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Conflating Ukraine with Taiwan

Aug 15, 2022
  • Yang Wenjing

    Research Professor, Institute of American Studies, CICIR

The U.S. Congress has been playing an increasingly leading role in the obvious hardening of policies targeting China since late 2017. Members of both major parties have worked closely with both the Trump and Biden administrations in countering Chinese practices — all in the name of “protecting the United States from wide-ranging challenges.”

Apart from passing measures against the so-called China threat — for example, preventing goods made with “forced labor” in Xinjiang from entering the U.S. market and attempting to preserve America’s high-tech dominance — the restructuring of U.S. policy on Taiwan has been a focal point of Biden’s agenda.

As a matter of fact, the United States had decided to play the Taiwan card more forcefully since the Trump years, especially after Trump labeled China as the foremost U.S. adversary. American lawmakers had introduced a flurry of bills at that time to improve Taiwan’s defenses and raise its international exposure. Pro-Taiwan bills had appeared in the U.S. Congress at an unusually fast pace. Among them, the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages high-level government exchanges between Taipei and Washington, and the Taiwan Assurance Act, which supports Taiwan as a vital part of a “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.” These, along with the call for the government to support Taiwan’s continued pursuit of asymmetric capabilities, are the most offensive.

It’s no accident that President Joe Biden inherited the momentum on Taiwan. He can hardly resist the underlying current to elevate Taiwan’s strategic value as strong leverage against China, which has long simmered inside the U.S. government with bipartisan consensus. Just last year, 13 bills introduced in Congress related to Taiwan, the magnitude of which is even greater than in the Trump years.

First and foremost, these bills encouraged helping Taiwan execute a defense strategy and develop deterrence capabilities. The Taiwan PLUS Act calls for the island to be included in the so-called NATO Plus group, whose members under U.S. law have been designated as “major non-NATO allies” eligible for a range of defense-related privileges with the United States. The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act seeks to reverse the long-held U.S. strategic ambiguity toward the defense of Taiwan. The Taiwan Defense Act is to ensure the U.S. can help Taiwan resist China’s “aggressive military buildup” by maintaining the ability to fend off an invasion.

Second, the bills call for the U.S. to make diplomatic and economic efforts to deter any use of force by the Chinese mainland against Taiwan.

Third, they encourage the U.S. to resume normal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, including formalization of a bilateral relationship — and not only in the military but also in the economic and diplomatic areanas. For example, Sen. Ted Cruz proposed a bill to undo a ban on the display of Taiwan’s flag on U.S. government property by Taiwan diplomats and military personnel. Finally the bills continue to support Taiwan’s membership in international organizations.

This year, with the Ukraine crisis in the background, the U.S. worries over Taiwan’s fate have spiked, especially as it imagines that the mainland might copy the actions of Russia and resort to force in the near term to resolve the issue. In congressional testimony this spring and summer, Biden administration officials have said they want to see Taiwan apply the lessons learned from Ukraine’s defense against the Russian invasion. The support it gives to Taiwan will continue to be deliberate and comprehensive.

In June, U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and Sen. Lindsey Graham put forward the Taiwan Policy Act 2022, the content of which not only covers the above-mentioned bills but also extends further with new conditions. The bill seeks to promote the security of Taiwan, ensure regional stability, and deter mainland aggression. It also threatens severe sanctions “for hostile action against Taiwan.”

Under the bill, the U.S. will provide $4.5 billion in security assistance over the next four years and designate Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally. It also reforms bureaucratic practices and procedures to bolster support for Taiwan’s democratic government, provides additional support for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and multilateral trade agreements, takes concrete steps to counter “aggressive influence campaigns” by the mainland and establishes a robust sanctions regime to deter further “aggression against Taiwan.”

If it passes, it will the first time that the U.S. has formally provided financial support for Taiwan’s defense. Officially endorsing Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally — though not a first — shows that the U.S. has decided to upgrade its military relationship with Taiwan to a new height equivalent to the level of Japan, South Korea and Israel. Formalizing a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and promoting its international standing are intended to create a routine so the world becomes accustomed to the notion of Taiwan as an independent state, though without public recognition.

Behind all these developments, the bottom line for the U.S. is to persuade others that Taiwan is another Ukraine. By helping enhance the island’s defensive capabilities, threatening to impose sanctions and inducing other countries (especially allies) to join the cause together, the U.S. intends to deter China’s actions. With lessons learned from Ukraine, the U.S. will try every means to deter China first, and if it fails it will then channel its efforts to shape the situation to its long-term benefit by gradually crippling the inner strength and resolve of China.  

The U.S. should keep in mind that Taiwan is by no means a sovereign country. There is insufficient justification for it to receive assistance from outside powers. Compared with NATO in Europe, the U.S. is virtually devoid of an effective military framework in Asia. Because its Asia partners depend on China economically, it will be hard to mobilize them if anything occurs. World opinion, likewise, will not favor the U.S., which loses moral ground when it shrinks from the “one China” principle — a principle it once promised to stick with.

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