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How Afghanistan withdrawal could lead to a harder policy against China

Biden is getting attacked on all sides for putting its 'credibility' on the Taiwan issue at risk. Will he cave to it?

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

In an interview on Wednesday, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked President Biden whether the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan called into question the credibility of America’s commitment to its allies and partners, particularly Taiwan. “Look, America cannot be trusted now,” Stephanopoulos suggested. “America does not keep its promises.”

“Who’s gonna say that?” Biden asked. Lots and lots of people, Mr. President.

Stuart Lau, Politico’s Europe-China correspondent, was one of the first to invite his followers to “imagine Beijing watching U.S. military 'commitment’ in Afghanistan while contemplating its next move on Taiwan.” 

CNN’s Jim Sciutto, too, worried that “the people of Taiwan have to be watching the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan nervously.” On New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’ list of U.S. allies who “will draw the lesson that it is on its own in the face of its enemies,” Taiwan came first.

Donald Trump Jr. was slightly less restrained: “Whatever China’s timeline was before on trying to seize Taiwan, we all know they’re licking their chops now knowing that there will never be a weaker US administration in power.” Greg Locke, a conservative pastor from Tennessee, built on this theme: “China is licking their lips right now over this Afghanistan debacle. They’re going for Taiwan next.”

This kneejerk tendency to hold up and dangle the 24 million people in Taiwan to justify continuing a decades-long, unwinnable war thousands of miles away is disconcerting, but not all too surprising. 

“Great power competition” is so amorphous that any argument or policy position can be wrapped neatly around it — from investing $1 trillion in infrastructure and maintaining patent restrictions on Covid-19 vaccines during a global pandemic, to opening the doors to immigrants (and even hundreds of millions of them) to keeping them out, including from Hong Kong.

In the Stephanopoulos interview, even Biden tacitly framed the withdrawal as a strategic move in this great game: “You know who’s most disappointed in us getting out? Russia and China.” When he announced the plan back in April, one key justification was shifting energy and resources towards “the challenges that are in front of us,” first-and-foremost the “stiff competition we’re facing from an increasingly assertive China.”

But not only journalists and partisans raised this issue of credibility. The Global Times, a reactionary but unauthoritative Chinese tabloid, published an editorial mocking Taiwan, gloating that in the event of a war its “defense will collapse in hours and the US military won’t come to help.”

This drew the ire of Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, who commented that “Biden has revealed just how weak he is, and the Chinese Communist Party is taking advantage of it.”  In an interview with Donald Trump, Sean Hannity admitted that he didn’t necessarily disagree with the editorial’s assessment: “I don’t believe Joe Biden would lift a finger to help Taiwan.”

Trump recalled telling Chinese President Xi Jinping to “not do anything having to do with Taiwan. I know you want to, do not do it." But he now worries that “bad things are going to happen with respect to Taiwan because they don't respect our leadership and they no longer respect our country.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, Iain Duncan Smith, a conservative member of the UK parliament, referenced the Global Times editorial in a speech in the House of Commons: “Their belief now is we will not stand up for freedom, we will not stand up for democracy, and we have encouraged those, the totalitarian states…we have encouraged them to believe that we are in full retreat.”

Meanwhile, Chen Dingding, a professor at Guangzhou’s Jinan University, noted that “most Chinese experts agree” that the “implications for [Taiwan] are real.”

Whether or not they are in fact real, both Washington and Taipei felt compelled to push back.

Asked about the issue in a Tuesday press conference, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan responded that “our commitments to our allies and partners are sacrosanct and always have been. We believe our commitment to Taiwan and to Israel remains as strong as it’s ever been.” 

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “gratitude” for Sullivan’s affirmation, which it said echoed the “rock-solid backing of the country shown by [Biden] since taking office.” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen also addressed the issue publicly, albeit indirectly.

Biden reaffirmed his support for Taiwan in the Wednesday interview, mentioning it in the same breath as formal U.S. treaty allies: “If in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond,” said Biden. “Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with – Taiwan.”

This came too close to contradicting America’s longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” for some analysts, and an anonymous official shortly thereafter clarified that “policy with regard to Taiwan has not changed.”

Nonetheless, this all makes for a strong and immediate rebuff. But the Biden administration is yet very likely aware of the fact that the withdrawal has shifted the chessboard itself, at least temporarily, due to new or reinforced perceptions about American incompetence and decay.

Rush Doshi, a China Director on the National Security Council, released a magnum opus earlier this year — The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order — which argued that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing has tailored and calibrated its foreign policy depending on its perceptions of Washington’s power and influence.

The 2008 financial crisis is a crucial turning point, and the more aggressive and ambitious shift under President Xi Jinping was driven by “perceptions of accelerating American decline following Brexit, Trump, and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020,” Doshi writes. The popular perception that the withdrawal was “botched” and represents a serious crisis for Biden fits it comfortably within this list.

Indeed, Brookings’ Ryan Hass recently wrote that “the principal means through which China may seek to profit from America’s withdrawal might be its efforts to advance a narrative of American decline.” 

This applies to Taiwan in its own way as well. Beijing’s most immediate effort will be “to undermine the psychological confidence of the Taiwan people in their own future,” Hass writes. “Beijing would like to advance a narrative inside Taiwan that the United States is distant and unreliable, Taiwan is isolated and alone, and Taiwan’s only path to peace and prosperity runs through Beijing.”

Biden’s China team will likely be very sensitive to these dynamics, and interpret the withdrawal, Beijing’s perception of it, and how to respond through these different psychological prisms. If so, it will seek to dispel any notion that Washington is flailing and helpless, both to reassure Taiwan and other partners while deflating any sense of opportunity or feelings of overconfidence on the part of Beijing.

To go a step further, the administration will also likely do everything in its power to ensure that the withdrawal does not come to define its foreign policy, particularly as the midterm elections start to gain steam. That might require focusing more on Afghanistan over the coming months to stabilize the situation.

But senior Biden aides “repeatedly stressed” to David Rothkopf that the withdrawal was part of a “much broader, carefully considered strategic shift,” which includes “a shift in our focus and the deployment of our resources from the Greater Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region.” Some argue that U.S. allies welcome and expect Biden’s own post-withdrawal “Indo-Pacific pivot.”

The administration had already spent months laying the groundwork for just that: it organized a coordinated, comprehensive campaign to increase pressure on Beijing from nearly all angles, while retooling various aspects of national power — from the CIA to U.S. Southern Command to the Air Force — to compete in  this great game.

It is from this foundation and with this set of tools that Biden’s team will adjust, amplify and double-down on its China policy, meaning that things can be expected to get very hot in the year ahead. The Global War on Terror may be all but over; the era of great power competition now begins in earnest.

150512-N-VO234-008 SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 12, 2015) Naval Aircrewman (Tactical Helicopter) 2nd Class Ian Carpenito, assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35, observes the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) as it conducts routine patrols in international waters of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conor Minto/Released)
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