US policy towards Taiwan is a “strategic ambiguity” – there is no explicit promise to defend it against Chinese attack. In this tense environment, US policymakers and experts are feverishly considering how to make the US engagement in Taiwan more credible and improve overall military deterrence against China. A recent proposed $ 750 million arms sale to Taiwan is part of those efforts, as are discussions over inviting Taiwan to a democracy summit, which would no doubt anger Beijing.
Some have argued that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan undermines efforts to signal US support for Taiwan. At first glance, it may seem that the US withdrawal would be a good thing for China’s prospects in what it calls “armed reunification”. Indeed, this is the message of the Chinese nationalist newspaper The Global Times. peddling: the United States will put Taiwan aside as it did with Vietnam, and now Afghanistan.
However, the American departure from Afghanistan creates security concerns in China’s backyard that could distract it from its competition with the United States. Beijing’s strategy to protect its global interests is a combination of relying on host nation security forces and private security contractors and freeing itself from the military presence of other countries. Analysts have concluded that China is less likely than the United States to rely on its military to protect its interests abroad. Beijing appears determined to avoid making the same mistakes as Washington, namely over reliance on military intervention abroad to advance foreign policy goals.
From now on, there will be no reliable security presence in Afghanistan and undoubtedly wider instability in a region with important economic and trade interests for China. Chinese leaders also fear that the conflict in Afghanistan could spill over the border into neighboring Xinjiang, where Beijing’s repressive tactics have already been the cause of much international stigma.
The reality is that the United States has been in Afghanistan much longer than expected. This upsets China’s calculations of what the United States would do in the event of a crisis in Taiwan, as conventional wisdom in Beijing was that Somalia’s painful legacy would deter Washington from coming to Taipei’s aid.
But US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have called these assumptions into question. Taiwan, with its proportionately large economy and semiconductor industry, is strategically important to the United States. The power and influence of the United States in East Asia depends on its allies and military bases in the region and on America’s larger role as a security partner of choice. If Taiwan were to succumb to Chinese aggression, many countries, including allies of the United States, would see it as a sign of the arrival of a Chinese world order. By comparison, Afghanistan is less strategically important, yet the United States remained there for 20 years.
This does not bode well for the conceptions Beijing might have for Taiwan.
It is true that China would have an advantage at home given the proximity to Taiwan, and that Beijing’s arsenal is far superior to that of Taiwan. China, too, would likely enjoy more domestic public support for any conflict than the United States would for any other intervention.