A Japanese retreat from an alliance-focus to a national defense imperative would also spell the end of the Quad, let alone the Quad Plus. Newer proposed initiatives such as the so-called Democratic 10 (D-10), the Group of 7 plus Australia, India and South Korea, would also become barely tenable under such a scenario. With the reversal of developments such as the budding Japan-UK-U.S. tri-national alliance (and to a lesser extent the Japan-Australia-U.S. alliance), nations in the region could more easily be coerced, cajoled, or incentivized to dance to Beijing’s tune. Xi has already begun enthusiastically pursuing Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines. With equal resolve yet limited success, Beijing has used “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy tactics and trade retaliation to punish a “recalcitrant” Australia. The old Chinese idiom “kill the chicken to scare the monkey” (i.e., coerce compliance by making an example out of someone) is a well worn one in the Communist Party of China. There is little doubt that what is now happening to Australia is only a sampler.
Such a development, of course, could have profound ramifications that extend beyond the region. With Chinese influence in East Asia going the way of Africa and parts of the Middle East, China’s growing sway over international institutions such as the organs of the United Nations (e.g., WHO, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Commission) would morph from being the barely manageable problem it is now, to a fait accompli. Such a development would likely see the “liberal and rules-based global order” become less worthy of these epithets. With a compliant near-majority of voting members under China’s thumb, the United States and the West more generally could well find themselves increasingly marginalized from, or even on the receiving end of, the institutions and systems of which they were the main architects.
Trumpian World: From Strategic Trust to the Balance of Power
For all its inadequacies, the Trump White House thus appears to have adopted a viable way forward on Taiwan that reflects the scale and urgency (even if it did not grasp the complexity) of these stakes. Perhaps most importantly, the Trump administration understood that negotiating the imperatives of re-strengthening America’s position in the region, and avoiding setting down a path that makes war inevitable, lies in retaining a form of strategic equilibrium in Taiwan.
Arguably Trump’s retreat to a more realist approach to international relations helped it come to terms with some ugly truths about the region. One is that Taiwan effectively needs to be “kept-in-play” for both sides in order to keep the strategic architecture in the region within a threshold that both sides can tolerate. Yet doing so has required sharp American calibrations to respond to shifts in the region’s balance of power.
What does this mean? On the Chinese side, Taiwan is “in play” and there is “equilibrium” for while Taiwan is aligned militarily with the United States, the PLA’s growing strength and Taiwan’s woeful strategic depth (i.e., the distance between Chinese bases and Taiwan) means that Taiwan may not be under China’s thumb, but is nonetheless within its reach.
On the American side, Taiwan is an ally it is obliged to defend under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. However, the United States lacks a large military contingent on the island, meaning it lacks the capacity to comfortably mitigate the threat posed by China’s growing military machine. As the PLA’s capacity has strengthened and its challenges have become more audacious, recent arms sales, and the deployment of American assets in and around the region, have helped retain this “equilibrium.”
This last point is important. If the United States has a large military presence on the island, then not only will China’s gateway to walk in and out of the Western Pacific be locked, but the issue of inadequate strategic depth will be reversed upon China. This will almost certainly be unacceptable to the Chinese, just as the Soviet Union’s moves on Cuba were unacceptable to the United States in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. On the opposite side of the equation, if Taiwan can no longer rely on Washington and feels it must capitulate to China, American security, economic, and diplomatic agendas for the Western Pacific and Asia more generally will be in tatters.
It is on this point that Trump’s policy of making measured escalations in both its diplomatic engagement with Taiwan, and commitment to the island’s defense, have been largely on track. Obviously the Chinese narrative has been that American moves have contributed to destabilizing the situation across the Taiwan Straits. But it is more likely that the minor tensions prompted by Trump’s actions (i.e., weapons sales, air force flyovers, and high level diplomatic, military, and intelligence official visits) have tempered Chinese over-exuberance about promptly resolving the “Taiwan problem.” As China not only holds more trump cards but has been less reticent about placing them on the table, the new Biden administration has to continue to do more than sit back and call China’s bluff.
What Can Biden Do Better?
President Biden should follow the course set by Trump; there should be no U-turn based on naive hopes that goodwill can temper President Xi’s growing and increasingly impatient desire to pressure Taiwan into capitulation. But this is not to say that there is no room for improvement. Trump rightly saw that retaining the balance of power in the Western Pacific will require the United States to shift from a stand-alone hegemon to an alliance-leader of capable and responsible partners. On this viewpoint, his emphasis on allies upping their spending on defense to above two percent of their GDP made sense. However, Trump’s demands to Japan and South Korea to increase reparations for existing U.S. deployments did nothing to increase alliance capabilities. This undermined the message and led to questions about America’s reliability and intentions.
The Biden associates of Obama alumni could show more effective leadership through a more conventional approach to alliance-building. They could bring back confidence in the U.S. commitment by returning the primacy of strategic thinking—as opposed to more mercurial fiscal and domestic considerations—to resource sharing, weapons sales, and efforts to enhance cooperation and interoperability. By both staying the course and bringing more allies into play on the “Taiwan problem,” Biden could well end-up being seen in the region—and Beijing in particular—as far more formidable than his predecessor.
Patrick Mendis, PhD, a former American diplomat and a military professor in the NATO and Pacific Commands, is a Taiwan fellow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China and a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University as well as a distinguished visiting scholar at the Taiwan Center for Security Studies in Taipei. Corey Lee Bell, PhD, is the editor of Taiwan Insight, a publication of the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, and a researcher based in Taiwan, specializing in international politics and regional security in Asia. The views expressed in this analysis neither represent the official positions of the current or past institutional affiliations nor the respective governments.