bravely to vanquish.

Finally, and most importantly, the military balance in the Western Pacific and especially around Taiwan has shifted decisively. U.S. Navy and Air Force units would face enormous losses in any attempt to reinforce the beleaguered island. Even the vaunted U.S. submarine force almost certainly could not prevail in such circumstances, since it has limited numbers and firepower.

Moreover, Beijing has been working assiduously on decisive countermeasures to American submarines, including sea mines. Beijing would deploy its missile forces to easily gain vast superiority in the air, enabling an enormous mainland assault to go forward — spearheaded by heliborne infantry and commandos. The only thing worse than such a sad day would be either the utter defeat of American expeditionary forces at the lonely end of a 6,500 mile supply line, or the rather conceivable resort to nuclear war.

Instead of ducking tough questions about Taiwan, American progressives and restrainers should unite behind a sound policy of military disengagement from the Taiwan issue. Simultaneously, they should energetically promote “smart power” diplomacy to find a compromise — hardly an outlandish possibility.

Amphibious assault vehicles from the amphibious transport dock ship USS Denver (LPD 9) participate in an amphibious exercise in the South China Sea on Feb. 10, 2011. DoD photo by Seaman Paul Kelly, U.S. Navy.
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