Emma Ashford and Dr. Matthew Kroenig discuss Chinese incursions and U.S. training of Taiwanese forces and what could raise the specter of war. Could the U.S.A handle this conflict? What is the U.S.A position towards China behavior in WTO and is really China thriving in corrupt environment.
Emma Ashford: China is actually invading Taiwan’s sovereign airspace. It is sending planes into the air defense zone, which is basically a buffer zone around a state’s sovereign territory. Taiwan’s ADIZ actually extends over the Chinese mainland, though these incursions are in the part of the ADIZ closer to the island. Apparently, America is now secretly basing troops in Taiwan. The United States has had a special operations unit and a small contingent of Marines deployed to Taiwan for the last year, training the Taiwanese military.
Dr. Matthew Kroenig: China’s threats against Taiwan are not a reaction to the United States; they are an outgrowth of the long-standing desire of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to take control of the island by force if necessary. An invasion is not likely tomorrow, but China’s recent aggression is still concerning, and it advances several of China’s revisionist goals. At the strategic level, it may help create the impression globally that Taiwan is indefensible, and that China already has military dominance over the island and the region. It is useful training for Chinese pilots for a future conflict and helps them probe and plan for Taiwan’s likely air defense response. And it puts a lot of stress on Taiwan’s small air force, as its leaders need to scramble aircraft to intercept the incoming Chinese jets. I think a genocidal, nuclear-armed power threatening its small democratic neighbor with unprecedented shows of military force is worth a bit of hysteria.
EA: The Biden administration has obviously expressed diplomatic concern about Chinese flights. But when it comes to the actual defense of Taiwan, things are a lot less clear. Since the 1970s, the United States has maintained ambiguity on the question of Taiwan’s independence and acknowledged that Taiwan is a part of China. The big question currently ratcheting around Washington is whether to change that position and make a clearer commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Even training Taiwanese forces is a step in that direction and could be a sign that the U.S. government is considering abrogating its commitments under the 1982 U.S.-China communique on Taiwan. Do you have an opinion?
MK: I think it does make sense for the United States (and Washington’s allies and partners) to make a clearer commitment to defend Taiwan and for Taipei and Washington to invest in the right military capabilities (like anti-ship missiles) to deter and if necessary, deny any Chinese invasion of the island.
The clearest path to a war over Taiwan in my view would come if CCP leaders miscalculate; they might assume that they can get away with a successful takeover of the island, when, in fact, they cannot. So, by clarifying the U.S. commitment, Washington would be doing Beijing a service—President Joe Biden would be helping them not to miscalculate.
EA: There are countries in Asia—Japan and South Korea, for example—that are important enough for the United States to commit to defend. But in the case of Taiwan, the imbalance in interests and capabilities is just too high. China views Taiwan as a historic part of China; reunification has been a core demand of the CCP government for its whole existence. Taiwan is 100 miles offshore the Chinese mainland. Meanwhile, it’s 7,000 miles away from the United States, whose population is at best ambivalent about defending it. So, no, the United States shouldn’t commit to going to war to defend Taiwan.
Americans did conquer most of a continent, slaughter the native inhabitants, and then fight the neighboring states for more land. You should ask Mexico how it feels about the United States’ historical claims to territory!
China’s citizens feel strongly about Taiwan, while defending Taiwan isn’t particularly popular among Americans.
MK: The United States and its allies have built and defended a rules-based system over the past 75 years that has produced unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom globally. I don’t want to trade that in for a world in which Americans stand by as revisionist autocracies like China gobble up neighbors by military force—or, worse, lose a hegemonic war leading to the end of this order and the rise of a Chinese-led system. (Just look at the way Beijing treats its own people for a vision of what that system might look like.) Those are both pretty dark futures. I think it is worth fighting for the preservation of the current system.
Put that way, the U.S. stake is much greater than China’s interest—which essentially boils down to reclaiming an island.
And, even better, if Washington gets the deterrence equation right—with the right commitments and capabilities—Americans don’t have to fight to defend it. Washington can convince the CCP that it is not in its interest to attack.
The United States make the necessary investments to deter the war and, if necessary, win it.
EA: Washington can help by providing them with arms and support so they can defend themselves. As Patrick Porter and Michael Mazarr recently put it, “the United States should act as armourer, but not guarantor” in the case of Taiwan. The training forces are a more risky proposition, as they put Americans on the ground, and there is always the concern that a future policymaker might view them as a so-called tripwire force. And a concrete commitment by the United States to actually defend Taiwan is far too risky.
EA: China might soon be too busy with economic issues to worry about Taiwan. It’s been a bad couple of weeks for the country. On Monday, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced that the administration wouldn’t be removing former President Donald Trump’s China tariffs. And then there’s the Evergrande crisis roiling China’s domestic economy.
MK: China’s economy has real weaknesses. The Evergrande crisis shows that China’s previous growth model, relying heavily on debt and unproductive real estate investment, was unsustainable. The CCP appears to be intervening to prop up this particular company, but I suspect this is just the beginning of this story.
EA: China apparently does property bubbles very differently from the United States. Here, the 2008 financial crisis was caused by excess consumer debt, subprime mortgages, and rising house prices. But in China, a property developer took on debt and built far too many properties that no one wants. I even saw a video of apartment towers in China being demolished because they can’t find enough people to live in them.
Regardless, though, the financial world is worried. Evergrande is one of the biggest companies in China and is certainly among the most indebted. But this creates a dilemma for the government in Beijing. Again—to draw an analogy to the 2008 financial crisis—Evergrande might be “too big to fail.” If the Chinese government allows it to collapse, it could take the economy down with it; if it saves the company, it reinforces bad behavior and debt-holding among Chinese companies. Evergrande hasn’t been paying its suppliers in recent months, and domestic pressure on the Chinese government is growing to do something.
MK: Biden administration is right to keep in place much of the Trump-era trade policy toward China. Trump’s tariffs were not primarily about isolationism or hostility to free trade, as many reported at the time. They were about China’s bad behavior.
The United States and other market economies cannot allow China to continue to prey on the global economic system. So long as the CCP is engaging in unfair trade practices like subsidizing its domestic companies, the rest of the world should put in place countervailing measures, including tariffs.
I applaud the Biden administration for continuing Trump’s tough stance on China.
EA: But the Biden team didn’t try to move those disputes with China back into the dispute framework of the World Trade Organization (WTO). After all, that’s supposed to be the function of the WTO: resolving trade disputes between member states in a way consistent with the rules-based international order that you’re such a fan of! Trump didn’t just put in place tariffs and get tough on China when it came to trade. He also rejected the multilateral frameworks that are designed to fix such problems.
MK: The WTO works well for countries with market economies that take international law seriously and, for the most part, play by the rules. Unfortunately, China is not one of those countries.
I do think, therefore, that the Biden administration’s statement that a trade deal with China might not be possible and that it would treat China “as it is, not as we wish it to be” is an improvement. Trump seemed to think that China would agree to buy some more soybeans and everything would be better. The real problem, as Biden seems to realize, is that China’s entire economic model is incompatible with accepted international norms and standards. It may never be able to change.
EA: They kept the Trump tariffs on, but she also signaled a willingness to open trade talks with China and described Biden’s goal as “durable coexistence” with China. We have a new release of financial documents from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the people who previously brought us the Panama Papers. The documents show that the world’s wealthiest people—including some government leaders—engage in stashing their wealth in offshore holdings to dodge taxes and keep it hidden. Given that previous revelations of this kind caused leaders to be ousted and governments to collapse, this seems like a development to watch. I’m particularly interested in the Pandora Papers revelation that King Abdullah of Jordan, a relatively poor and not always stable country, has substantial overseas property holdings.
MK: Corruption is moving from a development issue to the center of strategic competition. Russian and Chinese overseas economic influence thrives in corrupt environments. This is one reason why the Biden administration has selected global anti-corruption efforts as an agenda item for its upcoming Summit for Democracy.