Taiwan Is No Japan Or Korea; Will US Defend ‘Tiny Taiwan’ If China Launches All-Out Attack On ‘Breakaway Province’?

US-China Tensions: Will the US abandon Taiwan if China attacks the island? There has been no convincing answer to this question from the Biden Administration. As John Bolton says - "Disarray has marked Biden's efforts to stop Pelosi's Taiwan visit. China's rhetorical pressure has been intense, and the Administration's discomfort far too visible.

The credibility of the United States (US) as a dependable ally or friend seems to have mattered as a big factor behind the Biden Administration, hitherto reluctant, now warning China to show restraint against the Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s expected arrival in Taipei this evening.

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Though uncertainties still prevail over Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the Biden Administration has changed its stance.

In fact, 24 hours earlier, White House national security spokesman John Kirby had talked of the possible military escalation of the region by China in the event of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, with which the US maintains a “robust, unofficial relationship” with Taiwan, though it has formal diplomatic ties with China, not Taiwan.

He, perhaps, had in his mind the remark of President Biden that “the US military believes a Pelosi visit to Taiwan is not a good idea right now.”

But the same Kirby now says that the Biden administration would support Pelosi on a trip to Taiwan. He told CNN — “We want to make sure that when she travels overseas, she can do so safely and securely and we’re going to make sure of that. There is no reason for the Chinese rhetoric. There is no reason for any actions to be taken. It is not uncommon for congressional leaders to travel to Taiwan.”

Kirby is right when he says that Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan is not unprecedented. There have been similar visits in the past, notwithstanding the US pursuing a one-China policy, under which the United States recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China and acknowledges (but does not endorse) China’s position that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.

Another Speaker, Newt Gingrich, had visited Taipei in 1997 and met with the then Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui. Even otherwise, US Congressional delegations and cabinet-level officials routinely visit Taiwan. In 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited Taipei.

Nancy Pelosi Taiwan visit
Nancy Pelosi speaking at the US Department of Labor on Equal Pay Day (Wikimedia Commons)

Besides, the then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had sent his congratulations to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on her inauguration in 2020. The Trump administration had hosted Taiwan’s diplomats at the State Department and in other federal government buildings, which has remained the practice during the Biden administration.

Present Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly referred to Taiwan as a “country.”

The Biden administration extended an invitation to Taiwan’s representative in the United States to attend Biden’s inauguration and invited Taiwan to participate in its Summit for Democracy recently.

US-China Tensions Over Taiwan — Nothing New

Similarly, the Chinese anger over Pelosi’s travel on US military aircraft is nothing new, as in June last year, three US senators landed in Taiwan aboard a US Air Force plane.

Meanwhile, China has threatened that its military “won’t sit by idly” if Beijing feels its “sovereignty and territorial integrity” is being threatened.

“We would like to tell the US once again that China is standing by, and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army will never sit idly by. China will take resolute responses and strong countermeasures to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters on Monday when asked about the fallout of Pelosi’s landing in Taipei.

In fact, some Chinese hardliners have suggested that China’s armed forces must impose a no-fly zone on Taiwan or at least fly aircraft over the island.

Critical Time For Xi Jinping

It remains to be seen how  China will behave in concrete terms, but there is no denying the fact that the timing of Pelosi’s visit is quite sensitive for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is about to secure a third term during the  Communist Party congress in three months’ time.

At the moment, Xi is under increasing challenges of sustaining his zero-covid strategy, managing an economic slowdown, and finessing his support for Russia on Ukraine. Xi has always linked Taiwan’s reunification to his “national rejuvenation” by 2049 goal, and many think he wants to achieve it much before that deadline during his “lifetime.”

Xi seems terribly upset that the US is disturbing his Taiwan policy of asserting firm control over Taipei.

And, it is quite possible that he has concluded a tough response to the US, which could rally the public and shore up his popularity that is under pressure because of the economic headwinds at home and growing resentment over his strict zero-COVID policy.

On the other hand, President Biden has his own compulsions to deal with. And here, more than his personal image, it is the credibility of the US as the world’s foremost military power, which stands by his allies and friends, that is at stake.

Though there has been “strategic ambiguity” with regard to Taiwan, every US President, including Biden, has always assured to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.

File Image: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping

US – Not A Trusted Ally

Incidentally, America’s current history of standing with commitments toward its friends and its own ideals is not exactly that inspiring.

After 1945, the US fought five major wars in various parts of the world to preserve and promote democracy and eliminate terrorism. But it has rarely fought a war to its logical conclusion and attained victory.

It fought in Korea in the 1950s, but the peninsula remains divided even today. It fought in Vietnam in the 1960s but accepted the triumph of communism in that country.

It fought in the Gulf in the 1990s; here, it won but achieved partial success with regard to the goal because the countries in the region are far from being democracies.

It again intervened in the Gulf at the beginning of the century, but peace still eludes there. It fought in Afghanistan for a long period but ultimately abandoned it last year to the same Taliban it had removed from power in 2002.

Even the Biden Administration’s policy in Ukraine has been perceived by many experts to be a clear weariness on the part of the United States for any military engagement with Russia. America might be helping Ukraine, but the latter alone is fighting the Russians.

Will US Help Taiwan

So, will the US abandon Taiwan if China attacks the island? There has been no convincing answer to this question from the Biden Administration.

As former National Security Advisor John Bolton says – “Disarray has marked Biden’s efforts to stop Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. China’s rhetorical pressure has been intense, and the Administration’s discomfort far too visible.

The President himself referred to Pentagon concerns for Pelosi’s safety, and anonymous officials confirmed Biden discussed the trip in his recent telephone call with Xi Jinping.

Beijing was not so shy, saying Xi told Biden, ‘Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the US will be clear-eyed about this.’ China is, in effect, trying to make Pelosi’s trip a hostage.

File Image: Taiwan’s Chiashan facility. F-16 Viper in Image

Some American analysts buy Beijing’s propaganda, worrying the trip ‘[C]ould ignite this combustible situation into a crisis that escalates to military conflict.’ Such paranoia may well reflect White House insecurity, but it is badly misplaced.

Xi knows full well that any danger to Pelosi’s safety would prompt a robust American response, at least from most administrations.”

Of course, it can be argued that not every country is referred to as an American “ally” in a strict sense of the term. That status is meant for the partners under NATO, whose Article 5 states: “an armed attack against one or more [member countries] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

But then, while this commitment was designed to give West Europeans confidence that the US would come to their aid if attacked by the Soviet Union, Article V has been invoked only one time in the 70-year history of NATO: on September 12, 2001, by the non-American allies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US.

The core feature of US alliances is their shared commitment to respond collectively to armed attacks, though different US treaties contain slight variations in how they articulate this requirement.

In the Indo-Pacific, countries of high commitment will include Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea), with each of whom the US has a concrete security treaty.

In fact, the largest concentration of US troops is now in Japan (50,000; this is 15000 more than what it has in Germany). The US troops in the Republic of Korea number 28,000. Besides, in this part of the world, America has security alliances with the Philippines and Thailand.

Viewed thus, Taiwan is not an American ally. But then, no American Administration can afford to dismiss it as an island of non-concern, given America’s ideological commitment to preserve and promote liberal democratic world order.

As highlighted by the White House in February this year, the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States has the following distinct features, among others:

“A free and open Indo-Pacific can only be achieved if we build collective capacity for a new age. The alliances, organizations, and rules that the United States and its partners have helped to build must be adapted. We will build collective capacity within and beyond the region, including by:

  • Deepening our five regional treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the Philippines, and Thailand
  • Strengthening relationships with leading regional partners, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Pacific Islands
  • Contributing to an empowered and unified ASEAN
  • Strengthening the Quad and delivering on its commitments
  • Supporting India’s continued rise and regional leadership
  • Partnering to build resilience in the Pacific Islands
  • Forging connections between the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic
  • Expanding US diplomatic presence in the Indo-Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands

Thus, Taiwan is a vital “partner” in this Indo-Pacific strategy, given its geopolitical and geoeconomic hefts. And America cannot afford to be seen as surrendering it to China.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com