Prof. ST Hsieh
Director, US-China Energy Industry Forum
November 15, 2023
Biden touts ‘constructive and productive’ meeting with China’s Xi
The highly anticipated Biden-Xi Summit has come and go: both Biden and Xi seem to be happy that it is over. Of course, more work needs to be done so real results can be delivered.
It is reported that Biden and Xi spent some time today discussing Taiwan, while Xi declared that he has no intention of using military forces on Taiwan. The US and China are the major parties in managing Taiwan issue. Most people in Taiwan would be very happy to see that they are left alone by the US and China.
Taiwan is an important but not an immediate issue as often portrayed by the media that “Taiwan strait is the most dangerous place in the world.” Taiwan is much less urgent from the two regional wars that Biden is managing right now along with the US allies’ reluctance of keep funding these wars. Biden also faces a tough reelection chance with very low public approval rates on almost any issue.
There are some opinions such as the attached one seem happily to find ways to start a war in the Taiwan straits. But they make one superficial assumption that a war is inevitable and it is the US responsibility to defend Taiwan for whatever the reason/cost. They also fail to recognize the reality that the US has already lost the will or interest in sending US troops to foreign wars anymore, especially to the far away shore of China.
The author at least recognized that the public opinion in Taiwan is divided on any war, especially with mainland China: the world second largest economy and second world largest military as well as their largest trading partner.
The US and her allies are jointly parading military forces around Taiwan to show support and the US is even gifting arms to Taiwan. The US and her allies should do more to calm down the region and help Taiwan to maneuver peaceful engagements with mainland China as neutral parties.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.
By Lucy Hornby, currently a senior nonresident associate at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington,
NOVEMBER 15, 2023, 4:53 PM
A period of disagreements between the United States and China culminates in a spike of tensions over Taiwan, followed by a meeting between the two top leaders that resets the trilateral relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in San Francisco on Wednesday carried a strong whiff of déjà vu. The Taiwan crisis of 1995-1996 was wrapped up with Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s visit to the United States in late 1997.
But while the third Taiwan Strait crisis ushered in a long period of détente and prosperity, the legacy of the ongoing fourth crisis could be a reduction in Taiwan’s room to maneuver.
The fourth crisis kicked off in August 2022 with a visit to Taipei made by then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which was followed by China’s largest-ever military exercises in the ocean around Taiwan. By exposing the hollowness of Taiwan’s traditional defense strategy, it set off a period of reckoning on the island.
For decades, Taipei invested in air and naval power, so that it could fend off a Chinese invasion force for long enough for the U.S. military to ride to the rescue. But in the latest crisis, China demonstrated that it could potentially negate that strategy—forcing Taiwan to seek new means of defense or else find itself at the mercy of U.S. relations with China.
“The implications of last August are that they set up a new status quo and a new normal,” said Lee Hsi-min, Taiwan’s chief of general staff from 2017-2019 and its former naval commander. “If they can successfully deny U.S. military power out of this area, then they can do whatever they want to Taiwan.”
With this fourth Taiwan crisis winding down, the question for Taiwan is how to position itself for survival before the next one hits. It must offer China alternatives to military action while deterring it from invading, all without giving up agency in its relations with the United States.
It’s not an easy balancing act, but it is one that Taiwan has pulled off before.
China’s military display in August 2022 was sobering. By launching missiles over the island, it demonstrated that it could potentially prevent U.S. aircraft carriers from approaching and therefore cut off the supply lines to the open Pacific that Taiwan needs to survive. In a real war, China’s overwhelming numerical advantage in missiles would leave Taiwan unable to protect its airports, military experts say. If its runways turn into rubble, Taiwan’s expensive fleet of U.S.-made aircraft can’t take off. With its air force grounded and its ships outnumbered by the Chinese fleet, Taiwan’s navy couldn’t hold off an invading force.
By showing that it might be able to effectively cut off the island, China has potentially negated Taiwan’s long-standing planned strategy of preventing an invasion from reaching its shores until U.S. help arrives.
“We can no longer underestimate the People’s Liberation Army,” said retired military officer Shuai Hua-min, of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research. “Now there are only political solutions. The military can’t solve it.”
“I hate to say our military is the loser, but we are,” he added.
China’s exercises established a new normal for behavior in the western Pacific. Chinese planes and ships crossed a line through the middle of the Taiwan Strait that both sides had unofficially honored since the 1950s. They have continued to cross over regularly, squeezing Taiwan’s sphere of control back to the periphery of its main island.
Rather than relying on air and naval superiority, Taiwan’s safety now lies in persuading China that an invasion of its main island would be incredibly costly and risky. The question is how to convey that effectively.
The third Taiwan Strait crisis ended in something like a draw. Taiwan was warned away from moving toward de jure independence, the United States acquired a new appreciation of China’s military modernization, and China realized that an invasion of Taiwan would mean a conflict with the United States. The healthy respect for each other’s capabilities helped deflect all sides toward economic engagement instead.
“That crisis, for the first time, really crystalized for China’s leaders that the U.S. would likely get involved in a Taiwan war,” said Fiona Cunningham, a specialist in Chinese military strategy at the University of Pennsylvania.
During the years between the two crises, China’s economy boomed, fueled in part by enormous capital flows from Taiwan and the West. The growing heft of its economy meant it could rely on economic incentives rather than military threats to flex its power.
“China grew so big, but who was blowing up the balloon? Taiwan businessmen!” recalled Feng, of the Taiwanese Ministry of Veterans Affairs. “But because of those economic connections, we had a relatively peaceful 20 years.”
Taiwan’s identity shifted during those decades. Today, the population overwhelmingly identifies as Taiwanese, not Chinese, polls show. The new sense of identity led to the Sunflower Movement protests in Taipei in 2014 against nontransparent tie-ups with the mainland. That scuppered Beijing’s strategy of slowly reeling in Taiwan via economic integration.
Without the warm blanket of improving economic ties, the geopolitical calculus around Taiwan’s fate has become much starker. And in the wake of the August 2022 crisis, a purely military calculus puts China ahead.
I visited Taipei this summer to hear how residents were taking on the crisis. During my visit, Taiwan conducted military exercises that simulated an invasion penetrating the island’s defenses. Incursions by Chinese planes spiked. And yet, life felt surprisingly normal. On the surface, everyone stayed calm. In fact, a heated debate was underway.
The question of how to secure Taiwan’s future came up in every conversation. While pundits argued publicly, citizens worried privately. How much should they risk to survive as a nation?
Taiwan’s best defense is to persuade China not to attack. But deterrence comes in many forms, and there is little consensus in Taiwan as to which strategy is best.
For Taiwan’s current administration, “deterrence” has meant tighter ties with the United States. By this logic, any attack by China would trigger a U.S. response, and the consequences would spiral far beyond Taiwan alone.
“We understand that the result of a war with China is going to be disastrous for Taiwan. And also, that it would have global consequences,” said Foreign Minister Joseph Wu in an interview with Foreign Policy. “But at the same time, we also understand that one of the best ways—other than not provoking—when dealing with a big bully is to deter.”
In the United States, the Biden administration’s strong statements of support for Taiwan last year and more recent pledges of military aid follow the same logic. So too does his most recent linking of Taiwan aid to U.S. security spending on Ukraine, Israel, and the U.S.-Mexican border.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s efforts to forge closer ties with Japan—and reach out to European states menaced by Russian belligerence—represent attempts to broaden Taiwan’s diplomatic support, even as China picks off its formal allies one by one.
Militarily, the solution is less clear. Should Taiwan pressure the United States for better and more flexible weapons, to keep the Chinese off their shores? Invest in tanks and small arms for a desperate last battle that no one thinks the Taiwanese can win? Maybe they should stop buying expensive and incomplete U.S. weapons systems entirely, and focus on reforming Taiwan’s military instead.
Military professionals in Taiwan are split between the plan to develop a professional army and the introduction of a comprehensive conscription service. Older men declare that they personally are willing to fight. But they shake their heads over the younger generation, members of which have done just four months of military training since 2017. (“Snowflakes!” snorted a particularly gung-ho taxi driver).
Putting aside the unpopularity of mandatory military service, the problem is that the short periods of conscription now yield partially trained grunts, not the highly trained reservists that would be needed for a civilian army.
The United States is pushing Taiwan to buy small arms and potentially mobilize the millions of men who have passed through the island’s mandatory reserve training. This so-called porcupine strategy is designed to signal to Beijing that the damage incurred in conquering Taiwan would be too painful to risk. Lee, the former chief of general staff, calls it the “not today” argument.
“You have to make your enemy believe that you have the capability to give them a huge loss if they invade,” he said. “So after calculation, they think, ‘not today.’ Never mind!”
But public opinion is deeply split—and hard to poll—on the viability of such a strategy.
If Taiwan’s primary deterrence against an invasion from the mainland is the risk to China of getting embroiled in a war with the United States, it creates a unique vulnerability to U.S. reluctance to get into a larger war with China.
War gaming an invasion of Taiwan shows conflicts quickly escalating to targets on the Chinese mainland, followed by Chinese retaliation on U.S. territory—in other words, the U.S.-China war that almost everyone wants to avoid.
The worry is that Washington, with its new enthusiasm for a Cold War 2.0, has become so antagonistic to China that it could destroy the subtle geopolitical space that allowed Taiwan to survive. While the Xi-Biden talks may usher in a new period of entente, there is always the risk that the Americans treat Taiwan as simply a bargaining chip in some greater game.
In conversations in Taipei, I heard more anger directed at the United States for “provoking” China than I heard directed at China for threatening the island’s future. I heard bravado and fear, and above all, a strong sense of annoyance at becoming the unwilling pawn of faraway powers.
And in addition to deterrence, I found a broad consensus that some kind of talks or engagement with China are vital to Taiwan’s survival. It’s a pragmatic recognition that Taiwan holds a limited hand in an unforgiving game.
That engagement has to happen at two levels—by the United States and by Taiwan itself. Beijing says it won’t engage at all with the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, and in any case, support for the DPP has been fading ahead of January’s presidential elections. But voters in Taiwan tend to be lukewarm toward candidates seen as too pro-China, and the DPP still leads in several polls.
For the United States to talk to China effectively, it has to accept the reality of China’s economic and military strength, Feng argued, and understand the strength of China’s nationalist ideology. And it needs a better sense for what’s happening inside the Asian giant—requiring the kind of regular interactions that were lost during the trade war and the COVID-19 closures.
At best, talks can be tricky. For China to engage, it has to think that it’s getting something out of them. Put this way, talks are the most potent tool in the “not today” toolkit.
Beijing “doesn’t want to see bloodshed in Taiwan; they prefer peaceful resolution. But they need [to save] face,” said Su Chi, the former secretary-general of Taiwan’s National Security Council. “They need some kind of face, that Taiwan is not slipping away,” adding that for Chinese leaders, the plan is that I will marry you sooner or later, but you’re not getting away.”
“And now they’re thinking that Taiwan is moving away forever and gone, and marrying someone else. So we’ve got to relieve them of this worry.”
But what is there to talk about? Beijing’s obsession with controlling Taiwan makes it hard to discuss anything other than negotiated surrender. Su believes that it is possible to achieve some sort of “autonomy” for Taiwan, an idea that seems both naïve, given Xi’s neo-authoritarian rule, and out-of-touch with Taiwan’s democratic identity. Polling shows the Taiwanese public simply doesn’t want that solution.
China’s leadership has been promising “reunification” for the past 73 years. But as long as Chinese leaders believed that Taiwan might return voluntarily, they could claim that they were still working toward victory without having to engage in a highly risky war. In the past, the mutual economic benefits of engagement allowed each side to make concessions and defer the issue of Taiwan’s ultimate fate.
Does that calculus still hold for Xi? A quarter century ago, China’s top leader was still an ambitious official in Fujian, the supposed front-line province in the not-quite conflict.
His eagerness to attract investment to Fujian in those days persuaded Taiwan’s investors that he understood Taiwan. But Xi also chose to seek the military’s backing for his political ambitions, making his administration the heir to measures taken in response to the third Taiwan Strait crisis.
Looking back, Taiwan’s military leaders at the time admit to worrying that China might capture islands close to the mainland. They claim they weren’t concerned about the security of their main island. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army was poorly trained and poorly equipped in the mid-1990s. It was also far too wrapped up in business interests and regional rivalries to carry out the duties of a professional army.
The intimidating displays of August 2022—just like China’s military exercises of March 1996—were their own form of deterrence, designed to warn the United States against too much support of Taiwan and Taiwan against overt declarations of independence. Their message was “not today,” and it worked.
For Taiwan, the best outcome in San Francisco may be a mutual agreement to defer any agreement. This “not today” strategy would allow Taiwan to survive another day—until the fifth Taiwan Strait crisis resets the game again.