Then-US assistant secretary of defense Joseph Nye was asked in 1995 if the US would fight to defend Taiwan. His answer: “It would depend on the circumstances.”
“Depends” sounds clever to American ears, but one suspects the Chinese heard it as “maybe not” and perhaps even “probably not.” Either way, there is room for a big difference between what Nye said and what the Chinese might have heard.
Maybe it is time to make it clear to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), one way or another.
Even the American chattering class — some of it, at least — is saying “strategic clarity” is needed. Taiwan’s representative in the US mentioned recently that some “clarity” would be helpful.
So let Beijing know that if it uses force or otherwise attempts to intimidate and strangle Taiwan, it will result in a full-bore US response — to include using military force.
Chinese leaders should be left with the near certainty they would lose everything if they attempt to snuff out Taiwan’s democracy — and deprive its 24 million citizens of their freedom in the process.
Lose everything? Yes. Starting with Chinese Communist Party leaders’ overseas real estate and bank accounts, and their relatives’ green cards. Let them know that all international trade with the PRC would end — except trade with North Korea and maybe Cambodia.
Try paying for things in Chinese currency. Nobody much wants it outside of China. There would be no more access to US dollars — except perhaps for what they could grub up by counterfeiting, smuggling and running Chinese restaurants overseas. North Korea could provide advice.
A fight would be bloody for all sides. China’s People’s Liberation Army has made immense progress over the past 20 years, while the US floundered in the “sandbox” in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but even so, the US would give at least as good as it gets in a fight.
And now that Washington has sort of awakened to the Chinese threat, things would be even more painful for Beijing in a shoot-out.
China’s friends would not be much help either. That is because it is a really short list. Remove countries whose leaders and elites have not been bought or rented and for at least as long as US dollar payments last it is an even shorter list.
However, here is the catch: The US government can use whatever language it wants to end strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan.
The wording can be lovingly crafted and approved by “the interagency,” but the Chinese are presumably aware of Art Sheehan’s advice to his sons about dealing with bullies in school: “Watch what they do. Not what they say.”
Before US President Donald Trump, it seemed that the departments of state and defense and successive administrations considered Taiwan an irritant in the larger and more important US-China relationship.
Indeed, one often got the impression that Foggy Bottom and most of the rest of the foreign policy class wished Taiwan would just go quietly into the PRC’s loving embrace.
Trump has done more for Taiwan than his predecessors, and in recent months, perhaps fearing the outcome on Nov. 3, the administration is offering to sell it more — and more useful — weapons and equipment.
It has sent a real Cabinet-level offiial to Taiwan, and has been speaking out publicly about Taiwan’s importance and supporting Taiwan.
And finally a free-trade agreement (FTA) seems to be in the offing. Now that Taiwan has approved US meat imports, the US trade representative apparently has more bandwidth to handle FTA negotiations.
This is all good, and selling high-mobility artillery rocket systems and SLAM-ER long-range missiles is important and falls into the “doing” category.
However, there is one thing that can be done — not said — that would make a huge difference, way beyond an official statement clarifying US support for Taiwan.
That is: Break Taiwan’s military out of 40 years of isolation. Relations between Taiwan’s armed forces and the US military have been minimal, even furtive, for decades.
This is wholly inadequate — and dangerous, as the PRC’s military advantage now dangerously outweighs Taiwan’s own defense capabilities.
What are needed are day-to-day interaction, joint exercises and training between US and Taiwanese forces.
This is what matters.
The only known case of joint training happened in 2017 when a Marine Corps platoon from Taiwan trained with the US Marines in Hawaii. Apparently this was a one-off, but it showed what can be done.
Until the US stops treating Taiwan’s military like a pariah, the claim that the US has Taiwan’s back is all mostly talk.
And don't think that Beijing does not notice.
This brings to mind a guy who tells his girlfriend: “I love you baby, but do you mind if we don’t go out in public together?”
“You see, there’s this other gal. I don’t really like her all that much. But she gives me a lot of money — and she’s really scary. If she see us together she’ll have a fit — and she might even take a swing at you.”
“But really baby ... you’re the tops. I swear.”
Neither the girlfriend nor the other gal is likely to be convinced.
Even if the guy adds: “Swear to God!”
The US has been telling Taiwan this for years, but until US forces and Taiwanese forces actually get together and plan, train, and exercise — like allies do — it is more talk than action.
Taiwan knows it, and Beijing knows it.
So message to Washington: It is not what you say, it is what you do — and if you are not willing to be seen in public with Taiwan’s armed forces, you are not all that serious.
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Corps officer, a former US diplomat and a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.
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