Opinion | Who can the US really count on in a war with China over Taiwan?

It’s similar with South Korea. Deeply worried about a nuclearised North Korea, Seoul cannot afford to show hostility towards Beijing, which has a latent treaty obligation of military help for North Korea.

The best example is that Yoon Suk-yeol, a seemingly diehard pro-American president, decided not to meet the visiting then-US House speaker Nancy Pelosi after her Taiwan visit in 2022, which triggered live-firing by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) around the island. It speaks volumes about Seoul’s tiptoeing between China and the US.
Japan has treaty obligations to provide logistical support to the American military in a conflict. It might let the US use its bases too, but its participation is unlikely. Public opinion in Japan is generally against getting ensnared in a Taiwan Strait conflict. According to a poll for the Asahi Shimbun last year, just 11 per cent of Japanese respondents said their armed forces should join the US in the fighting, and 27 per cent said their forces should not work with the US military at all.

03:11

Xi and Kishida reaffirm Japan-China strategic relations in rare leader talks after Apec summit

Xi and Kishida reaffirm Japan-China strategic relations in rare leader talks after Apec summit

Having fought in every major US war since the second world war, Australia looks the most reliable ally. In recent years, Australia has pushed Washington to curb the influence of Huawei Technologies, and supported the creation of security groupings such as Aukus (between Australia, Britain and the US) and the reinvigoration of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (between the US, Japan, Australia and India).

In a war in the Taiwan Strait, Australia, too, is likely to let the US use its military bases. But Canberra also makes clear it has not promised to participate in any Taiwan conflict in exchange for American nuclear-powered submarines.

In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr seems determined to join the American camp, something other Asean leaders have tried their utmost to avoid. US access has been granted to nine military bases that would be most useful in strengthening America’s badly needed forward military presence along the so-called first chain of islands. And recently, the US Army’s mid-range capability ground-based missile system was deployed in exercises in the Philippines.
But, as if to assuage Beijing’s concern, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said last April that the Philippines will not let the US stockpile weapons for use in any Taiwan operation. US troops will also not be allowed to refuel, repair and reload at those sites. Time will tell whether these promises are reliable.

05:37

Marcos says US bases in Philippines not for ‘offensive action’ as Taiwan tensions simmer

Marcos says US bases in Philippines not for ‘offensive action’ as Taiwan tensions simmer

Then, can the US develop a “mini Nato” in the Indo-Pacific as some have argued? Well, Aukus looks too small and Britain won’t be a major player in the region. Even if Japan joins, the glue that binds won’t be strong enough.
As for the Quad, it has a security element, reflected in its joint military exercises, but it won’t become a military alliance because of India. As a rising power and a founder of the Non-Aligned Movement, India is too proud to be dependent on any major power. Its ambition is to become a global power like China. It shouldn’t wish to be seen to be antagonising its northern neighbour, whose economic and military strength far outweighs its own.

Whether American allies join the US in a war with China depends first on whether the US gets involved. If Washington concludes that the latest Taiwanese leader is a troublemaker – as president George W. Bush was rumoured to have referred to former president Chen Shui-bian – why would it write a blank cheque with American blood?

The conflict in Ukraine is also giving people second thoughts. If Nato, an alliance of 32 states, can hesitate to take on Russia, what gives the US confidence to fight China with a few half-hearted allies? Yes, Russia has more nuclear bombs than China. But the PLA is twice as large as the Russian army, with a military budget over three times bigger. The PLA is also known to have better drones, early warning aircraft and other force multipliers such as hypersonic weapons.
Much has been said about America’s “strategic ambiguity” – not specifying whether it would assist Taiwan militarily in a conflict – but for Washington, the biggest strategic ambiguity comes from Beijing: will a stronger China become more confident about an eventual peaceful reunification or become more impatient and resort to force?
Quite a few American generals have publicly predicted some worst-case scenarios, but so far, Beijing is still talking about a peaceful reunification, even as Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party is re-elected.

That Washington can count on its allies is a best-case scenario – and more likely, wishful thinking. Alliance is a marriage of convenience. America’s alliances in the region are more the sort of marriage described by George Bernard Shaw – between a man who can’t sleep with the window shut and a woman who can’t sleep with the window open.

Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University

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