The U.S. always has the right words ready when it comes to Taiwan. The latest example of this American rhetorical flourish comes from Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. In a recent interview with CNN, she said the U.S. is "committed to protecting the security and supporting the security of the people of Taiwan." Her comments were made in reaction to what some critics have seen as an incomplete response from the White House to the current war in Ukraine. Those critics contend that because the U.S. is determined not to send its troops into Ukraine now, then Taiwan should never believe that American forces would come to its aid against the Chinese mainland in the future.
Would America actually send its forces to Taiwan? Writing for The Diplomat in April, David Gitter, President of the Center for Advanced China Research, explained why this question has no clear answer: "The roots of strategic ambiguity are found in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the United States will maintain the capacity to defend Taiwan but does not state whether or not the United States would actually militarily intervene... ultimately this remains a U.S. presidential decision."
Despite China maintaining that the act places U.S. domestic law above international obligations and is therefore invalid, the only side that continues to talk about the Chinese mainland's military action against Taiwan is... the U.S. Why might that be?
Keep in mind that the U.S. has accepted Taiwan as part of China for well over four decades. Dating to 1979, the U.S. has continued to acknowledge—and that word is important—that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of it. However, as Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in 2017: "The United States did not, however, give in to Chinese demands [in 1979] that it recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan... Instead, Washington acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan was part of China."
When we shift our focus to Taiwan, it seems the concept of protecting itself has come to be increasingly equated with purchasing lots of military hardware from the U.S., arguably making America's intentions much clearer. Last August, the Americans agreed to sell $750 million in weapons to Taiwan. Why? According to an article on independent media outlet The Defense Post: So that Taiwan can deter a possible "Chinese invasion."
There we have it: "invasion." That's the word American audiences continue to be told they must equate to any action by the mainland to reunite with Taiwan.
Unfortunately for the U.S., by now we know that if the opponent is perceived as weak, a military response is likely to follow. However, if the opponent is deemed strong, then economic sanctions will be the only response emanating from Washington. Send forces into Iraq against Saddam Hussein's paper-thin army? Absolutely. Send them into Ukraine to fight against Russia? Well, perhaps not.
If you just get enough people to believe that Taiwan would be the victim of an "invasion," then popular opinion might sway toward Taiwan and its principal ally, the U.S. And while you think about that, my above comment about a perceived weak or strong foe now holds even more relevance: America's constant rhetorical blasts directed at China about Taiwan are an attempt to hide the reality that the U.S. considers a military battle with China to be a losing proposition.
We should not mince words here: After the disastrous military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. seems ill-equipped—and not at all interested—in seeking any military conflict with China. If the supposedly inferior insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan were able to bog down the Americans in a multi-trillion-dollar debacle, then imagine what the better equipped, better trained and better prepared Chinese could do. Much like a poker game, America's political elite will talk tough even though they don't have a strong hand.
More to the point, Chinese President Xi Jinping has maintained that reunification through peaceful means is the most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan compatriots.
One side talks war; the other side talks peace. One side sells billions of dollars in weapons to regions all over the world; the other advances multinational Belt and Road Initiative to increase economic prosperity. One side dreams of maintaining hegemony; the other fosters cooperation.
Whenever reunification happens, you can count on two things: America will talk tough, and the military-industrial complex will prosper.
The author is an associate professor with the School of Informatics, Humanities and Social Sciences at Robert Morris University, the U.S.
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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