The State Department has approved an $80 million military aid package to Taiwan. Though hardly a military game-changer, this modest transfer is unprecedented in its funding source: the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program, which is primarily a grant account for military assistance to foreign countries.
The transfer, the State Department insists, does not imply the recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state. "Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act and our longstanding One China policy, which has not changed, the United States makes available to Taiwan defense articles and services necessary to enable it to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability," a State Department spokesperson said.
Yet the FMF grant follows a consistent pattern of rhetoric and behavior that appears to dilute strategic ambiguity, or the longstanding U.S. policy of deliberately maintaining uncertainty around the question of whether the U.S. would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack. President Joe Biden explicitly stated, and reaffirmed in response to a clarifying question from 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley, in September 2022 that U.S. forces will fight to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.
The ongoing dilution of strategic ambiguity as a credible foreign policy concept, accompanied by a sharp and rapid decline in the overall U.S.-China relationship, raises the specter of military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait. Now more than ever, there is a pressing need to articulate a viable vision not only on Taiwan policy but on the broader issues surrounding the U.S. defense posture in the Asia-Pacific. To unpack the dynamics of the Taiwan conflict and what it means for U.S. strategy, it is worth revisiting an age-old concept of international politics: the security dilemma.
The security dilemma, in short, holds that actions taken by states to increase their security can be perceived as threatening by other states, triggering a chain reaction that makes everyone involved less safe. It is a foundational idea in international relations thinking, and for good reason. It speaks to a deeply salient aspect of state behavior, observed over the course of thousands of years from the Peloponnesian War onwards and extensively reproduced in numerous geopolitical contexts.
The dilemma has been most clearly and frequently expressed through cases of military buildup. Imagine a scenario in which you, as a leader, have come to believe that your neighbor harbors aggressive intentions toward your country. Your belief may be premised, as these situations so often are, on decades or even centuries of bad blood including real acts of aggression previously committed by your neighbor. So, you resolve to arm yourself to deter and, if need be, repel your neighbor’s aggression.
But it turns out that you are not the only one driven by such fears. Your neighbor, informed by their own history, interests, and strategic culture, believes something awfully similar about you and concludes that your defensive buildup is a prelude to an attack on them. They might respond with a buildup of their own, thus heightening the risk of miscalculation and catastrophic accident, or by launching a preemptive strike on you.
The Taiwan situation is, admittedly, more complex than a simple border buildup crisis between two contiguous powers because it is a maritime conflict centered on a third actor that, despite not being recognized by Washington as a sovereign country, is widely considered key to U.S. regional and global interests. Yet the basic logic outlined by the security dilemma not only still applies but is more relevant than ever to understanding what makes the Taiwan conflict so dangerous and difficult to solve. Taiwan is the geopolitical fulcrum between competing Chinese and U.S. spheres of influence in the Asia-Pacific.
Any U.S. effort to impose military costs on a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or even to maintain relations with Taipei, will be bemoaned by Beijing as an attempt to “strangle” China and runs the risk of incurring reciprocal Chinese military actions. The security dilemma over Taiwan is, as former Pentagon official and Principal of the Marathon Initiative Elbridge Colby rightly observes, both real and unavoidable, but it need not lead to catastrophe. The dilemma cannot be solved outright, but it can and should be mitigated.
Colby and others advocating for a more proactive Asia-Pacific policy are correct in their assessment that the train has left the station when it comes to strategic ambiguity. Chinese strategy is likely already premised on the assumption, increasingly reflected in American foreign policy discourse and military planning, that U.S. forces will directly intervene to defend Taiwan. Strategic ambiguity was a masterstroke of American diplomacy, guaranteeing Taiwan’s integrity and advancing U.S. regional interests for over 50 years at exceedingly low cost and with little risk.
But the veil has been lifted. The conditions in which strategic ambiguity thrived are not sustainable, not least of all because the Chinese, as the primary audience for which the message of ambiguity was designed, no longer view it as a credible sentiment. The illusion of ambiguity has been dispelled and cannot be recreated in the context of present U.S.-China relations.
In thinking about solutions, it is important to highlight that strategic ambiguity and the One China Policy, though historically intertwined, are not and have never been a package deal. It is fully possible to acknowledge Taiwan’s vital importance to U.S. interests and to act accordingly without recognizing it as a sovereign country. Recognition would bolster China’s pretext for an invasion and massively increase the likelihood of a military showdown over Taiwan. Actions that can be interpreted as a signal that U.S. policymakers are mulling recognition, such as the recent FMF transfer, needlessly risk a disproportionate Chinese response.
This is not to suggest that there isn’t room for deterrence in the U.S. policy toolkit. Indeed, there is both military and political value in aiding Taiwan with the goal of conveying to Beijing that any attempt at “reunification” through force will be the opposite of quick and painless. But such efforts, while worthwhile, must be accompanied by a coherent and realistic Asia-Pacific strategy that leverages the unique advantages offered by America’s regional alliances and balances competition with engagement where appropriate.
Our rhetoric and policies on Taiwan should be firm, not bombastic; predictable, not shrill; and guided by concrete material interests, not the promulgation of abstract values. Asia-Pacific is the theater where the configuration of the international order will be decided in coming years and decades. There is no greater strategic challenge confronting American policymakers than to manage the Taiwan crisis in a judicious and forward-looking manner — U.S. global standing hinges on it.
Mark Episkopos is a Eurasia Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Adjunct Professor of History at Marymount University. Episkopos holds a PhD in history from American University and a masters degree in international affairs from Boston University.
Amphibious Squadron 11 operating in the Indo-Pacific region to enhance interoperability with partners and serve as a ready-response force for any type of contingency. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda)
There’s no question that war leaves behind its lingering destruction. This includes both harm to people and to the environment. As the world marks the second year of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, we must reflect on the impact of war on Ukraine, the resiliency of its people and global response to resolving the issues of bomb contamination.
Roughly one-third of Ukraine's territory is contaminated. This is the size of an average country in Europe. Ukraine is currently experiencing the worst environmental disaster in terms of soil pollution per unit of time.
Toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury leach from ammunition and weapons into the soil. If potential areas of contamination are not identified and recorded in time, harmful substances can enter the food chain and become carcinogenic. This threatens global food security and export opportunities. Failure to act now could result in the deterioration of human health.
Prior to the war, about 400 million people worldwide relied on Ukraine for their food supply making this a large-scale problem. Spent ammunition and chemical weapons can contaminate soil for decades or longer. Land is not a renewable resource. Soils and their fertile layer are formed over thousands of years. Just 1 cm of soil is formed in 200-400 years, and 20 cm in 5,000-6,000 years. Military operations that take place for 2 years like in the case of Ukraine can destroy what has been formed over thousands of years.
Contaminations left behind from war are nothing new. We know this from wars in SE Asia, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and the list goes on. It’s no surprise then that at least 50 countries are impacted by landmines and other explosives. The good news is there are solutions to the long lasting impacts of conflicts like unexploded ordnance on humans, all living things and our planet.
One example is a project called “Assessing farmland and ecosystems damage in north-eastern Ukraine from the Russian invasion” (UA-UK-CH) led by this article's co-author Dr. Olena Melnyk. This project is a joint initiative with researchers from Ukraine, England and Switzerland aimed at enhancing the capacity for mapping, environmental monitoring, and managing the effects of war-induced damage on Ukraine's agricultural land, utilizing existing networks of scientists and field-based analysis to safeguard food security. The first component of the project involves gathering ground truth data on the damage inflicted on Ukrainian farmland, which is then utilized to analyze the extent of soil pollution and calibrate remote sensing data.
The second component focuses on developing an application for mapping farmland to document hazards and contamination and prioritize land for production and remediation.
The third aspect involves building up “citizen science” by training non-combatant experts to inspect and analyze contaminated farmlands and contribute to land mapping efforts.
The fourth component aims to facilitate the decontamination and remediation of Ukrainian lands to restore agricultural productivity while promoting post-war environmentally friendly agricultural practices to ensure sustainability and climate neutrality. This project will enable Ukrainian farmers to avoid dangerous areas and prioritize the land for targeted decontamination. The data collected from this research project will help inform government agencies, civil societies and other stakeholders.
The United States is the largest funder of global humanitarian demining. Since 1993, the U.S. has provided at least $4.2 billion to over 100 countries from Laos to Ukraine. Funding is invested in activities such as bomb clearance, victims’ assistance and explosive risk education.
Environmental research like the UA-UK-CH in Ukraine has proven to be necessary and important to the future of soil rehabilitation post conflict. This should be a norm and donor countries, funders, academic institutions can leverage the future findings from Ukraine and leverage it as a model that can inspire research in other war impacted countries — especially 50-year-old legacy contaminations in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—where no study has been done.
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Judge Nawaf Salam, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), speaks during a public hearing held by ICJ to allow parties to give their views on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories before eventually issuing a non-binding legal opinion in The Hague, Netherlands, February 19, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
The gulf between the United States and the rest of the world — in particular the Global South — on the Israel-Palestine conflict remains sharp and wide.
This was demonstrated yet again at The Hague last week, where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is hearing a case triggered by a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution in December 2022 seeking an advisory opinion on the “legal consequences” of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The case has taken on even greater significance in the current context of Israel’s military action in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli assault (in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack) has led to around 30,000 Palestinian deaths and widespread destruction of homes, mosques, churches, hospitals, and community centers with seemingly no end in sight. A BBC investigation at the end of January found that between 50% and 61% of the Gaza Strip’s buildings had been destroyed or damaged in the war, while over 80% of the population had been displaced.
This case also comes on the heels of last month’s ICJ hearing in a separate case brought by South Africa alleging serious violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention by Israel in its current assault on Gaza. In that case, the ICJ issued a provisional order that Israel’s actions in the current war against the Palestinians could plausibly be considered genocide. Other Global South states have initiated measures at the International Criminal Court. Overall, states representing close to 60% of the Global South’s population have either directly or indirectly backed international legal action on Palestine, as our previous analysis showed.
Last week’s proceedings were the early stage of the UNGA-triggered case, in which the oral arguments focused on whether the court has jurisdiction over the matter. Of the 49 countries and three international organizations (the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the African Union) that argued before the court’s judges — the most of any case in the ICJ’s history — only four argued that the court lacked jurisdiction and should therefore not render an opinion: the United States, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Fiji.
Although this round of argumentation centered around the question of the court’s jurisdiction, the representatives who spoke on behalf of their respective countries presented their view of Israel’s occupation as well as current and past military activity in Palestine. Cuba went as far as to explicitly argue that Israel’s military aggression in the current war amounts to a “genocide.” Several others, including Bolivia and Chile, argued that the occupation violates international law, and should therefore end.
The extent to which this issue resonates across the Global South is evident in the fact that Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country and a U.S. partner, so strongly supports the Palestinian cause that the country’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, left the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brazil to personally present Indonesia’s argument before the court. She argued that Israel’s “unlawful occupation and its atrocities must stop and should not be normalized or recognized.” Indonesia sees Palestine as the last unresolved issue of decolonization, which it is mandated to oppose according to its constitution.
Bangladesh spoke of violations of three basic tenets of international law: the right to self-determination; the prohibition to acquire territory by force; and the prohibition of racial discrimination and apartheid. Namibia also cited apartheid in its arguments, while The Maldives spoke of appropriation of water resources for Palestine, among other things. The African Union, collectively representing 54 African states, described “an asymmetrical situation in which an oppressed people is confronted with an occupying power.”
Other Global South states arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in this case even called out the United States by name. Guyana, for example, said that the U.S.’s argument fails because the U.S. wrongly claims that there is an ongoing peace negotiation between Israel and Palestine, therefore leaving no legal authority for the ICJ to deliver an opinion on this issue.
Algeria also explicitly said that this case not only stains Israel’s image, but also hurts that of the United States, as the U.S. government continues to support Israel despite its continued violation of international law.
Fiji was the only Global South state in the hearings to broadly align with Israel and the United States in its arguments. It argued that a two-state solution could only come about when (Palestinian) terrorism ended. It also stated that Israel had not agreed to the case, the ICJ approach circumvents the Oslo process, and the information available to the court was one-sided. Additionally, Zambia struck a cautious tone, supporting a two-state solution but also saying that a solution should not “squarely blame one party.”
The deep opposition to U.S. and Israeli positions was not just confined to the Global South. Most core U.S. allies in the Global North were also opposed. For example, France argued that Israel’s settlements in Palestine are illegal. France also asked the court to render an opinion on the extent to which the Palestinians have suffered damages, and asked that the court consider how much restitution or compensation is appropriate for the damages suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Even the United Kingdom — the lone core U.S. ally aligned with American and Israeli positions in the case — called out Israel’s occupation. The country’s representative stated that although the UK opposes ICJ jurisdiction in this case, in part because the scope of a fact-finding mission would be too broad in the context of an ongoing conflict, Israel’s continued and expanding occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law.
China and Russia, the two great power rivals of the United States, both supported the majority opinion, arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in the case and against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
This comes as growing security, economic, and political ties are being formed by the Chinese and Russians with states across the Global South. The Russian mercenary group known as the Wagner Group — recently rebranded as Africa Corps — has tapped into strong anti-Western sentiment to form military and security ties with states across central and west Africa, largely replacing unpopular and outdated U.S. and French security projects in the area.
Both China and Russia are also leading members of BRICS, in which they are in a de facto coalition with leading middle powers of the Global South looking to plug existing and major gaps in the current international system as well as prominently project their voice on the global stage.
Washington’s isolation on Palestine may not have mattered much if we were still in a unipolar world. But with relative power slowly diffusing away from Washington, the United States may benefit from shifting its policies and bridging its position with the rest of the world on the highly emotive issue of Palestine that is causing enormous human suffering and already beginning to destabilize the wider region.
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.