April 10, 2023
HONG KONG – For a long time, American politicians and scholars have all claimed that the United States enjoys an overwhelming strategic advantage in competing with China as a major power. That is, the US has many allies and partners around the world, and they will firmly stand on the side of the US to fight against China in a war between the two countries.
In the same vein, US President Joe Biden warned in 2021 that “by bolstering and defending our unparalleled network of allies and partners, and making smart defense investments, we will also deter Chinese aggression and counter threats to our collective security, prosperity, and democratic way of life”.
Those people also frequently cite the recent Russia-Ukraine conflict as an example and believe that the alliance of the US and its allies and partners has shown unsurpassed solidarity in aiding Ukraine to fight Russia, pommeling the latter’s economy and isolating it internationally. They believe that the allies and partners of the US will deal Beijing an even more “tragic” fate if it dares to take Taiwan by force.
To maximize its intimidation of China on the Taiwan question, the US has reinforced its military deployment in the Asia-Pacific region, formed a military alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia (AUKUS), and bolstered the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). It has also boosted military cooperation with Japan and South Korea, encouraged Japan to expand its military power, especially its attack and counterattack capabilities, increased military cooperation and ties with some neighboring countries of China such as the Philippines, hardened Taiwan’s defense capabilities through stepped-up arms sales and training of its armed forces, and injected NATO’s power into the Asia-Pacific region.
According to Jeffrey Anderson’s observations, policymakers in Washington generally believe that the US must defend Taiwan, and if a war breaks out between China and the US, the US will surely win. Joel Wuthnow asserts that “a conventional war with the US, however, remains a risky proposition for China. Each of the US military services has been adapting to potential Chinese threats in ways that could allow them to conduct devastating strikes against a putative PLA (People’s Liberation Army) invasion force. … Even if the PLA somehow managed to seize Taiwan with US boots on the ground, the military costs alone of a conventional war against the US would be staggering, potentially setting China’s development back by decades.”
Many US politicians and experts believe that China will be afraid to take Taiwan by force because of these “awesome” deterrents. Consequently, the status quo of cross-Straits separation can be maintained indefinitely, and Taiwan will continue to be a strategic pawn for the US to contain China for a long time.
However, the question I want to raise here is: If Beijing has no choice but to use military force to achieve national reunification or remove the island as a security threat to the country, will the US allies and partners support the US without hesitation? Will they use force against China or impose brutal economic and trade sanctions on it? My answer is: If the possibility of a war between China and the US over the Taiwan question increases sharply or if war breaks out, the allies of the US, let alone its partners, will not join the US in the war or become its acolytes, but will instead do everything in their power to persuade or compel the US away from war. They may take some sanctions against China to show rapport with the US but will still maintain considerable economic and trade relations with China.
Allies and partners of the US understand soberly that once China and the US go to war, the reverberations will be far and wide. It may escalate into World War III and a nuclear war. Even if the war is limited to conventional warfare, it will be a protracted human catastrophe that will inflict heavy losses on all warring parties and the whole world. There will also be uncertainty of an overwhelming US victory within a reasonable time.
Raphael S. Cohen and Gian Gentile agonize: “No one can say for sure how a potential war with China over Taiwan will play out, but war games suggest that it will be almost certainly bloody and probably not quick. … In short, the US and China would be able to sustain a conventional conflict for a very long time, and neither side would reach the point of exhaustion quickly.”
Thomas G. Mahnken, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, laments that “despite Washington’s professed focus on both Beijing and Moscow, US defense planning is not commensurate with the challenge at hand”. Moreover, “large quantities of the United States military equipment are aging, with many aircraft, ships, and tanks that date back to the Reagan administration’s defense buildup in the 1980s. The country also has limited supplies of important equipment and munitions.”
In any case, the allies and partners of the US know full well that after a Sino-US war, no matter who wins or loses, the global hegemony of the US and even of the West will irrevocably come to an end. The hegemony of the US dollar, which is already in jeopardy because of the US’ appalling indebtedness, irresponsible fiscal policy, and excessive currency issuance, will irreparably crumble, and the world will plunge into an extremely chaotic and perilous situation.
Another important reason why the US’ allies and partners are unreliable is that they reckon that they have no moral and security rationale to participate in a US-initiated Sino-US war over the Taiwan question. They are willing to assist Ukraine militarily and sacrifice their interests to sanction Russia over the Russia-Ukraine conflict because Ukraine is a sovereign country. However, they have long affirmed that there is only one China in the world and that Taiwan is China’s inalienable territory. Legally speaking, even if China recovers Taiwan by force, it is a legitimate move by China to seek national reunification and safeguard national security. It is thus difficult for them to make a justifiable case against China both legally and morally. On the other hand, China’s recovery of Taiwan will not pose existential security threats to US allies and partners. Of course, Japan will be concerned about “threats” to its energy and economic security. It might worry that China might also endeavor to recover the Diaoyu Islands and that Chinese power will expand immensely with the recovery of Taiwan. Nonetheless, it is not likely that Japan will regard China as its permanent and implacable enemy. Moreover, it is not far-fetched to imagine that sometime in the future China might offer security guarantees to Japan’s security to alleviate its fears. Although Australia is worried about the “threat” posed by an increasingly powerful and “assertive” China, it should not be worried that China will “invade” the country. Therefore, it is hard to imagine that Australia would be willing to join a war with China and court catastrophe for itself. For European countries, on the other side of the Atlantic, any action taken by Beijing against Taiwan does not pose any significant security threat. For the nations of Asia, as Isheika Cleare puts it, “it makes little strategic sense for Asian states to risk their neighbor’s wrath in support of a distracted power with a spotty record of fidelity”. Moreover, “while Asian states cannot escape the reality of Sino-American rivalry, they remain wary of outright siding with the United States and the problems that come with it. They have no desire to be pushed to the front of the stage by an unreliable ally”.
Countries in Southeast Asia, including US military allies Thailand and the Philippines, will also be reluctant to stand on the US side and fight China in a Sino-US war. Blake Herzinger is convinced that “Southeast Asia is a region defined by its pragmatism”. “ASEAN’s member states saw the devastating results of great-power competition in their collective backyard during the Cold War, and they are unlikely to sign up for another.” In fact, “Southeast Asia, and most of the wider Indo-Pacific, is interested in maximizing cooperation with both elephants — the United States and China — without being so close to one that they draw the ire of the other.”
Most importantly, all US allies and partners have close and inseparable economic and trade ties with China, so it is impossible for them to “decouple” from China in economics and trade under the pressure of the US in the event of a Sino-US war. As the leading industrial power, China is at the center of many supply chains and industrial chains around which many countries revolve. As alerted by Henry M. Paulson, a former US secretary of the treasury, “many countries are doing the opposite of what the hardest-line voices in Washington seek. Instead of decoupling or de-integrating economically, many countries are instead deepening trade with China”.
One more important reason why it is difficult for the US to build a reliable alliance is that its allies and partners lack sufficient trust and confidence in the US. They (including Taiwan residents) don’t quite believe that the US is prepared to make severe sacrifices to prevent Beijing from recovering Taiwan. They are worried that, as demonstrated in Vietnam and Afghanistan, if the war goes against the US, it will choose to retreat unilaterally and abruptly, leaving its allies and partners in the lurch. They are also apprehensive that the mercurial and volatile foreign policy of the US will make them at the mercy of China’s wrath.
Many examples in the past have shown that when major national interests are involved, US allies and partners had chosen not to follow the US baton. In 1981, despite US opposition and sanctions, the European allies of the US continued to build the new Siberian gas pipeline to increase the flow of natural gas from the former Soviet Union to Europe. In 2003, France and Germany refused to participate in the Iraq war, a war launched by the US without the authorization of the United Nations. In 2015, despite heavy pressure from the US, except Japan, other US allies, including the UK, joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank established by China. In 2019, Australia, Japan and South Korea all refused to deploy new US intermediate-range nuclear force missiles in their countries.
In general, the US will face insuperable obstacles in forming a reliable anti-China alliance over the Taiwan question. Once a Sino-US war breaks out, the US most likely can only rely on its strength to deal with it, and the chances of its ultimate victory are not high. The US’ recent escalating and dangerous provocations on the Taiwan question have posed an increasingly serious threat to China’s national security. It tends to believe that these provocations together will make a powerful impression on Beijing, deterring it from using force against Taiwan. However, if those provocations “inadvertently” and finally force Beijing to recover Taiwan by military means, the US will fall into a strategic dilemma that will have fateful implications for its national destiny, and all the choices for the US to get out of the predicament will prove to be extremely bad both to itself and the world.
The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a consultant of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.