Quad, which held its first leaders’ dialogue on March 12 and took a “pledge to respond to … and address shared challenges, including in cyber space … counterterrorism, … as well as maritime domains”, is likely to be subjected to an acid test, sooner than later. Here is why.
Last fortnight, a leading western weekly dubbed Taiwan as “the most dangerous place on Earth”. It noted that the presence of the US military in the region had hitherto deterred an all-out armed conflict between Taiwan and China, but the American military deterrent had since waned, while China had beefed up its military muscle.
China indeed is no longer bashful about flexing its military muscle. It is in adverse possession of Indian territory and lays claim to much more. Its Ladakh misadventure has entered the second year with an armed standoff continuing in Depsang Plains, Hot Springs and Gogra. It is busy building permanent facilities for its troops across the LAC, possibly preparing for the long haul.
At the Global Dialogue Series event in London, India’s External Affairs Minister did some straight talking on India-China ties—“I can’t have friction, coercion, intimidation, and bloodshed on the border, and then say let us have a good relationship in other domains. It is not realistic.”
Preaching, but Not Practising
Chinese naval and coast guard vessels intrude into Japanese waters around the Senkaku Islands regularly and its contiguous zone almost daily. Such is the angst in Japan that almost 70 per cent of the people want the government to take a strong stance against China, as per the Japanese Foreign Ministry survey.
Again, after likening Australia last year to a “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes”, Beijing imposed some economic sanctions to punish Canberra for its audacity to seek an independent investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 virus.
Earlier this month, China accused Australia of having a “Cold War mindset” and ‘indefinitely’ suspended the premier China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue. This is when it preaches the world, including India, to delink political differences from economic engagement.
Addressing a webinar last fortnight, Dr Da Wei, Assistant President of the University of International Relations (UIR) in Beijing, observed that the US-China ties developed strains in 2010, were in a bad state in the last three years of Trump Presidency, and had since entered a tense and difficult phase. Both sides had a sense of victimhood now and were waiting for the other to take the initiative.
Why was China at odds with most of its neighbours and had it ever committed a mistake, I enquired, pointing out that China was in the habit of playing victim for tactical reasons. He ducked the second question but asserted that China’s rise was changing the geopolitical power structure and other countries were feeling insecure. He agreed that China was at fault at times but was ‘not confident’ enough to admit it.
All the same, there is growing concern in the US and other capitals about Chinese intimidation of Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province. President Xi Jinping wants to go down in the history as the leader who brought Taiwan back into the mainland’s fold. He considers this as critical for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era” and is not averse to using force if required.
It should be recalled that the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 and also rescinded the ‘Mutual Defence Treaty’, which was a precondition imposed by Beijing for normalising bilateral ties. The ‘Taiwan Relations Act’ was enacted instead, which commits the US to provide necessary weapon systems to Taiwan for its defence. Washington has since maintained strategic ambiguity on whether or not it would physically intercede to thwart a Chinese invasion on Taiwan.
Tensions between Taiwan and China spiked in 2016 when the independence-minded politician Tsai Ing-wen was elected as the President. Beijing promptly snapped formal contacts with Taiwan. It could barely hide its anger when President Tsai spoke directly to President-elect Donald Trump in December. It marked the first highest-level contact since 1979.
It has been downhill ever since. The Trump administration was most willing to supply arms and exchange higher-level visits. Belying Chinese expectations, the Biden White House has continued with the hard line approach, even formally inviting Taipei’s de facto ambassador in Washington to Biden’s inauguration, for the first time since 1979.
China has upped the ante. Its warplanes have entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over 270 times in recent months. Last month, 15 Chinese jets entered Taiwan’s ADIZ the same day the USS John S. McCain destroyer sailed through the Taiwan Strait. Liaoning, Chinese aircraft carrier, conducted military exercises around Taiwan for a week.
China Upping the Ante
During a Senate hearing in March, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson, warned that China could invade Taiwan within the next six years as it moves to supplant American military power in Asia.
The strategic community and military experts believe that China plans to wage an all-out assault on Taiwan—cyber, electronic, air, naval and land—to overwhelm its defences, eliminate its leadership and physically occupy the island state, before the US can react. While China’s physical proximity gives it a huge tactical advantage yet Taiwan is no pushover. It is well-armed, motivated and has gamed many such scenarios. Also tell-tale signs of preparations for such an attack would be picked up by western intelligence. The US may even decide to permanently station an aircraft carrier group in Okinawa.
In a media interview last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed serious concern over the continued Chinese “aggressive actions” in the Taiwan Strait, cautioning that “it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force.” He reiterated, “We have a serious commitment to Taiwan being able to defend itself.”
If it has had any impact at all, Beijing has hidden it well. Daniel Russel, a former US State Department official opines that—“The strongest driver of increased Chinese assertiveness is the conviction that the Western system, and the US in particular, is in decay.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings scholar, cautions that “a promise by America to defend Taiwan does not mean that it could defend it … That is because America has had multiple, sometimes conflicting goals—to deter China from attack, to preserve good US-China relations, and to discourage pro-independence forces within Taiwan all at once.”
Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, believes that the US should explicitly state it would intervene to deter Xi and reassure allies. However, there is a small problem. Neither Xi is likely to be deterred nor the allies likely to be easily assured. It is also quite evident that the US cannot do it alone. America’s allies and Quad nations will be expected to collaborate. But would they?
Interacting with an Indian think-tank last month, Professor Andrew J. Nathan of Columbia University averred, “Allies are not going to solve the China problem for the US as none of them have identical interests with respect to China that the US has.” Similarly, he saw a bleak possibility for substantial security cooperation between New Delhi and Washington as India did not share all the security interests of the US, nor did Washington place the same priority that India places on her concerns.
When asked about India’s possible role as a Quad member in the event of breakout of hostilities in the Taiwan straits, former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon maintained that India will not intervene militarily but short of that, she will be supportive.
True, that would be India’s preferred option. But then what about Quad’s commitment to a free, open, rule-based, coercion-free and inclusive Indo-Pacific region? Can Quad members remain in their comfort zones and yet restrain China? Talking of the instant scenario, if India doesn’t commit naval assets, can she make a meaningful contribution? Would the same yardstick not be applicable to India if and when she faces an external aggression?
In sum, a lot is riding on how the Quad, especially the US and India, play their cards. If the US blinks, for whatever reason, in defending Taiwan, it would mark the beginning of a China-centric regional order. Mercifully, Washington is fully conscious of the stakes involved. Its principal challenge is to convince the conflict-weary domestic opinion that it is in America’s interest to prevail. Carrying the Quad members and allies along will be relatively easier once the US is ready to provide genuine leadership.