AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has refocused attention on the island, while also illustrating an important fact about the discourse surrounding the China-Taiwan issue. For all the apocalyptic pronouncements emanating from D.C. about an impending Chinese invasion which could take place at any moment, it appears for the moment that the old Russian proverb of “China’s Final Warning” is an apt description of the bark-but-no-bite response from the CCP. After alarmist rhetoric in recent weeks that Pelosi’s visit could trigger World War III, the discussion about potential Chinese responses now has increasingly turned to “aggressive military exercises” from the Chinese military, reflecting a significant de-escalation of the actual stakes of the trip.
If this de-escalation will come as a disappointment to those members of what has turned into a cottage industry in D.C. of willing a Sino-American war into existence, it should also reinforce the vital need for America to have a real discussion about its relations with China, Asia, and how Taiwan and other states fit into that. Currently, this discussion is dangerously divorced from reality. Both China “hawks” and “doves” have had a vested interest in exaggerating Chinese military strength. The former tried to play up the relevance of their expertise and the need for American policymakers to drop all other considerations, whether foreign or domestic, to focus on China, while the latter try to argue that China is already too powerful to resist and efforts to do so are futile.
Thus far it appears that Pelosi will have safely landed and departed from Taipei with little more than a few missiles landing in the ocean and Chinese warships burning fuel. If that is indeed all that ends up happening, both sides of this argument will be discredited. Those who argue that China is too strong to risk resisting and can only be appeased will have to answer why, if that is the case, China did not react more forcefully to Pelosi’s crossing of one of their red lines. Hawks will need to explain why, if China is as prepared as they say and capable of acting on a short timescale to take advantage of the Russian-Ukraine conflict, China has done so little here.
This is not to say that China is not a threat. But the nature of the threat is different to how it is generally described. International Relations professors like to talk about “Thucydides Traps,” in which there is a high risk of war when a rising power challenges a declining one; universities are today full of seminars titled along the lines of “Will the U.S. and China Avoid the Thucydides Trap?” But while domestic CCP propaganda has happily echoed this Western discourse, China for all its gains has studiously avoided challenging the U.S. When it has expanded its influence, whether in Iran, or Venezuela, or Afghanistan, it has been in the form of filling vacuums left when the U.S. has voluntarily withdrawn. China has never attempted to directly evict U.S. influence, not even on a matter of as vital importance as Taiwan, illustrated by the failure to militarily respond to Pelosi’s visit. Even in the case of Hong Kong, Chinese actions followed rather than preceded the withdrawal of U.S. influence.
Those who suggest that the key to containing China lies in rationing commitments elsewhere and concentrating American resources solely in the Far East misunderstand this approach by Beijing and are advocating the policy which has served to increase China’s influence. China was the victor of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan because it allowed China to move in as the predominant influence. At the same time, the consequence of the Biden administration’s disengagement from Saudi Arabia has been for the Gulf States to draw closer to Beijing.
This is not a defense of hawkishness everywhere. The growing alliance between Russia and China has been commonly cited as a major geopolitical threat, but is the result of the collapse of the relationship between Russia and the West under the Obama administration. The evidence is that China is a geopolitical scavenger, not a predator.
The good news is that scavengers can be deterred at a fraction of the cost of actually fighting them. But that deterrence has to involve offering them as few diplomatic openings as possible. For the U.S., this means not inserting ourselves into internal Brazilian politics, Ethiopian civil wars, or lecturing India’s democratically elected government about what dress codes can be used in schools. All of these provide wedge issues for China to exploit.
This view of Beijing’s strategy is also an argument for a firm but unprovocative defense of the status quo in the Taiwan strait. Ambiguity in the U.S. commitment to the island – as has been the Biden administration’s approach – will suggest either that the U.S. has withdrawn or that the U.S., given enough pressure, whether in the Strait or on other fronts, could be persuaded to withdraw. Those are the instances where conflict is likely to be encouraged.
But at the same time, U.S. leaders should understand the extent to which the American conception of the Chinese threat as an existential bid for world domination is not necessarily shared by the allies we need for a successful containment. Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Vietnam all have reasons to fear China. But all of those fears ultimately come down to fear that if the U.S. withdraws, they will be unable on their own to deter Chinese influence. South Korea fears its relationship with North Korea will deteriorate if the U.S. withdraws from Korea. Japan fears instability if the U.S. alliance is called into doubt. Vietnam fears Chinese aggression if the U.S. leaves the South China Sea. India fears encirclement with the U.S. out of Afghanistan and Chinese proxies in Myanmar and Pakistan. All of those are strategic, not moral concerns.
By contrast, appeals to some sort of solidarity with a “Liberal International Order” have a tendency to fall flat, as do arguments in favor of Taiwanese sovereignty on the basis of self-determination (when India holds Kashmir) or anti-Communism (when the U.S. still works with Vietnam). Potential allies in the Indo-Pacific support the United States on the Taiwan issue because they fear a withdrawal of U.S. influence from the region as a whole if the CCP takes the island. They do not support a U.S. presence in the region in order to protect Taiwan. If the cost of protecting Taiwan for the U.S. is disengaging from opposing Chinese influence in South Asia, then the U.S. will find itself without allies, as India and Vietnam will have no concrete reason to support any U.S. defense of the island.
Containing China is not an either/or with an active U.S. role in Asia. An active U.S. role in Asia is a perquisite to containing China. Pelosi’s visit is important. But it is critical to understand that it is China, not America, which benefits from framing the conflict in a binary, U.S. vs. China way. America needs to think bigger. As long as it does, it will leave little carrion for Beijing to scavenge.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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