The New Cold War in East Asia
In light of US President Biden’s recent remark that the US would defend Taiwan militarily if Taiwan encounters a mainland “invasion,” and although US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has asserted that the US does not want to have conflicts or a Cold War with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), all signs are pointing to a looming new Cold War in East Asia for several reasons.
First, Biden’s remark on US policy toward Taiwan has changed the American stance from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity, trying to convey a message that the US is determined to use deterrence to minimize the PRC military “threat” to Taiwan. However, the question whether such deterrence strategy will work is based on three assumptions. The first assumption is that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would not be militarily preponderant over Taiwan’s military – an assumption that is questionable given the rapid advancement on the part of the weaponry and capability of the PLA, even though one can argue that the PLA capability remains untested after three decades of peace. The second assumption is that the Taiwan military does have the capability to deter the PLA “threat.” Given the fact that military accidents occur constantly in Taiwan, and that the Taiwan military has not yet experienced conflicts since the 1960s, it is highly doubtful whether the Taiwan military will be able to defend Taiwan. The third assumption is that the US military capability is and will be superior to the Chinese PLA, thereby playing the most important deterrence role in any cross-strait conflicts. Of course, the US deterrence capability is far more important than the Taiwan military capability.
Second, the ideological overtones of US and Chinese leaders are disturbing for peace in East Asia because megaphone diplomacy has been shown by both sides in the recent years. While Blinken emphasizes that the US does not want to have conflicts, his speech delivered at George Washington University on May 26 had one thing in common with his predecessor Mike Pompeo at the Nixon Library on July 23, 2020 – both attached immense importance to the ideology and political culture of classical liberalism that cherishes the universal value of human rights. Judging from the recent PRC government’s documents on democracy and human rights, China and the US remain vastly different in their ruling ideologies and elite political cultures. It is the clash between the US value of liberalism and the Chinese value of paternalism that is propelling East Asia along the path of a new Cold War.
Third, while the US perceives China as a real military threat, including the Chinese military activities in South China Sea and the PLA military “menace” to Taiwan, the PRC has been seeing the US as a hegemonic power imposing its values of democracy and human rights on not just China but also the developing world. The US perception of the Chinese threat is intertwined with the Chinese perception of American hegemony in the world, including East Asia where North Korea, China and Russia stand on one side and where the US, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are standing on the other side. Compounding this shadow of a new Cold War is the emergence and activeness of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) that is composed of Australia, India, Japan and the US. Another political bloc perceived by China as a confrontational intelligence organization is the Five Eyes, which include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the US. The recent warmer relations between the PRC and the Solomon Islands have already raised the alarm of Australia, which has traditionally seen the islands of the Pacific Ocean as falling into its sphere of influence. Compounding the image of the China threat to the US-led political blocs in East Asia has been the military installation of the PLA in some islands in the South China Sea, especially as the sovereignty of these islands have remained a bone of contention. If the perception of military threats from China is a “real” one in the eyes of the US and its allies, the looming of a new Cold War is inevitable.
Fourth, the emergence of the Russian-Ukrainian war has worsened the international relations of East Asian states. It is tempting for the US to compare Ukraine with Taiwan, but such a comparison is misleading and “wrong” from the PRC perspective, because in the first place Taiwan has been traditionally a part of mainland China. Most importantly, comparativists who link Ukraine with Taiwan have ignored the fact that Ukraine has failed to function as a buffer state between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). By joining NATO, Ukraine did constitute a real military “threat” to the highly nationalistic Russian leader Putin, who has been seeing Ukraine as historically part of the Russian territory. Taiwan, however, has not been a buffer between mainland China and the US-led allies. Yet, if the US attempts to turn Taiwan into a full protectorate, like what President Biden revealed the US determination to defend Taiwan in case of a mainland “invasion” into the island, the prospects of a Beijing-Taipei military conflict would be heightened. In particular, if the PRC has a timetable to seek to reunify Taiwan, and if the mainland cannot wait for too long for Taiwan to join the PRC politically, patience would run out and a sudden conflict between the mainland and the island would become a realistic possibility, especially if the pro-reunification Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) in Taiwan would perhaps fail to win the presidential election in 2024.
Fifth, what is worrying about Beijing-Taipei relations is that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan has never accepted the 1992 consensus reached by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT – an understandable position as the DPP was not involved in the discussion. However, if the DPP is too explicitly pro-US and too politically provocative without any gesture to have dialogue with the mainland, Beijing’s patience over Taiwan may eventually run out. A smarter strategy adopted by the DPP is to devise a policy of engagement and dialogue with mainland China. Otherwise, a confrontational strategy adopted by the DPP worsens the relations between Taiwan and the PRC, especially if the US fails to rein in the radicalism of the DPP and does not encourage the DPP elites to talk to the CCP at least on the issues of economic and human interactions, including trade, visits by tourists on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, and accelerated student and cultural exchanges.
If the prospects of conflicts in East Asia, especially between Beijing and Taipei, would be real, what forms of conflicts would erupt? The most likely scenario is military accidents in which mainland military planes clash with the Taiwan counterparts. The second scenario is a surprise “invasion” by the mainland military in Taiwan through the paralysis of Taiwan military sites followed by a rapid amphibious landing. The third scenario is an economic blockade which however would entail a much longer timespan and stiffer resistance from the people of Taiwan. Other scenarios include a sudden dispatch of mainland commandoes to capture the strategic location and political leaders of Taiwan, followed by the landing of PLA personnel to “liberate” the island quickly. In all these scenarios, military conflicts would be highly likely although economic blockade of Taiwan would likely bring about tensions rather than military conflicts.
Other conflict-ridden scenarios in East Asia may involve North Korea and Japan, especially as Japan has been rearming itself defensively and effectively while North Korea’s military capability remains strong.
The crux of the problem is how to minimize conflicts, reduce megaphone diplomacy and bring about peaceful dialogue and negotiations. The mainland policymakers in Taiwan can adopt a stage-by-stage policy in which the first stage emphasizes economic and human interactions, the second stage economic integration between Taiwan and Fujian, and the third stage dealing with detailed negotiations. On the other hand, the US policymakers should consider wooing the DPP leaders to adopt a policy of engagement and dialogue rather than that of confrontation toward the PRC. Furthermore, the US government should rely on secret envoys or emissaries to mediate between the tense relations between the US and the PRC. The US should rein in the radical elements in Taiwan and prevent them from pushing a scenario toward military conflicts with the mainland. Finally, the KMT leaders and elites can and should function as intermediaries to bring about dialogue between the CCP and the ruling regime in Taiwan. Multiple channels of dialogue and communications should be used, maximized and explored if the US is keen to foster “peaceful reunification” between mainland China and Taiwan.
In conclusion, recent developments in East Asia have heightened the relations between US and China on the one hand, and between mainland China and Taiwan on the other hand. The US government has changed its strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity over Taiwan, believing that an explicit deterrence gesture would prevent the PLA from “invading” Taiwan. Yet, deterrence may stimulate a more hardline stance from the PRC over Taiwan, especially if Taiwan’s ruling party adopts a permanently delaying tactic toward dialogue, communication and engagement with the mainland. A wise policy adopted by the US is to pressure the ruling party in Taiwan to start discussion with the mainland authorities on all aspects of economic, educational, cultural and human interactions, after which a dialogue over economic integration between Taiwan and Fujian can be explored. If not, continuous megaphone diplomacy and the mutual perceptions of “real military threats” would likely propel cross-strait relations to a potentially military showdown in the coming years, especially the years after the DPP would likely again win the presidential election in early 2024.