President Biden has gladdened the heart of PRC Defence Minister Wei Fenghe by ignoring Taipei’s request for larger, more effective, weapons platforms, confining deliveries to systems that are at least two decades old in a context where the PLA is working apace at modernising its arsenal.
TAIPEI: There is no trace of fear in the faces of the people of Taipei or in the other cities of Taiwan at the prospect of the PLA invading the island nation. All that the show of force by the PLA has done is to further increase the proportion of Taiwanese who want nothing to do with China, especially when that country remains under an expansionist and aggressive leader. Even within the once wholly China-friendly KMT, voices are being heard with increasing frequency that oppose CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s efforts at intimidating Taiwan through unprecedented and provocative demonstrations of military force that may not for long remain ignored by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is known to be voluble about actual and perceived threats, especially to democracies. The silence of several democracies to the armed intimidation of Taiwan by China will be more than a footnote to history, given its parallel with events within Germany in the 1930s. Not that such aggressive behaviour comes as a surprise. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has almost from its inception rewritten history in a manner consistent with its grandiose visions for a China ruled by it, although these are mostly inconsistent with past history and factual accuracy. What Xi Jinping has done is to make this ambition impossible to miss, even amongst the most dedicated apologists of the CCP. Whenever Xi sees a chance, most often through the negligence or incapacity to respond of a target country, he authorises the grabbing of yet another slice of territory on sea and land, and recently even in the air, through extending the line that so far limited PLA, PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Navy (PLAN) activities around Japan, Taiwan and India, the three immediate targets of the Central Military Commission (CMC) headed by Xi. War planners are aware that Japanese territory would be among the initial targets of any attack by the PLA on Taiwan. To ensure success in such an operation, all wings of the PLA would need to first take out the operational capabilities of the US military bases in Kadena, Iwakuni and Yokosuka, all of which are in Japan. It was this realization that made the assassinated ex-PM of Japan Shinzo Abe say explicitly that an attack on Taiwan would be treated as an attack on the US and Japan, although his successor has been far more emollient towards China. In that country, the killing of Abe has prompted relief that the most powerful voice arguing in favour of an immediate joint US-Japanese kinetic response to any such attack by the PLA on Taiwan has fallen silent. In a move that came as a surprise to the many tens of millions of admirers of Abe in Japan and elsewhere, newly installed Prime Minister of Japan, Fumio Kishida excluded Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi from the Cabinet on August 9, soon after the assassination of his brother Shinzo Abe. Critics of Kishida, who they allege is similar to Joe Biden in his “peace at any price” mindset, claim that the politically unpopular move was intended to send a placatory signal to Xi Jinping. Former Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi is as much of a China-sceptic as
his brother Shinzo Abe had been, although others say that the real cause behind his ouster was because of factional rivalry within the ruling LDP. It must be added that Prime Minister Kishida has thus far continued with Shinzo Abe’s policy of close ties with India and with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
BIDEN’S EUROPE FIXATION
It was only in 2014 that the US began to shift from its policy from the 1970s’ Henry Kissinger construct that placed emphasis on conciliation and cooperation rather than rivalry with China. It was Kissinger who, while seeking to isolate India in alliance with the PRC, began to give away an immense number of US technology secrets to China, besides helping the PRC to boost its economy. His policy of building up an ideological enemy was followed by successive US administrations, helped by the well-oiled Communist China lobby in the US. Along with his successors until a few years ago, Kissinger claimed that a richer Communist China would be a friendlier and ultimately a more democratic China. Since that period, his view that the PRC needed to be pampered and conciliated rather than accepted as what it is, an existential challenger to US interests, held sway. It began giving way only during the second term of Barack Obama, when he was politically strong enough to shed his past traducer Hillary Clinton from the administration. Unfortunately, President Biden is more a follower of the Clinton rather than the Obama line. An example of the harm this can cause was after the storms in Tonga, when a US naval vessel bursting with surplus food and materiel that could have been handed over to Tonga was delayed by over a week because the State Department dawdled over giving clearance to the vessel. In between, a Chinese vessel handed over a skimpy package of assistance and promptly declared that it was the first country to assist Tonga in its distress, a boast subsequently confirmed by the Tongan authorities. Biden, Blinken and Sullivan are the Europeanist trio in the present administration, still acting as though it was the Atlantic rather than the Indo-Pacific that was the key theatre for Washington, and that the primary foe was not the PRC but the Russian Federation, not Xi but Putin.
It was the recognition by President Obama of the danger posed by China that ensured his warm and welcoming approach to the assumption of the Prime Ministership of India in June 2014 by Narendra Modi in place of the earlier lack of such bonhomie to the individual who was the most popular leader in India even when he was just the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Although Biden served as Vice-President under Barack Obama for two terms, in terms of interests and ideology President Biden is far closer to the Clintons than he is to Obama. There have long been reports floating around Washington that several of those close to the 46th President of the US have fed at the PRC trough in the way that some in the Clinton circle had, but such reports are unsubstantiated. Both Joe and Jill Biden are known for their simplicity and freedom from material greed, although the same is not true of some others in the family. It however remains a fact that Joe Biden has shifted the focus of the US back from China to Russia and from Asia to Europe, showering taxpayer dollars in the tens of billions on gifts of armaments that will only serve to increase the eventual losses suffered by Ukraine. Such largesse may be because of the sympathy Biden feels for the people of Ukraine, a sympathy he apparently does not have for the people of Taiwan or India, neither of which has received any US transfers in the form of weapons shipments delivered gratis, despite facing a far more potent adversary than Ukraine even where US overall interests are concerned. Were Biden to get over the Atlanticist fixation embedded in him by the Clintons, he may begin to accept that it is in the Indo-Pacific and against China and not in Ukraine and against Russia that an existential conflict may erupt that will need to be fought and won.
FREEBIES FOR UKRAINE, NONE FOR TAIWAN
Across the Indo-Pacific, the special feeling that President Biden has for the Ukrainian people and his fixation with that country’s conflict with Russia that began with the Maidan-inspired removal of President Viktor Yanukovich is as obvious as it is to policymakers in Africa and South America. The double standard being followed by the White House is evident not just in the flow of free weapons but in the privileged access being given to Ukrainians to settle in the US, in contrast to those from countries closer home. In Jakarta, there is hitherto unspoken resentment at the manner in which the G-7 threatened a boycott of the 2022 G-20 meeting to be hosted by President Joko Widodo. Finally, a compromise was arrived at by Indonesia being arm-twisted into inviting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine to attend and give his trademark denunciation of the Russian Federation, which will end with another call to send more and more weapons to Ukraine. Much of such gifts from the US and others in NATO are ending up in locations far from that unfortunate country. In the Americas, several countries including Mexico showed their resentment at the US decision to exclude Venezuela and Cuba from a meeting of the Americas by not turning up for the meeting held in the US, thereby condemning it to failure. SAARC capitals may be wondering whether the G-7 may similarly pressurise SAARC into ensuring an appearance by Zelenskyy at the next meeting of that association, whenever it takes place. Pressure by the G-7 on the G-20 to invite the Ukrainian head of state is an example of converting a tragedy into a farce. Both the Afghanistan withdrawal of 2021 and his 2022 fixation on Russia are leading several in Taiwan to question whether President Biden will adopt an Afghan rather than a Ukrainian line should the PLA launch an attack on Taiwan. Continuous acts of intimidation by Xi Jinping against Taiwan are meeting nothing other than a symbolic response from the US. Unlike in the case of Ukraine, where one UN Security Council meeting after another has being called by France, the UK and the US, in the matter of PLA intimidation of Taiwan or Xi’s aggressive activity related to India, calling a UNSC session to discuss such matters remains absent from the agenda of Paris, London and Washington.
XI DEMANDS MORE FROM BIDEN
The 2017 revival of the Quad by Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe was the first serious effort within the Indo-Pacific to meet the challenge posed by Xi’s territorial revisionism on the PRC periphery. Fortunately for them, President Trump wholeheartedly endorsed the plan of the two leaders and ensured that the US joined in, together with Australia. Whether a President Biden would have been as enthusiastic about the revival of the Quad remains a matter of debate. Thus far, neither through Ukraine-style weapons grants or through a lend-lease agreement (that was swiftly endorsed by the US Congress for Ukraine but not as yet for Taiwan or India) has the Biden administration given any sign of showing through substantive action rather than platitudes that it understands the threat posed by the PLA and is willing to counter it along with partner countries. Where Taiwan is concerned, President Biden has gladdened the heart of PRC Defence Minister Wei Fenghe by ignoring Taipei’s request for larger, more effective, weapons platforms, confining deliveries to systems that are at least two decades old in a context where the PLA is working apace at modernising its arsenal. The upward trajectory in the quality and quantity of US weaponry supplied by Trump has thus far not appeared to be a feature of the Biden administration. The unexpected and robust Indian military response to PRC encroachment into Bhutan and the Trump trade war of 2017 came as a shock to Xi. In 2021 the AUKUS pact was signed between Australia, the US and the UK. This was a welcome step, although for reasons best known to the Biden-Blinken-Sullivan trio, India was not invited to join despite having since the 1950s an active border with China. While the restricted membership of AUKUS was reflective of the Kissingerian dismissal of India, nevertheless the pact was a move away from the Communist China-friendly strategist to keep on conciliating China while ignoring the provocative behaviour of CCP leadership.
PRC EAST COAST EASY TARGET
Despite the meagre flow of US military assistance relative to what is being transferred, or more accurately gifted on a daily basis to Ukraine, the DPP central government in Taipei is building up its capacity to inflict substantial punishment on the eastern coast of the PRC were the PLA to attempt an invasion. The east coast is what keeps China from being a replica of a Sub-Saharan country, and almost the entirety of it is now vulnerable to a Taiwanese assault using missiles whose range has been boosted locally. Xi’s effort has been to (a) scare away the White House and consequently its G-7 partners from intervening and (b) to convince the people of Taiwan that resistance is futile, that they ought to capitulate in the way that France speedily did during the attack by Germany in 1940. As of now, the Pentagon is having a larger say in policies relating to Taiwan as compared to the State Department, and a similar heightened involvement of the Department of Defense in overall US policy is becoming evident in the case of India as well, boosting expectations that even President Biden with his Cold War 1.0 mindset will understand the consequences to US security of any further loss of territory by India or the loss of sovereignty by Taiwan and take the action needed to assist both democracies in preventing such an outcome. The loss of Taiwan would (i) embolden the DPRK to flex its nuclear muscles against Japan and the RoK, (ii) put at risk US military assets in Japan, the Philippines and Guam, and (iii) pose an existential threat to the security of Japan, the closest ally of the US in Asia. Given that the island is so intertwined with overall US interests, it would be unimaginable for the White House not to intervene in the event of a PLA invasion of Taiwan, despite some confusing and sometimes discouraging signals emanating from the White House and the State Department.
BRITISH, CANADIAN, INDIAN MPS TAIWAN BOUND
President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan would be headed to a PRC jail or worse were the island nation to fall to the PLA. In the face of such an eventuality, visitors calling on her have been impressed by her calm and her confidence in (a) the commitment to liberty and democracy of the Taiwanese people, (b) in the resolve to help Taiwan resist PRC aggression of the major democracies and (c) in the rapidly escalating military capabilities of Taiwan. There is particular gratitude within the higher echelons of power in Taipei at the way in which key US policymakers have braved Xi’s wrath and are visiting Taiwan. Although President Biden claimed that the Pentagon was opposed to Speaker Pelosi’s visit (a claim privately denied by elements in the US military), there was a comprehensive protective screen around the US Air Force aircraft carrying Nancy Pelosi to Taipei and later on, to Tokyo. The US Marine Corps, the US Air Force and the US Navy were involved in the protective bubble, which was of a level sufficient to repel even a determined attack by the PLA Air Force and the PLA Navy designed to either shoot down Pelosi’s aircraft (as suggested by Hu Xijin, a commentator known to reflect the thoughts of Xi) or force it to land elsewhere than in Taiwan. Ultimately, the PLA decided to do what it does best, merely posture before television cameras by carrying out a Sound & Light show in the air and waters around Taiwan, an action that got repeated after another US Congressional visit to Taipei took place last week. The Foreign Policy Committee of the UK Parliament is due to visit in November, and soon afterwards, a delegation of MPs from Canada. It needs to be remembered that from the time of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s, that dynasty has been close to Communist China, which is why such a visit came as a surprise to Beijing. There has been talk in the Lutyens Zone that the MEA has finally shed its legendary caution in ruffling Chinese feathers, and has given its approval for a Parliamentary delegation of MPs from India. Given that EAM Jaishankar reflects the robust views of Prime Minister Modi, such a visit by MPs to Taiwan should not come as a surprise. Once the visit takes place, this would be a textbook example of India not just being the world’s largest democracy but acting as such. Act East is after all the Modi motto.
PRESIDENT TSAI CONFIDENT OF VICTORY
1940 was not an altogether pleasant year for Britain, given the imminence of the planned invasion by the Wehrmacht on the island. Under Churchill, the British people went about their lives unfazed, and the same atmosphere of calm confidence is visible across Taiwan, where daily life continues without a change. This is despite the occasional sighting of the contrails of Chinese Air Force jets or PLAN naval vessels playing to the gallery under the orders of CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. It is symptomatic of the times that the latest movie that was watched by President Tsai Ing-wen was “The Darkest Hour”, which is about Prime Minister Winston Spencer Churchill rallying the British people to defend their “island home” in 1940. Churchill’s promise was that Britain would fight the Nazis, that “we shall never surrender”. A similar promise and confidence is being conveyed by President Tsai to her Taiwanese compatriots, who are responding in the way the British did to their Prime Minister in 1940. After less than a year, the US and the USSR joined Britain in fighting against the armies led by former Corporal Adolf Hitler. The actions of the PRC under its present leadership are ensuring that an alliance of countries, from India to Vietnam to Japan to the US to Australia to France along with many others is forming. Their purpose will be to ensure that aggression by the PLA is thwarted, and that the sovereignty of all countries in the Indo-Pacific is respected rather than subverted by the expansionist efforts of the leadership of the world’s other superpower.