• Nancy Pelosi Sends You Mixed Messages From WWIII

    August 20, 2022 // 1 Comment »

    As most of America forgets Nancy Pelosi’s stirring up of tensions in East Asia last week, it is important to double-back to review what messages where actually sent by each entity involved in the spat.

    Japan, who welcomed Pelosi as a conqueror following her visit to Taipei, found about half of the Chinese missiles fired over and around Taiwan as “punishment” actually landed in Japanese-claimed waters around small islands in the Pacific Ocean east of Taiwan. Japan, which sent a message of undiluted support for Pelosi’s Taiwan Adventure, found itself the recipient of a message of its own. Left undiscussed were that those islands themselves are a point of ownership contention among Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines. But the main message is clear enough: Japan no longer has a foreign policy of its own, and is de facto an American military protectorate alongside Guam and Saipan, a model for the Philippines of the future past.

    Taiwan reassured itself it is a beloved American vassal state with a visit from mom, much like a child of divorced parents who blames himself for the breakup. Minor politician and likely lame duck Nancy Pelosi went for the low hanging fruit by seeking to anger China greatly at little cost. With a constituency about one-third Chinese American back home, Pelosi has made a career out of appearing on the scene to criticize China, after Tiananmen, at various Olympiads, over Hong Kong, and hey, why do we need a specific reason 2022 edition. Knowing the way the Chinese often over-value symbolic acts, she committed one at the expense of Joe Biden and the United States, forcing Biden to get off his couch and dispatch an aircraft carrier to demonstrate he still held the majority of testosterones in the relationship. Taiwan, of course, ate up all the attention and President Tsai the chance to play at center stage for a day or two. Imagine daddy competing with mommy to give the best unnecessary present in that post-divorce race for affection — a personal visit versus your own carrier strike group for a few days. Who loves you more?

    South Korea alone sent a message of strength among the nations involved in Nancy Pelosi’s magical mystery tour. Little covered in the U.S. media, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol skipped an in-person meeting with Pelosi in lieu of a phone call due to his being on “summer vacation” in his nation’s capital, Seoul, minutes from Pelosi’s hotel. Never mind Pelosi was the first sitting speaker to visit South Korea since Dennis Hastert stopped by Seoul in 2002. All she got was a meet with her counterpart, Kim Jin Pyo, the speaker of the National Assembly, and an agreement to support both governments’ efforts to achieve denuclearization and blah blah blah blah on the peninsula. Pelosi got the message and did not mention Taiwan once in her remarks.

    Korea’s actions also drive home a big unspoken story, that all of East Asia and beyond has to figure out a dual foreign policy, one toward the U.S.-China-Taiwan scruffle, and one toward China proper, the most populous nation on earth, with a massive military, and a contender for most economically powerful country of the next decade. South Korea alone seems to understand this, snubbing Pelosi as a way of reminding the United States long after its showboating politicians go home and forget, it still has to make its way alone in a scary neighborhood. Seoul, well aware North Korea’s only substantive diplomatic relationship is with Beijing, held to the clearest and most on-point messaging of last week. It was thus no surprise that only days after Pelosi returned home top South Korean and Chinese diplomats, Foreign Ministers Park Jin and Wang Yi, pledged to develop closer relations and maintain stable industrial supply chains at a time of deepening rivalry between Beijing and Washington.

    Though nowhere near as forceful in their presentation as South Korea, both Singapore and Malaysia asked Pelosi not to go to Taiwan, saying that it would force them to choose between the U.S. and China.

    Despite some skillful diplomacy, China still sent a mixed message of weakness in its over-reaction and strength in its ability to throw together a coordinated response that managed to suggest it could blockade Taiwan, attack U.S. assets at sea with missiles from the Mainland, and tweak Japan, all at the same time. Extra points for its domestic propaganda campaign that, with exciting video, looked like a joint Tom Cruise-Tom Clancy production. The situation is a far cry from the 1995-1996 crisis in the Taiwan Strait, when a visit by Lee Teng Hui, who would become Taiwan’s first democratically-elected president, to his alma mater Cornell University, sparked real tensions between the US and China.

    The Pelosi affair was also a chance for China to practice large scale drills which under normal circumstances would likely be seen as too provacative, a nice bonus. It may even result in a new normal, more aggressive military actions in the gray zones as hardliners in Beijing are able to point to what they got away with as signs they might have gotten away with even more militarily. As one laughing nationalist in Beijing put it when he was interviewed last week, “Thanks Comrade Pelosi”!

    The U.S. message came off as uncoordinated and too confused to be called weak. Joe Biden made some remarks from his Covid sick bed, and Antony Blinken did the same rumbling around Asia himself. For all his gaffes in the past (three times making the same mistake is nearly a new policy in some minds) claiming the U.S. had some sort of obligation to defend Taiwan, Biden and his spokespeople stuck right to the script, John Kirby of the National Security Council even making headlines for his non-news reassurance to Beijing the U.S. does not support Taiwan independence. Biden for his part sent the message to China loud and clear that U.S. domestic politics mattered to him (and Nancy) a lot more than whatever China thought. Shock and awe this was not.

    The American media’s message was it cannot understand world events past a second grade level, and has the attention span of a two-year-old. All the complexities of East Asia get compressed into a Super Bowl scenario, Big Blue versus Big Red, Eagle versus Dragon, in a caged death match in the Taiwan Strait. China’s carefully moderated military sparring is exaggerated into headlines worrying about a new world war, and her thrusts around Taiwan morph into “attacks surrounding the island nation” and a drill which can become a blockade at any moment. Left out of the discussion is how many military lives were put at risk due to accidents and mistakes by Pelosi’s stunting.

    Also left out is what a lousy blockade surrounding the island makes for; Taiwan has no ports on its cliff face east coast and sees the majority of its commerce come from China itself. Beijing might best mine Hong Kong harbor if it wanted to hurt Taiwan economically. Meanwhile, the massive cottage industry in American think tanks and academia which regularly rises to predict imminent war over Taiwan settled back down, waiting no doubt for the rough and ready speech about reunification coming this November with the 20th Party Conference in Beijing. Will they go to war!?!?! Does Xi have a timetable in mind????

    As for that short attention span, Pelosi hadn’t unpacked and done a wash at home when the media pivoted away, leaving the last of Chinese military tantrum last week to finish in a kind of void. Until next time…

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    Much Ado About Nancy Pelosi and China

    August 12, 2022 // 5 Comments »

    China policy seems to be made by, and written about by, adults who were often beaten up on the school playground. They retain the language of bullying, and weaknesses, and standing up, and the fantasy that something would sweep in and save them from losing another days’ lunch money (maybe an aircraft carrier group?) That these people are now in control of the media, if not the House, does nothing good for anyone, especially anyone located on either side of the Taiwan Strait. American seems dumb enough to play at this game; is Beijing also?

    By now we all know Nancy Pelosi, likely with only a couple of months left as Speaker of the House, decided to spend her summer vacation stirring up the entire Pacific theater for what appears to be largely her own ego. Just days after RIMPAC 2022 concluded (China sure knew the U.S. just wrapped up the largest live fire exercise of the year in the Pacific, involved a dozen nations and hundreds of ships and planes all aimed at the “Blue” team defeating the “Red” team across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean. While the NYT editorial team was putting ice on their fat lips over in the Ron Burgundy Lounge, Beijing sure saw RIMPAC and Pelosi as part of the same) bully Pelosi shoved Joe Biden into a mud puddle and said she was going to Taipei. For those worried about “showing weakness,” mark this: Biden was too weak to tell a member of his own party to stay out of trouble when he was sick with Covid, sick with inflation, and digging an ever deeper hole in Ukraine, another war with no endgame but wait for the other side to win.

    There was no great need for anyone to visit Taiwan this week. There was no crisis brewing, no event requiring anyone to stand with Taipei, support its democracy, or start wearing colored masks, not that the arrival of a lame duck Speaker would accomplish that or anything else in an quick show and tell. Nope, this mess was created by a Nancy Pelosi who wanted to show off, made worse by Joe Biden being too weak to stop her, and then exacerbated all to heck by China infusing much meaning into something that could have been shrugged off as having very little to say for itself.

    Remember the advice your mom gave you on bullies? Ignore them and they’d go away? Imagine China listening to their mom on this one and announcing “We heard Nancy was going to Taipei. Neither Nancy nor Taipei are particularly important to the soon-to-be greatest economy in the world, so we’ll ignore them both.” If pressed for comment Beijing could add “But we hope Nancy chokes on her dinner” and leave it at that.

    But while Nancy the Bully imagined she was standing up to Beijing the Bully, pretty soon everyone had to stand with, show up, not back down. So you have the New York Times, no stranger to losing its lunch money while being pantsed on the playground, saying “Bullies often seek tests of strengths to probe for signs of weakness. And they always read efforts at conciliation as evidence of capitulation.” The Times even quotes Sun Tzu (note to China watchers: if a pundit who does not read Chinese quotes Sun Tzu, duck, some b.s. is coming your way.) “If Beijing,” the Times continued, “had gotten its way over something as seemingly minor as Pelosi’s visit, it would not have been merely a symbolic victory in a diplomatic sideshow. It would have changed the rules of the game. Rather than avert a diplomatic crisis, it would have hastened a strategic disaster: the further isolation of a democratic U.S. ally and key economic partner as a prelude to surrender, war or both.”

    So there you have it. We just barely avoided a strategic disaster, a game changer, a mere preclude to surrender or war… or both! Good golly, lucky for us Nancy landed the plane safely in Taipei.

    It is time for some seriousness. China is not going to war with Taiwan. After all the smoke clears and overflights are tallied, China did only one substantive thing to punish Taiwan: China halted Taiwanese snack imports (including biscuits and pastries ahead of moon cake season) just before Pelosi’s arrival. That seems, Sun Tzu’s admonishment to try small steps before large ones aside, not something akin to war or surrender, and something unlikely to lead to violence. It actually really does not matter. Like Nancy.

    Need we walk through the other 99 percent of what is going on between Taiwan and China? Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Heck, they even invited Taiwan to the Beijing Olympics Nancy Pelosi protested.

    An attack on Taiwan would likely see a frightened Japan and South Korea step over the nuclear threshold and China would thus face more powerful enemies. In addition, a serious attack on Taiwan would severely damage the economy there Xi would no doubt see as part of the prize. Lastly, an attack on Taiwan would see Chinese killing Chinese, people who speak the same language and share several thousand years of culture. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits a year to Taiwan, many of which were to visit relatives. Student exchanges between Taiwan and China began in 2011, with some 25,000 Mainland kids studying on Taiwan pre-Covid. Even a “successful” attack would be near-political suicide for Xi. An invasion of Taiwan would leave the China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. A failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence China would be incapable of stopping.

    Caution is not appeasement. Every diplomatic move is not a full-spectrum weighing out of strength. Tiananmen was 33 years and a major change or two of governments ago (you still talking about that Kent State thing, bro?) Hong Kong was taken from China and colonized and exploited by the British before being returned to much the same status under Beijing. Same for Macao and the Portuguese. The U.S. fought China directly in Vietnam and Korea and that did not bleed over into Taiwan. China went nuclear and did not invade Taiwan.

    Strength and weakness do not rest on a single visit by someone as close to the end of her tenure as Nancy Pelosi. Bullies are gonna bully but China and Taiwan are not in that sort of relationship; they exist in a complex diplomatic dance overshadowed by massive amounts of cross-straits commerce, investment, and travel. In every sphere outside the political and martial they grow closer together, not further apart, and much of the differences are promoted by the U.S. and an industry of “China experts” who thrive like dung beetles off the potential for conflict.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    Pelosi and China and Taiwan; Is the Domestic Political Juice Worth the Foreign Policy Squeeze?

    August 3, 2022 // 1 Comment »

    The Biden administration is increasingly concerned about a trip  to Taiwan next month by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They should be. The visit is pointlessly provocative for little gain. Pelosi would do well to remember the the Chinese proverb: “Always know if the juice is worth the squeeze.”

    The domestic political juice is points for Pelosi from her large, pro-Taiwan, constituency back home as she runs for reelection. A third of Pelosi’s congressional district is Asian American and taking on Big China has long been a major part of her political identity. She, for example, made a public show out of meeting with pro-democracy protestors out of Hong Kong and urging a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

    The foreign policy squeeze — the negative political fall out and possible repercussions from such a visit — is extensive. When Pelosi proposed a visit in April, the Chinese responded “If the U.S. House speaker, a political leader of the United States, deliberately visits Taiwan, it would be a malicious provocation against China’s sovereignty and gross interference in China’s internal affairs, and would send an extremely dangerous political signal to the outside world.” China often fails to understand the impact of domestic politics on U.S. actions abroad, and no doubt imagines Pelosi as some sort of messager heralding a new strategic thinking out of Washington. They would likely make much of the Pelosi visit, envisioning it as a follow-on to Mike Pompeo’s March travel to the island.

    Almost unique globally, the China-Taiwan-U.S. relationship exists in a kind of strategic stasis. Each side of the triangle (the U.S. side tends to speak for interested third parties like Australia, Japan, and Korea at present) talks the talk of reunification and independence, but officially the line is based on the 1979 U.S.-Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and follow on diplomacy which states there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it. That line, one of the cleverest phrasings in modern diplomacy, has kept the peace for 73 years through things as varied as the Vietnam War, multiple changes of power in all three entities (part of the deal is not to call Taiwan a “country”) the fall of the Soviet Union and multiple incidents and kerfuffles. It is a sturdy but not unbreakable basis for the relationship. It all speaks to the origins of the diplomatic base here, the TRA, which grew out of Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland by force. With the Korean War sopping up American blood in the initial phase of the three-side relationship, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival World War II. The U.S. Cold War policy was to assure Taipei’s survival, all formalized in 1979 as the inevitable forced a change of plans and the diplomatic recognition of Beijing alongside Taiwan.

    This all came to be known colloquially as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood by all parties (Biden gaffes to the contrary aside) to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can, and probably will. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience”: China will not wait forever, but China also understands the time between now and forever is long. The TRA works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership from Mao to Deng to Xi, the Mainland has not invaded. Taiwan changed from a military dictatorship to a democracy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Beijing and Taipei are more politically and economically integrated than any point in modern history.

    One part of the unspoken deal is that official visits between Taiwan authorities and U.S. officials (note the accepted nouns) should generally occur on a mid-to-lower level. The idea is the higher the rank of those involved, especially on the U.S. side, the more “legitimacy” is conferred on to Taiwan’s status. So today the standard is some diplomatic grumpiness out of Beijing over visits to Taiwan by U.S. Congress persons but a tacit agreement the U.S. will confine higher level visits, such as from Taiwan’s president, to American soil and only then under some pretense, such as the president refueling enroute to somewhere else, or visiting the American mainland as part of a UN trip. These things shift, grow, and recede over time, but Pelosi as Speaker is clearly tweaking China by her planned visit.

    Another part of the unspoken deal is the timing of visits, and here again Pelosi is coming close to the edge of understood propriety. Not by coincidence the most sensitive period marks a holiday in both entities, October 11 (celebrated in Taiwan on October 10) the anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists in Beijing and the most fervent Nationalists in Taipei as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. Pelosi’s trip would come in the lead up to this date and the follow-on 20th national Congress of the Communist Party. During these no-go periods, Beijing is likely to respond more aggressively to perceived provocations. In particular, President Xi Jinping, who is expected to achieve an unprecedented third term as leader, second only to Mao historically, is keen not to suffer any slights in the lead-up to the conference.

    In other words, the bigger the perceived political and ideological slur, the bigger the required response, and then the bigger the required counter-response and so on until someone calls it quits. Or a war starts.

    That said, Pelosi is more likely to start a war in Washington as Speaker of the House than by visiting Taiwan. An invasion of Taiwan would leave the China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. And ironically, a failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence China would be incapable of stopping. There is no rational, risk vs. gain, no reason for hostilities with or without Nancy Pelosi visiting.

    It is likely Pelosi will be talked out of her planned visit, as she was once before using a case of Covid in April as the excuse then. President Biden himself on Wednesday told reporters “the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now” Pelosi travel to Taiwan, a very weak response from the lame duck president now further removed from his own foreign policy by Covid. Nonetheless, given the seriousness of the matter, among those briefing Pelosi were General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense, military and intelligence officials have “tried to explain the risks associated with the timing of her proposed trip,” said one administration official.

    Pelosi is a smart woman; she gets nearly 100 percent of the political gain in her home constituency just by proposing the trip, and tallies an owed favor from Biden for not going. She can again “postpone” the trip, keeping the door open to placate Taiwan while keeping the door open so Beijing can feel the heat. There is no urgency, no need to be seen “standing with Taiwan” at the present moment, no chance this could be seen as “weakness” especially if U.S. diplomats explained quietly to Beijing the domestic political side they likely do not understand. In other words, Pelosi gets most of the domestic political juice for none of the foreign policy squeeze.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    Deterrence Failed in Ukraine: Is Strategic Ambiguity Over Taiwan Better than a Treaty?

    April 30, 2022 // 5 Comments »

    The answer is one failed in Ukraine, one has kept the peace. The question, going forward, is the model the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5 or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act?

    The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO, created by a 1949 Treaty. Its history is embedded in WWII, when the Nazis gained a massive advantage in the earliest days of the war by playing the various European nations against each other, picking off territory while London and Paris bickered over what to do. NATO was be the solution. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says “An armed attack against one or more of the [signers] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” The critical points are that the treaty is inclusionary — all NATO members, large or small — and exclusionary in that it only applies to NATO members. An attack on NATO member Poland triggers Article 5. An attack on Ukraine or Taiwan, not NATO members, does not.

    The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA; also the U.S.-PRC Joint Communique) grew out of Mainland China dictator Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland. With the Korean War sopping up American blood, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival WWII. Instead, it established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. That lasted until 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (China; but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA listed two obligations to Taiwan: to sell it arms and to maintain the U.S.’ capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.

    The actual wording in the TRA is instructive: “Peace and stability in the area are matters of international concern… any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” This represents diplomatic brilliance, and came to be known as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience.”

    The most important thing about the TRA is it works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao (albeit in 1976) to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from military dictatorship to democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars where China and the U.S. fought each other directly, development of nuclear weapons by China, fall of the Soviet Union, the Mainland has not invaded. The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from agrarian isolation to an essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Ukraine happened, and the Mainland has not invaded.

    The irony is deterrence worked in Ukraine, at least from Putin’s point of view. It prevented the U.S. from getting involved in the shooting war between Russia and Ukraine. The NATO treaty was written to compel its signatories to act once someone moved against them (the treaty was obviously written with the Soviet Union in mind though Article 5 has only been invoked once, following 9/11, and then mostly for show.) As Putin readied to invade Ukraine, Biden threw away any trace elements of strategic ambiguity by declaring early and often NATO would not intervene and the U.S. would not unilaterally enter the fighting. It was as green a light as could be for Putin. ‘Round the other side of the world, Sino-Asia sleeps at peace knowing everything is on the table should the Mainland invade but nothing is at risk should it not. What better example of deterrence working?

    The concern now is moves in both hemispheres to formalize redlines. Much talk will be devoted post-invasion as to whether Ukraine should join NATO, feign at joining NATO, or promise never to join NATO. Joining or something akin will be the wrong answer. It was in fact the rigidity of NATO’s promise that saw it fail, again, in Ukraine as in Crimea. Putin understands this and uses it — judo master that he is — against his adversary. NATO prescribes war whether the broader circumstances (of say energy dependence on Russian gas) make that seem wise. It is an exploitable flaw. The good news is Europe is again at a stasis point for the time being, Ukraine seemingly headed toward a resolution that provides Russia its buffer zone no matter what it is all spun as in the western media.

    The risk lies in Asia, where bullish elements are tempted to disturb an equally functional power status quo, and jeez, it’s Joe “Regime Change” Biden and his gaffes again. At a CNN town hall in October 2021, the host asked Biden if the U.S. would defend Taiwan. He said “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” another gaffe-erino which the White House quickly walked back into the realm of strategic ambiguity. But post-Ukraine, some hawks want that clarity and are pushing for a formal, Article 5-like declaration. In their perfect world, that Asian Article 5 would include not only Taiwan and the U.S., but also Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and maybe others (the U.S. has various types of self-defense treaties already with many Asian nations.)

    The justifications for such moves often make no sense in the face of the current TRA strategy’s multi-decade success. Some say because Beijing ramped up its rhetoric and shipbuilding (a test of resolve!) we need to do something to match that. But wouldn’t a guarantee to go to war for Taiwan make those on Taiwan who want to declare independence that much more reckless? There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (if you think the Israel lobby is powerful, check how Taiwan’s punches above its weight.) The ever-pugilistic Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic unambiguity as a show of force.

    Joe Biden will come under some pressure to “do something” (the scariest words in Washington) following the clusterflutz in Ukraine. This would be a very, very risky move. Remember, for deterrence to be credible, it does not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge, but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer is likely to do something that is “fraught with the danger of war.” Strategic ambiguity is enough. Article 5 and anything like it to come in the Pacific purposefully ties its signatories’ hands. The Taiwan Relations Act purposefully leaves all options open to deal with the complex realities of the Sino-Pacific. History shows which one works and which one does not. A more aggressive posture does not resolve the root issues across the Taiwan Strait, it only risks exacerbating them.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    Deterrence, China, and the U.S.

    April 10, 2022 // 3 Comments »

    The U.S. should not use its military power to deter China from invading Taiwan. It is unnecessary, and anything more than what is already being done is more likely to help provoke a war than stop one. It might even be better to turn down U.S. enthusiasm a notch or two.

    The current status of strategic ambiguity serves two important American goals – it keeps the peace and allows for a productive trilateral++ relationship among China, Taiwan, U.S. and the rest of Asia. Those two goals work in lockstep, not in conflict of one another, a key point. Peace serves all masters here. What we have is useful stasis, not some sort of historical fantasy of unfulfilled frustration. And we’ll still keep the focus on U.S. strategic interests, not those of Taiwan or other allies. You can’t expect more than that.

    Unnecessary

    During the entire 73 year existence of Taiwan, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from a military dictatorship to a democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars, development of nuclear weapons by China, the fall of the Soviet Union (and Donald Trump) the Mainland has not invaded. US posture has varied from garrisoning the island to strategic ambiguity and the Mainland has not invaded.

    The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy backed by ICBMs and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from the agrarian isolation of the Cultural Revolution to a fully-integrated if not essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Putin got away with Ukraine and the Mainland has not invaded. That is not going to change in our lifetimes, so there is not much more to say. The ball keeps bouncing, history remains. I’ll be at the bar. Thank you.

    OK, OK, a little more detail. Taiwan has not invaded China, either. You laugh but that was indeed Chiang Kai Skek’s plan, with U.S. help of course, in the early years. Though we don’t think of it much, the current policy of strategic ambiguity keeps Taiwan in line as well. Nobody expects the ambiguity to stretch as far as Taiwan launching military force. Or proclaiming independence. You would hate to have some sort of strategic clarity embolden independence “trouble makers” on Taiwan, one of those unintended consequences.

    A couple of points to establish. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve worked in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that.

    Focus is important; this is about preventing war. It is not about China being mean to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai, never mind in Riyadh or other allied places. And often left out of the discussion is the United States worked closely with the Nationalists on Taiwan to make it a very undemocratic place until about 1989.

    For the lawyers here tonight, everything I say represents merely my own views and not those of my past or present employers. Nothing in my talk tonight is even remotely classified. If that disappoints, you might still be able to get your money back. A version of my talk is already posted on my website at wemeantwell.com with all the links to data cited, so you can fact check me in real time, or for those with babysitters on the clock at home, read ahead.

    Provocation: Deterrence is Dangerous

    Deterrence is a funny word. What looks like deterrence from one side — forward deploying an aircraft carrier — might look like provocation from the other. What looks like deterrence against American hegemony in Asia — overflights — might look like provocation from the other. The concept of deterrence itself is not without its uses, and in the end likely kept the Cold War a lot cooler, but military deterrence as argued for here holds the risk of accidents and misinterpretations.

    More importantly, there is little need for the military deterrence many advocate for, such as Professor Galston this evening. The Chinese on both sides of the strait understand well there is much to be gained from economic ties amid political ambiguity and much greater risk in anything like an invasion that would accomplish little besides tidying up the leftovers from the creation of the PRC in 1949.

    About that deterrence versus provocation thing. China has four overseas military bases, to include a small logistics operation in Djibouti, a listening post on Great Coco Island (not near the Bahamas, it’s off Myanmar), navy outpost in Gwadar (it’s in Pakistan) and of course a military post in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan. I’m going to guess a lot of people who consider themselves informed on this topic could not have named more than one of those.

    In contrast, the U.S. maintains 750 bases across the globe, a few less now that the Afghan adventure is over. That includes formal facilities in eight Asian nations, with some 53,000 troops in Japan and 24,000 in South Korea alone. The U.S. maintained troops on Taiwan until 1979 and recently began sending Special Forces there again on training missions. That many of those American bases predate the founding of the People’s Republic, and all have survived the fall of the Soviet adversary they were built to, um, deter, tells the real story.

    Let’s look at the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways.

    Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the U.S. ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the U.S. was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

    At various points in history some American bases stored nuclear weapons, and may do so today. Forward-deployed U.S. warships are believed to also contain nuclear weapons; the Ohio-class submarines off China’s coasts, each with 20 Trident ballistic missiles, certainly do. No matter; nuclear-armed aircraft are available direct from the U.S. mainland within hours. Pretend you’re from Mars and just visiting earth and tell me who seems to be provoking. Deterrence as practiced by the U.S. is a dangerous thing.

    For deterrent threats to be credible, they ‘do not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge’ but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer ‘is likely to do something that is fraught with the danger of war’

    The key element of the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act over Professor Galston’s “strategic clarity” is a conditional response, call if flexibility if you like. The more specific your response is ahead of time – say in writing like Article 5 – the more your hands are tied. Remember deterrence worked in Ukraine, for Russia; it stopped the U.S. from more actively intervening.

     

    MORE REASONS IT’LL NEVER HAPPEN

    What Do They Want?

    When I was a diplomat we were taught that trust was always a nice thing, but what was better was to understand the other side’s goals and intentions. If you knew those, or could make a decent guess, you could predict their actions and poke effectively at their asks a lot better than hoping they would just do what they promised. The number of affairs inside marriages where monogamy was the opening promise supports my argument.

    So what do China and Taiwan want? There may be someone who is listening into bedrooms, boardrooms, and tea shops and hearing the answer from the principle players, but absent that simply looking at the last 70 some years of history is pretty good.

    China and Taiwan do not want war. Absent some scraps back in the 1950s, nobody has invaded or attacked anyone. The US and China only sent shots at each other when the US approached China’s border through its ally North Korea in that war, and on a lesser scale when the US approached China’s border through its ally North Vietnam in that war. There’s kind of a pattern. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. How many American embassies has China bombed?

    The fact that through all of the massive changes of the last 70 years — the end of Mao, those two wars with the US, the handover of Hong Kong, the entire Cold War itself, and the list is long, there has been no invasion. Scientists call that a steady state, and something bigger than Mao, the Cold War, etc. would have to appear and change it. I’m not sure what that could be. Does anyone seriously believe some rogue statement in the Taiwan legislature would qualify, or some five-way disputed rock outcropping in the South China Sea? And by the way, speaking of the historical record, there’s the same track record for Macau and Hong Kong, where China did not invade or attack over 200 some years of very non-democratic colonial rule even after they had the military means to make it a cakewalk.

    My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was crawling out from under four decades of authoritarian rule, and taking its first difficult democratic steps. After decades of speech suppression, a lot of people were testing their legs, saying all sorts of crazy stuff about independence. Among ourselves we called it “the D word,” as independence in Mandarin is romanized duli. One emerging political party was even called the Taiwan Independence party, and was likely to grab a few seats in the legislature. The U.S. mission was fearful this could serve as a trigger to Beijing. “Big China” had made clear a declaration of independence was a red line.

    Beijing’s reaction was soon apparent: Taiwan’s stores started to feature mainland goods; the end of the hated Kuomintang opened up a new market. Even before this thaw you could sort of fly from Taipei to China, something that many people on both sides of the strait were desperate to do to visit relatives. The catch was the flight had to touch down in then-British Hong Kong. In 2008 these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Today six China-based airlines and five from Taiwan operate direct flights. The line of progress has been in one direction, far at odds with war.

     

    Follow the Money

    China and Taiwan do want economic benefits. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Heck, they even invited Taiwan to the Beijing Olympics.

    There’s also the U.S. to consider, as any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations. Not counting Hunter Biden (I kid) the total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as a food source. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success and continued economic engagement.

     

    Ignore (Most of) the Rhetoric

    Oh, the rhetoric, all that stuff about reunification that tumbles out of Beijing. History is again our guide, as Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

    It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

    Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

    In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears.

    Taiwan is a “wanderer” that will eventually come home and not a chess piece to be played with, the Chinese government’s top diplomat said recently.

    Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmodically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

    China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience” (antagonists argue China will not wait forever, but also understands the time between now and forever is long.)

     

    Some Housekeeping

    As for the funny arguments in favor of deterrence, one of the most hilarious is that the U.S. has to maintain its posture over Taiwan as a signal to the rest of the world about commitment or we’ll lose our global credibility. Of course the neo-neocons are saying the same thing about Crimea, um, sorry, Ukraine. I’m still waiting for those who make that argument to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

    And yes, China is building its military. They now have one real aircraft carrier (same number as India; China also sort of float an old Soviet model) and three high-end Type 075 amphibious landing ships with Type 071s coming soon online. In comparison, the U.S. has 11 carriers and eight high-end amphibious landing ships. There’s a long way to go before we talk invasion or steeled threat, never mind parity.

    As for the idea China is building out its fleet and therefore must somehow ignore all the other points I made here tonight and thus must attack someone, I can only point to the Cold War where the Russians despite in about 1972 having at least parity with NATO and with the US tied down in Vietnam never attacked in Europe. Now if you wanna simply credit deterrence go ahead, but there’s also the idea that other things I’ve tried to touch on tonight plays a role in all of this. We act sometimes like our adversaries are all suicidal hegemonic Bond villains instead of calculating nation-states with complex goals. Any connections to Putin-mania and the Ukraine are purely coincidental.

    But don’t believe me, believe the Pentagon’s annual China Military Power report. It stated “China’s significant investment in its amphibious fleet does not necessarily portend an invasion of Taiwan. An attempt to invade Taiwan would likely strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention. These stresses, combined with China’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency, even assuming a successful landing and breakout, make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk.”

    Never spoken of is what would happen to President Xi and the Chinese system if his invasion failed, with or without US involvement. Where are the Marines tonight? I know Professor Galston was in the Corps, thank you for your service. Aren’t massive amphibious landings considered the hardest of military moves to execute, especially for the untested PLA? And this isn’t Normandy, Chinese ships would be under Taiwan’s indigenous missile defenses almost as they left their harbors (known as area denial.) If Xi fails, he is done for and perhaps with him the current political system. Needless to say a Chinese military which felt it had been misused and blooded unnecessarily would not be a healthy thing for the Beijing government to have around. I think the word for coup in Mandarin is Jūnshì zhèngbiàn.

    Win or lose, an attack on Taiwan would likely see a frightened Japan and South Korea step over the nuclear threshold and China would thus face more powerful enemies. In addition, an attack on Taiwan would severely damage the economy there Xi would no doubt see as part of the prize. Lastly, an attack on Taiwan would see Chinese killing Chinese, people who speak the same language and share several thousand years of culture. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits a year to Taiwan, many of which were to visit relatives. Student exchanges between Taiwan and China began in 2011, with some 25,000 Mainland kids studying on Taiwan pre-Covid. Even a “successful” attack would be near-political suicide for Xi.

     

    Conclusion

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave the China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. And ironically, a failed attack could lead to a Taiwanese declaration of independence China would be incapable of stopping.

    There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities and thus no need for deterrence. My fear is the United States has already decided a bench clearing, superpower showdown is needed, eagle vs. dragon, for control of the Pacific, or at least a new and profitable arms race. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication. I worry deeply we are looking for a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us, using the cloak of deterrence to prepare for war. America’s current China policy is unnecessarily adversarial. It is impractical and dangerous.

    America is still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with near-peers like China, we have few if any tools but to reimagine legitimate competitors into enemies. It plays out as if U.S. foreign policy is run by WWII reenactors.

    And with that settled, the Professor will now go on to resolve the situation in Ukraine and fix the NY subway system. What, no more time? Sorry friends, next time.

     

    Bīng dòng sān chǐ, fēi yīrì zhī hán — It takes more than one cold day for a river to freeze a meter deep.

    Nándé hútu — Ignorance is bliss.

     

    BONUS I: Taiwan is not Ukraine

    I have a medal for winning the Cold War. It was for any member of the military, or federal civilian employee, who served during the Cold War. That included me, at the tail end, with the State Department. Ironically my so-called Cold War service was on Taiwan. I probably should return the thing; the Cold War is far from over.

    Part of the Cold War’s real conclusion is playing out in Ukraine in real time. Is Taiwan, another hanging chad from the Cold War, next? Is President Xi watching a weakened America giving in to the Russians and seeing his chance to seize Taiwan?

    Nope. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan. The two places only exist next to each other in articles like this because both are the results of American policy. Each exists alongside its nemesis only because the rules the U.S. created (the “liberal world order” as long as the U.S. is in first place) are not subscribed to anymore by most of the world, if they ever really were. But that does not mean Taiwan is in imminent danger.

    While Putin‘s invasion timing may or may not have had something to do with Joe Biden (if Trump were really his puppet that would have seemed an easier time to do this) the reality is what is unfolding in the Ukraine reaches back much further than Biden or Trump, to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    It was then the policy of the United States to empower the former Soviet satellite states and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany as well by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe.

    We took their people, too. As a young State Department officer in London in the early 1990s I was told to issue visa after visa to former nuclear scientists from the Ukraine, as well as all sorts of rogues headed to the United States to get them out of the ‘Stans. We created a brain drain to ensure none of the newly independent states could rise above the nuclear threshold the United States established unilaterally for them. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe, dependent on America for defense.

    Understanding why an adversary does something is not the same as supporting him. As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn with more attention to the West’s needs than any natural flow of those borders (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders, something now doable because Russia has been allowed to re-grow its fangs. Ukraine as a possible NATO member is a threat to Putin and he is now taking care of that. Americans live in a country that has no border threats and fail to understand the mindset time after time. We believe instead when we invade countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) it’s part of international law.

    Geo-politically, it was easy. A pro-Russian faction exists inside Ukraine, and Ukraine exists outside the NATO umbrella. Putin’s 2014 proof-of-concept in Crimea assured him NATO would not intervene. About the only real obstacle was the likely pleas of President Xi to hold off and not spoil the Olympics.

    Taiwan is another Cold War relic. While the U.S. propped up Taiwan’s very undemocratic military government for decades as an ironic bulkhead against communism, the island grew into an economic powerhouse. In that lies the fundamental difference between the relationships of Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan.

    China and Taiwan are economic partners. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. China and Taiwan are ethnically the same people, enjoying an enormous bounty of cross strait commerce, culture, student exchanges, and other ties signifying a growing relationship not an adversarial one. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    Any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations; Ukraine has little effect on the already poor state of US-Russia relations. Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as food.

    One of the problems with the sanctions Biden is claiming he’s going to use to punish Russia is how unintegrated Russia is into the world economy after so many years of sanctions. What’s left that will sting? Biden promises “economic consequences like none [Putin]’s ever seen.” But the Panama Papers show much of the so-called oligarch money, including Putin’s, is not in the U.S. or its allies’ banking systems anyway. The oft-discussed SWIFT international banking system is run as a neutral entity out of Belgium, and Russia cannot be blocked from it by any U.S. “sanction.”

    Germany is temporarily halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but no one is talking about tearing it down. And if U.S. sanctions drive up gas prices without affecting the situation on the ground in Ukraine, who is sanctioning whom?

    China on the other hand is deeply vulnerable to sanctions and disruptions of commerce following an attack on Taiwan. The risk in calculable dollars is beyond any gain owning Taiwan would bring; imagine the impact of closing U.S. ports to Chinese cargo vessels.

    On the military side, Russia was able to literally drive into Ukraine, something the mighty Red Army has been perfecting since 1945. Taiwan famously is an island, and a Chinese amphibious invasion would scale beyond the Normandy landings. Taiwan fields Harpoon missiles with the range to put Chinese forces under fire almost as they leave port. Tactically there is no comparison between the flat plains of the Ukraine and the rocky coast of Taiwan. Nobody undertakes an invasion they are likely to lose.

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave China isolated and economically crippled. Not so for Russia and Ukraine where the benefits to Russia clearly outweighed the risk. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan.

     

    BONUS II: Deterrence in Ukraine and Taiwan

    The answer is one failed in Ukraine, one has kept the peace. The question is, going forward, is the model the strategic clarity of NATO’s Article 5 or the strategic ambiguity of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

    The principle of collective defense is at the very heart of NATO, created by a 1949 Treaty. Its history is embedded in WWII, when the Nazis gained a massive advantage in the earliest days of the war by playing the various European nations against each other, picking off territory while London and Paris bickered over what to do. NATO was be the solution. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says “An armed attack against one or more of the [signers] shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them… will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.” The critical points are that the treaty is inclusionary — all NATO members, large or small — and exclusionary in that it only applies to NATO members. An attack on NATO member Poland triggers Article 5. An attack on Ukraine or Taiwan, not NATO members, does not.

    The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA; also the U.S.-PRC Joint Communique) grew out of Mainland China dictator Mao’s threat to “liberate” Taiwan and Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s demand for U.S. support to reclaim the Mainland. With the Korean War sopping up American blood, Washington had no desire to join what would have been a land war to rival WWII. Instead, it established diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. That lasted until 1979, when the U.S. switched its diplomatic recognition from the people of Taiwan to the people of the Mainland (China; but note the diplomatic wording) and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA listed two obligations to Taiwan: to sell it arms and to maintain the U.S.’ capacity “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan.

    The actual wording in the TRA is instructive: “Peace and stability in the area are matters of international concern… any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” This represents diplomatic brilliance, and came to be known as “strategic ambiguity,” a policy understood to mean the U.S. doesn’t have to defend Taiwan, but it can. The circumstances and means of defense are left unspoken. China matched this with a policy of “strategic patience” (antagonists argue China will not wait forever, but China also understands the time between now and forever is long.)
    The most important thing about the TRA is it works. The Mainland has not invaded Taiwan. Despite changes in leadership as dramatic as Mao (albeit in 1976) to Deng to Xi the Mainland has not invaded. Despite Taiwan changing from military dictatorship to democracy, the Mainland has not invaded. Despite global changes including the Korean and Vietnam wars where China and the U.S. fought each other directly, development of nuclear weapons by China, fall of the Soviet Union, the Mainland has not invaded. The Chinese military has gone from peasants with rifles to a blue water navy and the Mainland has not invaded. China has gone from agrarian isolation to an essential part of the industrialized global economy, and the Mainland has not invaded. Ukraine happened, and the Mainland has not invaded.

    The irony is deterrence worked in Ukraine, at least from Putin’s point of view. It prevented the U.S. from getting involved in the shooting war between Russia and Ukraine. The NATO treaty was written to compel its signatories to act once someone moved against them (the treaty was obviously written with the Soviet Union in mind though Article 5 has only been invoked once, following 9/11, and then mostly for show.) As Putin readied to invade Ukraine, Biden threw away any trace elements of strategic ambiguity by declaring early and often NATO would not intervene and the U.S. would not unilaterally enter the fighting. It was as green a light as could be for Putin. ‘Round the other side of the world, Sino-Asia sleeps at peace knowing everything is on the table should the Mainland invade but nothing is at risk should it not. What better example of deterrence working?

    The concern now is moves in both hemispheres to formalize redlines. Much talk will be devoted post-invasion as to whether Ukraine should join NATO, feign at joining NATO, or promise never to join NATO. Joining or something akin will be the wrong answer. It was in fact the rigidity of NATO’s promise that saw it fail, again, in Ukraine as in Crimea. Putin understands this and uses it — judo master that he is — against his adversary. NATO prescribes war whether the broader circumstances (of say energy dependence on Russian gas) make that seem wise. It is an exploitable flaw. The good news is Europe is again at a stasis point for the time being, Ukraine seemingly headed toward a resolution that provides Russia its buffer zone no matter what it is all spun as in the western media.

    The risk lies in Asia, where bullish elements are tempted to disturb an equally functional power status quo, and jeez, it’s Joe “Regime Change” Biden and his gaffes again. At a CNN town hall in October 2021, the host asked Biden if the U.S. would defend Taiwan. He said “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” another gaffe-erino which the White House quickly walked back into the realm of strategic ambiguity. But post-Ukraine, some hawks want that clarity and are pushing for a formal, Article 5-like declaration. In their perfect world, that Asian Article 5 would include not only Taiwan and the U.S., but also Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and maybe others (the U.S. has various types of self-defense treaties already with many Asian nations.)

    The justifications for such moves often make no sense in the face of the current TRA strategy’s multi-decade success. Some say because Beijing ramped up its rhetoric and shipbuilding (a test of resolve!) we need to do something to match that. But wouldn’t a guarantee to go to war for Taiwan make those on Taiwan who want to declare independence that much more reckless? There are those in Congress who want a more formal agreement (if you think the Israel lobby is powerful, check how Taiwan’s punches above its weight.) The ever-pugilistic Council on Foreign Relations wants strategic unambiguity as a show of force.

    Joe Biden will come under some pressure to “do something” (the scariest words in Washington) following the clusterflutz in Ukraine. This would be a very, very risky move. Remember, for deterrence to be credible, it does not need to depend on a willingness to commit anything like suicide in the face of a challenge, but rather must carry the risk that the deterrer is likely to do something that is “fraught with the danger of war.” Strategic ambiguity is enough. Article 5 and anything like it to come in the Pacific purposefully ties its signatories’ hands. The Taiwan Relations Act purposefully leaves all options open to deal with the complex realities of the Sino-Pacific. History shows which one works and which one does not. A more aggressive posture does not resolve the root issues across the Taiwan Strait, it only risks exacerbating them.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    Taiwan is Not Ukraine is Not Taiwan

    March 5, 2022 // 6 Comments »

    I have a medal for winning the Cold War. It was issuable to any member of the military, or civilian employee of the federal government, who served during the Cold War. That included me, at the tail end, with the State Department. Ironically my so-called Cold War service was on Taiwan. I probably should return the thing; the Cold War is far from over.

    Part of the Cold War’s real conclusion is playing out in Ukraine in real time. Is Taiwan, another hanging chad from the Cold War, next? Is President Xi watching a weakened America giving in to the Russians and seeing his chance to seize Taiwan?

    Nope. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan. The two states only exist next to each other in articles like this because both are the results of American policy. Each exists alongside its nemesis only because the rules the U.S. created after WWII are not subscribed to anymore by most of the world, if they ever really were. But that does not mean Taiwan is in imminent danger.

    While Putin‘s instant invasion timing may or may not have had something to do with Joe Biden (if Trump were really his puppet that would have seemed an easier time to do this) the reality is what is unfolding in the Ukraine reaches back much further than Biden or Trump, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was then the policy of the United States to empower the former Soviet satellite states and grow American influence by expanding NATO eastward (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Romania formally joined the alliance, East Germany as well by default) and to do this while taking the nuclear weapons away from those states so that none of them would become a threat or rival in Europe. We took their people, too. As a young State Department officer in London in the early 1990s I was told to issue visa after visa to former nuclear scientists from the Ukraine, as well as all sorts of rogues headed to the United States to get them out of the ‘Stans. We created a brain drain to ensure none of the new nation states could rise above the nuclear threshold the United States established unilaterally for them. It was American policy to have weak but not too weak border states between Russia and the “good” part of Europe.

    Understanding why an adversary does something is not the same as supporting him. As the Soviet Union collapsed, borders were redrawn with more attention to the West’s needs than any natural flow of those borders (the same mistake was made earlier by the British post-WWI in the Middle East.) Historically at some point in time all those borders were just glaciers, so it is always possible to argue some slip of history means somewhere used to be owned by someone going all the way back to mastodons. The reality of 2022 is Putin is seeking to redraw borders created by his adversaries, something now possible as Russia has been allowed by the West to re-grow its fangs. Ukraine as a possible NATO member was a threat to Putin and he this week is taking care of that. Americans live in a country that essentially has no border threats and fail to understand this time after time. We believe when we invade countries (Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan) it’s part of international law.

    Geopolitically, it was easy. A pro-Russian faction exists inside Ukraine, and Ukraine exists outside the NATO umbrella. Putin’s proof-of-concept, his 2014 takeover of Crimea, assured him NATO would not militarily intervene. About the only real obstacle he faced was the likely pleas of President Xi to hold off a couple of weeks and not spoil the Olympics.

    Taiwan is another Cold War relic. The U.S. propped up Taiwan’s very undemocratic military government for decades as an ironic bulkhead against communism. Taiwan grew into an economic powerhouse and in that lies the fundamental difference between the relationships of Russia and Ukraine, and China and Taiwan.

    China and Taiwan are economic partners. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. China and Taiwan are ethnically the same people, enjoying an enormous amount of cross strait commerce, culture, student exchanges, visits among relatives, and other ties that indicate a growing, positive relationship not an adversarial one. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    There’s also the U.S. to consider, as any cross-strait violence would affect US-China relations; Ukraine has little effect on the already poor state of US-Russia relations. The total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt. If something interfered with all that commerce, China would have to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as food.

    One of the problems with the sanctions Biden is claiming he’s going to use to punish Russia is how unintegrated Russia is in the world economy after so many years of sanctions. Really, what’s left that will sting? Biden promises “economic consequences like none [Putin]’s ever seen.” But the Panama Papers already showed much of the so-called oligarch money, including Putin’s, is not in the U.S. or its allies’ banking systems anyway. Germany is temporarily halting certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, but no one is talking about tearing it down. if U.S. sanction drive up gas prices without affecting the situation on the ground in Ukraine, who is sanctioning whom?

    China on the other hand is deeply integrated into the global economy and vulnerable to sanctions and disruptions of commerce following an attack on Taiwan. The risk in calculatable dollars is beyond any gain owning Taiwan would bring; imagine the impact of closing U.S. ports to Chinese cargo vessels.

    On the military side, Russia was able to literally drive into Ukraine, something the mighty Red Army has been perfecting since 1945. Taiwan famously is an island, and a Chinese amphibious invasion would represent something larger than the Normandy D-Day landings. Whereas the Ukrainians have limited ability to respond to a blitzkrieg land invasion, Taiwan fields Harpoon missiles with the range to put Chinese forces under fire almost as they leave port. Militarily there is no comparison between the flat plains of the Ukraine and the rocky coast of Taiwan. Nobody undertakes an invasion they are very likely to lose.

    An invasion of Taiwan would leave China politically isolated, economically damaged, and reputationally crippled. Not so for Russia and Ukraine where the benefits to Russia outweigh the risk. Taiwan is not Ukraine is not Taiwan.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    What will be the Casus Belli for War with China?

    December 15, 2021 // 4 Comments »

    In one of the great scenes in the movie Citizen Kane, newspaper publisher Charles Kane, in desperate need of headlines to boost circulation, decides a patriotic war would be just the thing. When his reporters fail to find evidence of imminent hostilities, Kane famously bellows “I’ll supply the war, you supply the pictures!”

    Kane is directly modeled after the real-life William Randolph Hearst, who generously fanned the flames of the Spanish-American war, making the sinking of the Maine, a U.S. warship, by the Spanish, into a casus belli. It was all a lie; the Maine exploded internally, on it’s own. No matter, a war was needed and so that decision made, a cause was created.

    The real reasons for the war included a U.S. desire to take control of Cuba and to become a Pacific power by seizing the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at this time, advocated for the war as a rally-round-the-flag event to heal the lingering wounds of the American Civil War and as an excuse to increase the U.S. Navy’s budget. After all, they sank our ship! The press would wait until WMDs were not created to ever be that compliant again.

    Very much the same story in Vietnam. The U.S., imagining a global communist conspiracy rising from the ashes of WWII, began its war in Vietnam by proxy in 1945, soon funding the French struggle for years. By 1950 the first American military personnel were stationed in Saigon. When America advisors, and casualties, began to come to the public’s attention, and successes by the other side began to pile up, the real American war got underway.

    But with a more overt war, a more overt reason had to be found. That took the form of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, a claim two American warships came under unprovoked attack by North Vietnam. What really happened was far from that, but does not matter. Congress passed an enabling resolution and the war escalated as needed. They hurt our ships!

    In the late 1990s, The Project for the New American Century think tank developed its “compelling vision for American foreign policy” based on a “benevolent global hegemony.” They had nothing less in mind than a global war of conquest, occupation, and regime change, focused on the Middle East. The war was set, but the problem lay in convincing the American people to support it. “The process of transformation,” the neocons wrote, “even if it brings revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”

    The new Pearl Harbor fell into their laps on 9/11. Even then, though, another made-up reason was needed to justify the invasion of Iraq, the jewel in the neocon planning. The Bush administration made a few attempts to link Saddam to 9/11 directly, then to terrorism generically, but none of it stuck with the public, correctly confused about why an attack largely planned, funded, and executed by Saudis required a war in Iraq.

    In the end the decision to stress the threat posed by Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction above all others was taken for “bureaucratic” reasons, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said. “It was the one reason everyone could agree on.” It really did not matter that it wasn’t true.

    This was followed by years of conflict under four presidents. Along the way mini-versions of the same game, war decided on first, reasons ginned up later, were run to justify invasions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. It does not matter what is true because the incidents, real or imaginary, are just like buses; miss one and another will along soon enough.

    These wars, from the Maine to Iraq, had no Pearl Harbor. America was not attacked, it wanted to initiate the war itself, and created a false pretext for doing so. Unlike with the WMDs, there was no question the Japanese bombed Pearl and that this was an actual, unambiguous act of aggression. It did not require a lie or an explanation or some 1940s version of Colin Powell at the UN.

    Which brings us to China, which appears to be the next war now searching for a reason.

    “The Fight for Taiwan Could Come Soon,” warns the Wall Street Journal, alongside nearly every other publication of note. President Biden has begun the propaganda spadework, declaring “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Is war imminent? Will it begin in Taiwan?

    The reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan are lengthy and cover the economic, military, and political spheres. There is no rational, risk vs. gain, reason for hostilities. But that is not what the historical playbook says matters. It may be the United States has already decided a bench clearing, superpower showdown is needed, eagle vs. dragon, for control of the Pacific. We just need to find a reason, given that China is unlikely to be a sport and invade Taiwan for us. You can lie about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction long enough to get a war started, but an actual Chinese invasion is a bridge too far for straight-up fabrication.

    Now it is possible the war fever over China is just a con inside a con. It is possible the military industrial complex knows it will never fight an actual war, but is simply using the threat as a way to run up its budget. They remember how the lies about the “missile gap” with the Soviet Union exploded the military industrial complex budget following WWII. A Chinese threat requires endless spending on the good stuff, big carriers and space forces, not muddy ground troops squandered losing to goat farmers in Afghanistan.

    And then boom! as certain as the sun rising in the east is red, last week Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the U.S. was in an “arms race” with China over the development of hypersonic weapons that can evade missile defenses. His boss Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin lambasted China over its pursuit of hypersonic weapons, saying the activity “increases tensions in the region.” America faces a hypersonic weapons gap.

    An arms race would be the best case scenario to come out of all the saber rattling over China. If that’s all this is, it is well underway. But what if the U.S. has its mind set on a real war and needs a palatable reason?

    So, a challenge to all readers. On a post card addressed to the White House, what would be the declared justification for the U.S. going to war with China?

    You can have fun with this (Beijing kidnaps Taylor Swift and a rescue mission escalates into full-on war. Or China is caught releasing a virus that disables global trade) or geopolitical serious stuff about struggles for rare earth minerals. No cheating with statements pretending to reasons, things like China is an “imminent threat” or declarations like “clear and present danger.” Pretend you’re a modern day Paul Wolfowitz, handed the fait accompli of war and tasked with ginning up a reason Americans will buy. But no “they sunk our ship” scenarios. Been there, done that.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    Three Questions to Ask About America Not Fighting a War with China

    December 1, 2021 // 5 Comments »

    Before you read another story claiming war among China, Taiwan and the U.S. is getting closer, or relations are entering dangerous territory, or long-standing issues may soon be settled by any means necessary, ask yourself these three questions.

     

    Why Would China Attack Taiwan?

    Over the last decade Taiwan invested $188.5 billion in China, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven damn profitable. Why bomb one of your best customers?

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every Chinese one) why would China consider a war that would provoke the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. is $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi if not the whole power structure. An invasion is impractical. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with 200 mile range. Estimates are China would need to land a million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about only 1,000 men, and China currently has only three such ships. Its conscript troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British forces patrol the waters. Aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea could shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground. This is not Normandy. It is also not another of the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    No risk vs. gain calculation would end up concluding the best option was war. And discard the irrational actor scenario; Chinese leaders have always believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong, same with Portugal and Macau. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. One waits to win.

     

    Why now?

    In fiction one of the important tools is the Change Event, the thing that answers the question of why now? Why did the mild-mannered accountant suddenly become a vigilante? Oh, his daughter was kidnapped. So where is the “why now” part of China-Taiwan?

    One of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and the last shot fired was in the 1950s. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there, and briefly in 1979 during a border scuffle. China joined the Korean War only after the U.S. threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Xi’s reunification rhetoric is essentially the same as Mao’s.

    China is an autocracy (unchanged since 1949), and has not promoted things like free speech in Hong Kong or Tibet, never mind in Beijing or Shanghai. We don’t have to like that, but it is nothing new and has nothing to do with invading Taiwan. China did little when some of the leaders of the Tienanmen protests turned up in Taiwan, another worried over “why now” event.

    My own first brush with a “why now” event was in the 1980s, when I went to Taiwan as an American diplomat. Taiwan was crawling out from under four decades of authoritarian rule, and taking its first difficult democratic steps. After decades of speech suppression, a lot of people were testing their legs, saying all sorts of crazy stuff about independence. Among ourselves we called it “the D word,” as independence in Mandarin is romanized duli. One emerging political party was even called the Taiwan Independence party, and was likely to grab a few seats in the legislature. The U.S. mission was fearful this could serve as a trigger to Beijing. “Big China” had made clear a declaration of independence was a red line.

    Beijing’s reaction was soon apparent: Taiwan’s stores started to feature mainland goods; the end of the hated Kuomintang opened up a new market. Even before this thaw you could sort of fly from Taipei to China, something that many people on both sides of the strait were desperate to do to visit relatives. The catch was the flight had to touch down in then-British Hong Kong. In 2008 these flights were made direct, with no need for the Hong Kong stopover. Today six China-based airlines and five from Taiwan operate direct flights. The line of progress has been in one direction, far at odds with war.

     

    Why Would Anyone Think the U.S. Would Not Defend Taiwan?

    Post-Afghanistan, some speculate the U.S. would not defend Taiwan. It makes no sense; if the U.S. stood on the sidelines as China attacked, that would end the post-WWII U.S. alliance system in Asia, and would temp war on the Korean peninsula. It would likely spur Japan and Korea to go nuclear. The global economy would fall into chaos and the dollar would collapse. Who knows what would happen to global supply lines.

    The Taiwan Relations Act (Biden as a young senator voted for it) says Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language was purposefully written by the parties concerned in 1979 to incorporate flexibility without being provocative, and cannot be read today as a signal of weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this.

    I have been in rooms with both Chinese and Taiwan representatives, and PLA and U.S. military personnel. Though sabers get rattled, particularly in front of the cameras, every action by every player assumes the U.S. will defend Taiwan. There is simply no ambiguity. When Joe Biden broke code and blurted out the U.S. will indeed defend Taiwan it was one of the few honest statements by any politician in Washington.

    The U.S. has troops on Taiwan. The U.S. sells Taiwan some of our most modern weapons. Even as Xi spoke of reunification during the October political holidays the HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint operations in the China Sea. The U.S. is selling nuclear submarines to Australia to boast patrols in the South China Sea. The U.S. frequently conducts “freedom of navigation” exercises in the area. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its neutral stance on Taiwan. Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate war on China.

    China has no reason to and many reasons not to attack Taiwan. For 70 some years their relationship has become more open and more interactive. Strategic ambiguity — some call it deterrence — has worked. Nothing about any of that has changed.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    America Won’t Be Fighting a War with China over Taiwan (So Why the Fuss?)

    October 30, 2021 // 16 Comments »


    The United States and China will not go to war in our time over Taiwan. China is not engaging in provocative actions leading toward an invasion. So why the fuss?

    I’d prefer to let the argument speak for itself, but my background is relevant. I threw away my Mao (and Che) T-shirt sophomore year. I don’t have a grey pony tail. I know Beijing is not a democratic regime, much like America’s allies across the Middle East and Africa are not. I’ve been in Taiwan when it was under military rule, and China under autocratic rule. The food was great, but I do not want to live that way. So none of this is about defending that. As a U.S. diplomat, I served in Taiwan, Beijing, and Hong Kong, as well as Korea and Japan, and speak a bit of all their languages. Many of my former colleagues, who managed their careers better, now hold senior positions in State’s China and East Asian bureaucracies. I certainly don’t speak for them, but I speak to them.

    Focus is also important; this is about war. It is not about China being unfriendly to democracy in Hong Kong; why act surprised, the government does not like democracy in Shanghai or Guangzhou either. But when we talk about democracy in the area, let’s not forget Hong Kong was taken from Imperial China by force by the British, who exploited it as a colony for most of its history. It was peacefully returned to China in 1997, not taken by China militarily any time along the way. Taiwan was an unimportant and undemocratic place inhabited mostly by indigenous people until 1949, when the Nationalists displaced the locals to create the enclave of the Republic of China. It existed under strict military rule, with U.S. support for the thugs in power, until around 1988. So democracy in China writ large is a fairly new thing. Many might wish to see America as concerned about democracy in Saudi Arabia as it is in Hong Kong.

    China has always been America’s as-needed partner, friend today, adversary tomorrow. An ally during WWII, the U.S. backed away in 1949 after Mao took power, considering China one more link in world Communism’s march to global supremacy. Then in the midst of the Cold War Nixon “opened” China and the place was remade into a friendly bulwark against the Soviets. In 1979 the U.S. diplomatically recognized Beijing and unrecognized Taipei. The U.S. and China then grew into significant trading partners until sometime during the Obama years when China, without a clear precipitating event, morphed again into an adversary (the U.S. called it a pivot toward Asia.) Trump, and now Biden, have since upgraded China into a direct threat. In one of his few unambiguous foreign policy speeches, Biden said “On my watch China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim we were at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” Along the way China has always stayed pretty much the same. It’s our fear of the same China which changes.

    Those U.S. fears are mostly bunk. Take for example the boilerplate articles about Chinese “incursions” into Taiwan’s air space. Chinese aircraft are not overflying Taiwan. They are flying within Taiwan’s self-declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Look at a map of that zone, and other zones declared by Japan and China. Taiwan’s zone, the one Beijing is flying in, actually is large enough to cover thousands of miles of the Chinese mainland itself; PLA planes are in violation when sitting on their own runways. Taiwan’s zone also overlaps Beijing’s Air Defense Zone which overlaps Japan’s and Korea’s. Japan’s Air Defense zone also overlap’s Taiwan’s to take in a small island which is disputed between Tokyo and Taipei, a diplomatic fist fight the U.S. ignores. Criss-crossing everyone’s zones are American aircraft conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises (known in Beijing as “incursions.”) Chinese air flights are provocative only to the uninformed, or those who want them to be seen as provocative. Left unsaid: as China was supposedly provoking a fight in the air this October, the U.S. was simultaneously conducting some of the largest multi-national naval exercises in the Pacific since WWII.

    As for that invasion of Taiwan Beijing is accused of planning, no one has ever explained why they would undertake such a enormous risk in the face of little gain. Instead, the articles claiming Beijing is readying for war are like those science fiction movies which begin with the premise most people have disappeared from earth, or some apocalyptical event took place, and then the story of the survivors begins. All the complicated stuff is left unexplained.

    No one seems to examine the reasons China has no reason to invade Taiwan. China and Taiwan do loft rhetorical bombs at each other, particularly around CCP events and political holidays, while maintaining a robust economic relationship. Between 1991 and March 2020 Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid, travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China applied in September to join the new Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. “One country, two systems” has not only kept the peace for decades, it has proven darn profitable for both sides. As Deng Xiao Ping said of this type of modus vivendi, “who cares what color a cat is as long as it catches mice.” China might one day seek to buy Taiwan, but until then what incentive would it have to drop bombs on one of its best customers?

    A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would also require China to fight the United States. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which established the framework behind the U.S. relationships with Beijing and Taipei makes clear Washington will “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States” and that the U.S. will “maintain the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The language, unchanged since the roller disco era, is purposefully one of strategic ambiguity. It was crafted by the parties concerned specifically to incorporate flexibility, not signal weakness. Diplomats on all three sides understand this. Anyone saying the U.S. needs to rattle sabers at China to demonstrate commitment to Taiwan would better spend his time trying to explain away our abandoning Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring.

    Apart from the potential the nuclear destruction of the Chinese state (the U.S. has 10 nukes for every one China does) why would China even considering risking war with the U.S.? Total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. U.S. investment in China passed $1 trillion. When Covid shut down world logistics, everyone learned the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America’s success.

    Because there is no plausible scenario in which China would want to invade Taiwan, we need not dwell on the military impracticality of the thing. A failed invasion of Taiwan would topple Xi. Chinese amphibious forces would be under fire from Taiwan’s F-16s armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles practically as they left harbor and tried to cross the Taiwan Strait (Harpoons have a range of 67 miles; at its narrowest the Strait is only 80 miles wide. Taiwan will soon field a land-based anti-ship missile with a range of over 200 miles.) How many could even reach the beaches? Estimates are China would need to land one to two million soldiers on day one (on D-Day the Allies put ashore 156,000) against Taiwan’s fortified rocky west coast, navigating among tiny islets themselves laden with anti-ship weapons. China’s primary amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, carries about 1,000 men, meaning something like a 1000-2000 sorties. China currently has only three such ships. Its troops are unblooded in combat. Meanwhile American and British carriers and submarines patrol the waters. American aircraft from Guam, Okinawa, and Korea would shut down the skies, and decimate Chinese aircraft on the ground via stealth, drones, and stand-off missiles. This is not Normandy. It is also not the counterinsurgency struggles which defeated America. It is the Big Power conflict played out in the Strait instead of the Fulda Gap, the war U.S. has been preparing to fight against someone since the 1960s.

    But one of the most compelling arguments China plans no war is they haven’t yet fought any wars. No shots have been fired over the disputed islands, which have rabidly disputed for decades. Taiwan broke away in 1949 and after a handful of artillery exchanges in the 1950s, no shots have been fired. China never moved militarily against British Hong Kong from 1841 forward, or Portuguese Macau from 1557. Chinese President Xi’s rhetoric about reunification is essentially the same as Mao’s. Nothing really seems to have changed to the point where a stable situation has suddenly become unstable enough to lead to war, yet the Financial Times warns “The moment of truth over Taiwan is getting closer” and the NYT headlines “U.S. and China Enter Dangerous Territory Over Taiwan.” The WSJ decided on its own China is ready to “reunify their country through any means necessary.”

    The war fever splash in U.S. media comes with curious timing. The U.S. is provoking a new Cold War to ensure an enemy to struggle against, guarantee robust defense spending for decades, and to make sure there is no repeat of the “peace dividend” that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s the same playbook run from 1945 to 1989 against the USSR. Expensive arms development needs a target: the Soviet Union served well in that role until around 1989, when in the midst of declaring themselves the world’s last superpower, Americans also demanded less spending on the military. A new enemy was quickly found in various flavors in the Middle East, first in Saddam Hussein and then, after 9/11, in basically most Arabs. The terrorist boogeyman was shushed off stage this summer as America retreated from Afghanistan. We’re unlikely to return to the Middle East in force, especially with oil no longer the principle driver of American foreign policy.

    And so to China. Chinese plans to invade Taiwan may be the new WMDs, a justification much talked about but never to materialize. Chinese weapons advances are the new missile gap, and Asia the new frontier in the faux struggle between the forces of good and another damn group of foreigners bent on world domination. Indeed, if anyone seriously believed war was likely, even imminent, where are the calls for diplomacy, a regional summit, some kind of UN help, to resolve tensions? The U.S. doesn’t even have an ambassador in Beijing nine months into the Biden administration.

     

     

    However impractical an invasion might be, how unnecessary, or how risky, hasn’t China declared repeatedly it will reunite with Taiwan? Yes. But if you want to cite Chinese propaganda as evidence of actual intent, it is best to pay attention to the details.

    It was the United States itself that most clearly asserted the shared tripartite goal was reunification, declaring as part of the diplomatic break with Taiwan “there is only one China and Taiwan is a part of it.” Chinese President Xi regularly reiterates reunification as a goal, but always stresses the process is historical (as in, it is inevitable and we just need to be patient, don’t wait up for it to happen) and must be peaceful. Sorry, if you’re going to quote Chinese propaganda statements as proof of intent, you can’t cherry pick out only the scary parts. It makes no sense to trust Xi on the plan but claim he’s lying about the (peaceful) execution in the same breath.

    Not by coincidence most of these reunification proclamations occur around important political holidays. One of Xi’s most recent invocations was in a speech marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai 1911 Revolution, aimed at the foreign Manchu Qing dynasty. The chosen occasion is important, because Xinhai, ideologically midwifed by Dr. Sun Yat Sen, is acknowledged by both the most hardcore Communists and the most fervent Nationalists as the common origin point for modern China. This is drilled into every schoolkid on both sides of the Strait and forms a common vocabulary among their diplomats. The point is to understand Xi’s remarks in the same context as the Chinese, not John Wayne, likely do.

    In Sun’s spirit Xi reiterated a vow to peaceful reunification with Taiwan. He urged the Chinese people “stand on the right side of history and join hands to achieve China’s complete reunification,” invoking the way the people who would form the Communist and Nationalist parties worked together against a common enemies — the Manchus, then warlordism and feudalism, then the Japanese, and perhaps someday the Americans. Xi, talking to his own people and those on Taiwan, sketched a shared vision a long way from the PLA amphibious assault the West fears. Xi was also aware that the day before his speech HMS Queen Elizabeth, USS Carl Vinson, USS Ronald Reagan, and Japan’s Ise conducted joint carrier operations in the China Sea featuring the soon-to-be-nuclear-capable F-35 aircraft.

    Far from anything new or provocative, Xi’s rhetoric was consistent with 70 some years of speeches maintaining Beijing has no quarrel with the people on Taiwan, who are today mostly Mandarin-speaking ethnically Han Chinese same as in Beijing. Instead, the theme has always been a few bad apples in Taiwan’s government are preventing all Chinese from seeing they need to work together. To invade Taiwan, China would commit itself to killing Chinese, something that would cause Xi to lose legitimacy in the eyes of his own people; the Mandate of Heaven still applies. Meanwhile, on Taiwan, the current president more or less acknowledges the official line of a reunited China someday but quickly says there are more important things on her mind, like making money. Many in the West failed to notice it was Dr. Sun’s portrait which hung behind both leaders as they spoke. The idea that all these factors boil down to “China is gonna invade Taiwan” is beyond silly. America’s obsession with Taiwan independence is more Washington’s problem than Taipei’s.

    Philosophically Chinese leaders have for thousands of years believed in historical cycles. They waited close to 300 years to end the foreign Qing dynasty. They waited out Britain for hundreds of years for the peaceful return of Hong Kong. Such things come up in conversation with Chinese diplomats as casually as talk about the weather. Chinese diplomacy is patient, not short-term optimistic or spasmatically reactive. There is no fierce urgency to reunification. Sun Tzu: One waits to win.

     

    In contrast stands America’s foreign policy. A comparison of countries where the U.S., and China have military intervened post-WWII is telling. Chinese troops entered Vietnam only after the U.S. began its own campaign of regime change there. China entered the Korean War only after the U.S. Army threatened to cross into Chinese territory. Both of these events are celebrated in the People’s Army Museum in Beijing as examples of defending the homeland’s borders. The Museum, in addition, features an American U-2 spyplane shot down over the mainland. The Museum also has exhibits showing the U.S. purposely bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three and destroying the diplomatic sanctuary. The U.S. claimed it was an accident, but history makes clear it was retaliation against an undefended target accused of spying in former Yugoslavia. How many American embassies has China bombed?

    China got its first blue water aircraft carrier last year; the U.S. has maintained multiple carrier groups in the Pacific since WWII, recently facilitated the permanent deployment of two British carrier groups in the area (their first big show of naval force in the area since losing Singapore to the Japanese) and will sell nuclear submarines to Australia with the understanding they will patrol the South China Sea. The U.S. recently brought India into the Quad Pact agreement against China, and convinced Japan to abandon its official neutral stance on Taiwan to support the U.S. Japan has quickly grown into a multiple carrier blue water naval force under American encouragement and with American technology; an unprecedented pledge by Japan’s ruling party seeks to double defense spending and underscores the nation’s haste to acquire missiles, stealth fighters, drones and other weapons that can target China.

    For the first time in decades U.S. forces are officially stationed on Taiwan. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to some additional disputed islands, and the Philippine security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets. The U.S. maintains military bases in a ring around China’s eastern coast. Economically, Barack Obama via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) tried to isolate China from the Asian trade sphere. Trump imposed and Biden maintains punitive tariffs on goods out of China. This autumn Congress will take up the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, which would authorize Biden to initiate (nuclear) war on China without any input from America’s elected representatives.

    So who in fact is acting provocatively in the Pacific? Which side is saber rattling, and which simply responding the way a dog barks to warn off an aggressor?

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    Biden’s China Policy is Dangerous

    October 16, 2021 // 8 Comments »

    Joe Biden’s China policy is unnecessarily adversarial. It is impractical and dangerous. It plays out as if U.S. foreign policy is run by WWII reenactors.

    China was artificially reimagined as an enemy-in-a-box as the wars of terror sputtered out and America needed a new Bond villian. Biden envisions China as an autocratic foe for democracy to wage a global struggle against. “On my watch,” Joe said, “China will not achieve its goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world, and the most powerful country in the world.” Biden went on to claim the world was at an inflection point to determine “whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century.” In Biden’s neo-Churchillian view, the U.S. and what the hell, the whole free world he believes he is president of, are in a death match with China for global hearts and minds.

    One problem in this world view is the unbelievable hypocrisy underlying America’s claimed role. Biden seems oblivious the U.S. mows down Muslims by drone and cluster bomb even while it self-righteously tsk tsks China for bullying its Uighur minority. After our two decade hissy fit of invasions and nation building brought kleptocracies and terrorists to lead countries, we dare bark that China is not democratic. We seem not to notice our lack of clothing when we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with petty tyrants and dictators strewn around Africa and the Middle East. We see no issues demanding democracy in Hong Kong while ignoring its weakening across the United States (never mind not having had much to say about democracy in Hong Kong when it was a British colony stolen by war from Chinese sovereignty.) A pretty weak resume when you’re aiming at Leader of the Free World.

    Apart from sheer hypocrisy, there are other reasons to wonder how China ended up America’s sworn enemy for Cold War 2.0. The relationship otherwise does not look much like that of our old nemesis, the Soviet Union. The Russkies had a nasty habit of rolling tanks across borders, as of course does the U.S. Sometimes it was even the same country — how’d that Afghanistan thing work out? In contrast is the utter lack of countries China has invaded since WWII. Unlike the wheezing old Soviet economy, China is the world’s second largest economy, and one deeply tied, integrated, and in a symbiotic relationship with the U.S. China is the second largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt just behind Japan, with massive investments across the board inside the United States.

    Not counting Hunter Biden (we kid) the total Chinese investment in the U.S. economy is over $145 billion. The Cold War joke, countries with a McDonald’s never made war on each other, seems under revision. The Chinese are literally betting the house on America succeeding. Meanwhile, U.S. investment in China has passed $1 trillion. As we learned when Covid briefly shut down world logistics, the American economy is voluntarily dependent on Chinese manufacturing and vice-versa.

    With all this co-dependent commerce it is also increasingly unclear what we have to fight about, and what we have to gain in picking a fight. About the best the war influencers can come up with are lurid predictions that Chinese investments are a secret tool to control the U.S. (as opposed to any other investors [Jeff Bezos, cough cough] domestic or foreign, yeah right.) They claim “someday” China will “weaponize” its investments and harm the U.S. Left unexplained is how China would need to take a $1.1 trillion bath on its Treasuries alone, never mind slamming closed its largest export market and having to find a way to use unfinished iPhones as a food source.

    So why the lust for a new Cold War? The problem Biden faces on China, and everywhere else really, is the biggest player in today’s foreign affairs is the military. In many parts of the world (particularly Asia and Africa) the combatant commanders are putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian, and commercial affairs. One reason is range: unlike ambassadors, whose budget and influence are confined to single countries, combatant commanders’ reach is continental. Unlike the White House, whose focus is ever-shifting, the military has the interest and manpower to stick around everywhere. Colonels grow up to be generals. Generals outlast administrations.

    The military has written America’s adversarial China policy. Following the old Cold War playbook, the goal seems to crank up tensions and exaggerate threats until confrontation looks inevitable but never really happens. Here’s how that plan recently exposed itself with China.

    Australia just ditched a $66 billion contract for French diesel-electric submarines to instead buy U.S. nuclear-powered submarines. This is alongside a new alliance which will also see Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom share advanced technologies. The genesis was the U.S. military’s muscular diplomacy, ramping up for a war with China they hope will power their budgets for decades. A side deal with Britain to station its newest aircraft carriers in Asia was certainly part of the package. This brings both the British and the Australians, nuclearized, into the South China Sea in force. An arms salesman just wrote Biden’s China policy.

    For what? China fusses with its neighbors over ownership of a handful of islands in the neighborhood, hardly worth risking total nuclear war over. See, it’s the nukes that rule out another Falklands. Even so, the U.S. can’t help but contribute to the saber rattling. The White House recently announced the existing U.S.-Japan security treaty now extends to the disputed Senkaku islands and the Philippines security treaty covers Manila’s claims to Chinese-occupied islets in the South China Sea. Flashback: once upon a time it was the Soviets who were supposed to invade disputed islands held by Japan. Never did.

    China and Taiwan make sport out of lofting rhetoric at each other, all the while maintaining a robust economic relationship that defines modus vivendi. Between 1991 and March 2020, Taiwan’s investment in China totaled $188.5 billion, more than China’s investment in the United States. In 2019, the value of cross-strait trade was $149.2 billion. Pre-Covid travelers from China made 2.68 million visits to Taiwan. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner. What incentive would China have to drop bombs on one of its best customers? Um, how about… none?

    As they say, follow the money. The money leads toward rapprochement, right under America’s nose. Barack Obama sought the economic isolation of China. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a 2016 proposed trade agreement among most everyone in Asia except China. Trump withdrew the U.S. from TPP in 2017. In 2018 the remaining countries negotiated a new consolation prize-like agreement called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership which meant little without the participation of economic superpowers U.S. and China. Yet while Biden has made no moves to bring the U.S. back into the play, and has kept Trump’s tariffs in place against China, Chinese diplomats have been busy beavers.

    In an end run timed to mock the American submarine deal with Australia, China applied in September to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. A week later, with no opposition voiced by Beijing, Taiwan applied to join as well. Radio silence on both applications from Washington, who, as a non-participant in the group, doesn’t even have a vote on the matter. And Biden has made clear he has no plans to join in the future. Ironically, the genesis of all this, the Obama TPP, was designed to force China at dollar-point to reform itself and be More Like Us. Who is it now that seems to be setting the rules of today’s international system in both trade and diplomacy? China is offering favorable access to its lucrative market to diplomatically influence the alliance on its own terms. All the U.S. has to offer its allies is a subordinate and expensive role in a new Cold War.

    Where is the State Department? Nine months into his administration Biden still does not have an ambassador in Beijing, leaving China policy in caretaker hands. His nominee for ambassador, Nick Burns, is an old State Department hack, having made a career by bending over backwards in both directions as administrations changed. Coming out of a spokesmodel-type retirement university job, Burns will be read by Beijing, if he ever gets there, as a placeholder, a political crony handed a sweet, mostly ceremonial, final job.

    Elsewhere, Beijing seeks to make friends with its “belt and road” trade and investment initiative in Asia. If the America’s Afghan War had any winners, it’s probably the Chinese, who found some common ground with the Taliban (look it up, it’s called diplomacy, often done even with your enemies) and thus potential access to their vast mineral resources. American businesses meanwhile demand from Biden’s deaf ears he clarify the economic relationship with China.

    While Biden passively allows the military to prepare for war under the sea, China is winning in the competition over our heads in a game Biden does not seem to even know exists. American foreign policy credibility and its confrontational strategy has been shown to be a farce. America is still a big, mean dog, but our ability to influence events around the world is limited to barking and biting and only works when barking and biting is the solution. When anything beyond threats is needed, say when dealing with near-peers like China, we have few if any tools but to reimagine legitimate competitors into enemies. Our policy toward China, like our president, is a failed artifact from another era.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military

    Why Leave Well Enough Alone in Jerusalem?

    December 13, 2017 // 39 Comments »


    “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” President Donald Trump said. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, reversing some seven decades of American policy, is arguably the most unnecessary decision of his time in office, and the clearest one to date to have consequences that will linger far past his tenure. The decision may yield some domestic political advantage for the president, but at irrational expense globally.
    Apart from the short-term violence likely to ensue, understanding the depth of Trump’s mistake requires digging a bit into how diplomacy works. There are many facets (I served as a diplomat with the United States Department of State for 24 years) that can seem almost silly to outsiders but are in fact a very necessary.

    Jerusalem is where Israel’s President presides, and where the Parliament, Supreme Court, and most government ministries are located. In practical terms, the capital. Unlike in nearly ever other nation, however, the United States maintains its formal embassy elsewhere, in the city of Tel Aviv. It keeps a consulate in West Jerusalem, claimed by Israel since 1948, a consular annex in East Jerusalem, the Old City annexed by Israel in 1967 and sought by many Palestinians as the future site of their own capital, and an office in the neighborhood between East and West Jerusalem, directly on the so-called Green Line, the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan. Diplomats from all nations, as well as Israeli officials, understand that in formal terms an embassy is the head office located in the capital, and a consulate is a kind of branch located outside the capital. But they also know from experience in Israel which door to knock on when you need to get business done, regardless of what the nameplate reads out front.

    And to an outsider that might seem like a lot of wasted effort. But diplomats are required to represent the position of their country, and to place that at times in front of “reality” itself. If the sign on the door in Jerusalem says “embassy” then the reality is everyone must slam on the brakes. Everything else may need to wait while the big picture is settled. But as long as the sign says “consulate,” well, we can agree this business about where the capital of Israel is located is complex, but anyway, there are some important matters that need to be discussed…
    This kind of thing is not unique to Israel. A similar system has been in place in Taiwan since 1979 and has kept the peace there.

    In 1979 the United States recognized the reality of the People’s Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital, and shifted formal relations from Taiwan. Instead of an embassy in Taipei, the United States established the American Institute in Taiwan, officially not a part of the American government. An actual registered non-governmental organization, with offices in a nondescript office building in Virginia, the Institute benefits from the Department of State “ providing “a large part of funding and guidance in its operations.”

    Because United States policy is there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, there is no ambassador at the Institute; the chief representative is called the director. People who work for what anyone else would call the Taiwan government are “authorities,” not “officials.” A whole sitcom worth of name changes and diplomatic parlor tricks keeps the enterprise in Taipei not an embassy of the United States.

    But what seems childish actually allows all sides — Washington, Taipei, and Beijing — to focus on the practical, day-to-day work of relations without having to address the never-gonna-resolve-it-in-our-lifetimes geopolitical questions first. That’s why these things matter. They matter because appearance and symbols matter, in East Asia, and especially in the Middle East. That’s why Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and potentially relocate the embassy pulls down the curtain, turns on the lights, and spray paints day-glo yellow the 500 pound gorilla in the room. It will vastly complicate nearly everything.

     

    In the case of the United States and Jerusalem, the kabuki which has more or less maintained the status quo is the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. That law required the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999, and said Congress would withhold 50 percent of the funds appropriated to the State Department for overseas building operations if the deadline wasn’t met. The Act also called for Jerusalem to be recognized as the capital.

    The thing is that the Act left open a politically-expedient loophole, allowing the president to repeatedly issue a waiver of the requirements every six months if he determines that is necessary for national security. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama dutifully issued the waiver. Trump also reluctantly did it a few months ago, and then again just after announcing his recognition of Jerusalem to give the State Department some bureaucratic breathing room. Though as stated by the mayor of Jerusalem, “They just take the symbol of the consulate and switch it to the embassy symbol — two American Marines can do it in two minutes.” That would make the American Embassy the only embassy in Jerusalem. Reports say Trump will not designate an existing facility as the embassy and instead plans to build a new structure somewhere in Jerusalem, a process that will take years.

    Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act, the American embassy stayed in Tel Aviv, business was done in Jerusalem as needed, and everyone with a hand in the complex politics of the Middle East could look the other way, whichever other way best fit their needs. It was an imperfect solution, not the failed plan that did not lead to formal peace between the Palestinians and Israel as Trump characterized. The shadowplay status of Jerusalem worked.

     

    No more. Trump’s action in recognizing Jerusalem demands all of the players set aside whatever other issues they have in Israel, not the least of which is the Palestinian peace process, and now take a stand on America’s changed position.

    Of immediate concern will be America’s relationship with Jordan. Jordan has thrown in heavily with the United States, allowing its territory to be used as an entry point into Syria for American aid. The United States and Jordan more broadly have a robust and multi-layered security relationship, working well together in the war on Islamic State and in the peace process. It has been a steady relationship, albeit one based on personal ties more than formal agreements.

    Yet following Trump’s announcement, Jordanian King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein warned of “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region.” Beyond modern geopolitics, the issue of Jerusalem runs deep in Jordan: it was Abdullah’s father, King Hussein bin Talal, who lost the city to Israel in the 1967 war, and Abdullah himself is officially the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Even as protests broke out in areas of Jordan’s capital inhabited by Palestinian refugees, American diplomats working in Amman will find every facet of the relationship colored and their skills tested — no Arab ruler can be seen being publically pushed around, perhaps humiliated, by the United States.

     

    A second body blow could come in America’s relationship with Egypt. Even more so than Jordan, Egypt’s rulers must act in awareness of public opinion, with memories of the Arab Spring still fresh. In response to Trump’s announcement, Egyptian parliamentarians called for a boycott of American products, including weapons. Egypt is also no stranger to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and one Egyptian minister warned Trump’s decision would shift focus from fighting terrorists to inflaming them; the symbolic role retaking Jerusalem places in the radical Islamic canon cannot be under estimated. All of this comes at a sensitive time: Cairo, for the first time since 1973, has reached a preliminary agreement to allow Russian military jets to use Egyptain airspace and bases.
    In the coming days there will very likely be acts of violence, street protests, and announcements globally condemning Trump’s decision. But long after the tear gas clears from Cairo’s side streets or Amman’s public squares, American diplomats will find themselves hamstrung, entering negotiations on a full range of issues having to first somehow address the action taken by President Trump. This one was not an unnecessarily bombastic tweet that runs off the bottom of the page, or a crude remark likely to fade with the next news cycle: this time the president overturned an American policy of nearly seven decades’ standing which will have consequences far beyond his own tenure.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Biden, Military