04 April 2021

Bloomberg: “A Taiwan Crisis may mark the End of the American Empire”

But I have another analogy in mind. Perhaps Taiwan will turn out to be to the American empire what Suez was to the British Empire in 1956: the moment when the imperial lion is exposed as a paper tiger. When the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Prime Minister Anthony Eden joined forces with France and Israel to try to take it back by force. American opposition precipitated a run on the pound and British humiliation.

I, for one, struggle to see the Biden administration responding to a Chinese attack on Taiwan with the combination of military force and financial sanctions envisaged by Blackwill and Zelikow. Sullivan has written eloquently of the need for a foreign policy that Middle America can get behind. Getting torched for Taipei does not seem to fit that bill.

As for Biden himself, would he really be willing to jeopardize the post-pandemic boom his economic policies are fueling for the sake of an island Kissinger was once prepared quietly to trade in pursuit of Cold War détente? Who would be hurt more by the financial crisis Blackwill and Zelikow imagine in the event of war for Taiwan – China, or the U.S. itself? One of the two superpowers has a current account deficit of 3.5% of GDP (Q2 2020) and a net international investment position of nearly minus-$14 trillion, and it’s not China. The surname of the secretary of state would certainly be an irresistible temptation to headline writers if the U.S. blinked in what would be the fourth and biggest Taiwan Crisis since 1954.

Niall Ferguson

I found this analysis via another article expressing concern that the constant threat of a Chinese invasion has slipped away from the daily concerns of Taiwanese citizens, emboldened by their massive success in averting the pandemic and by positive messages about their ‘independence’ on Twitter. The situation in the region is particularly thorny, as just a week ago Chinese military aircraft entered Taiwan airspace, in the largest incursion yet reported by the island’s defense ministry.

Chinese military and economic power has risen for decades, and US power has diminished, at least in relative terms. Bringing Taiwan back under the mainland’s control is apparently one of the top objectives of Xi Jinping, and one of the reasons why he abolished the term limits for Chinese heads of state in 2018. Taiwan is also home to the world’s top chip manufacturer, TSMC, so taking swift control of the island would be in China’s strategic interest: it secures a supply of semiconductors, an area where the US has increased sanctions and controls over the past years, and it denies this supply from the US, putting pressure on them not to intervene. A prolonged conflict over Taiwan would be hard felt on the US domestic market (and in fact all over the world) – just imagine China banning iPhone exports for a single quarter. If China were to invade Taiwan in the next six months, with the US largely focused on domestic issues and pandemic recovery, I tend to think the US response will be subdued, centered on diplomatic statements and further economic sanctions, without a large-scale military involvement.

First, the notion that U.S. “strategic clarity” would enhance Taiwan’s security by reinforcing deterrence of Beijing is almost certainly wrong because Chinese leaders—like their Taiwan counterparts—have long presumed and planned that the United States would intervene militarily in response to a Chinese use of force against the island. (A former U.S. diplomat with long experience on the Taiwan issue once observed that Washington itself was probably the only one of the three parties that was unsure what the United States would do in such a scenario.) Perhaps more importantly, Washington’s ability to intervene credibly and effectively has eroded considerably over the past several decades because of the relative trends in Chinese, Taiwan, and U.S. military capabilities in what would be the theater of any such conflict. It is unclear if the United States could have ever assumed a quick and easy victory. Regardless, those days of potential triumph are gone—and this is central to Beijing’s own calculus of deterrence. Indeed, a U.S. declaration of “strategic clarity” might even inspire or accelerate a Chinese decision to use force.

Paul Heer

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