alliances, allies, Asia, Asia-Pacific, Biden, China, deterrence, Following Up, Indo-Pacific, infotech, multilateralism, national security, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, semiconductors, Sheena Greitens, Taiwan, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, tech, TSMC, Xi JInPing, Zack Cooper
Well isn’t this a kick in the pants for the Biden administration – and by extension for all Americans?. No sooner did the President give a major speech to U.S. allies on his plans to return them to the center of American foreign policy-making because they’ll be such crucial assets in vital efforts to achieve essential goals like coping with China’s rise, than a new study comes out reporting that these hopes could be in vain.
Specifically, the United States’ allies in Asia could well stay on the sidelines in what’s arguably become the most important potential showdown with China of all: ensuring Taiwan’s independence.
As known by RealityChek regulars, keeping Taiwan free of Beijing’s control has become so pressing for two reasons. First, Chinese dictator Xi Jinping is sounding and acting more determined than ever to “reunify” what he and his predecessors have regarded as a breakaway province by whatever means necessary – including using force. And second, a Taiwanese firm, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC), has recently grabbed the global lead in actually producing (as opposed to designing) the world’s most advanced semiconductors. If China manages to control TSMC’s capabilities, it could use them to build the electronic devices and defense systems that would secure substantial technological and military superiority over the United States.
President Biden is of course correct in arguing that the more allies the United States can mobilize, the easier it will be to handle China’s increased aggression and economic predation. But that claim inevitably assumes that these allies will actually join with America to push back against China, and especially that Washington can count on their assistance if heaven forbid the missiles and bullets start flying.
And this assumption is exactly what’s questioned in a paper recently published by the Washington, D.C.-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. According to authors Zack Cooper and Sheena Greitens, there’s not a single country in the Asia-Pacific (or, as it’s now officially called by the U.S. government, the Indo-Pacific) region that’s sure to stand shoulder to shoulder with American forces as they seek to actually repel either a Chinese attack on Taiwan, or an effort by Beijing to turn the island into a satellite through coercive means short of full invasion, like limited military strikes, cyber-attacks, or an embargo.
In fact, write Cooper and Greitens, these allies not only would likely balk at sending their own ships, plans, and troops to buttress American forces. To varying degrees, they’d be reluctant to allow the United States the kind of access to their military bases needed to prevail over China in any of the above contingencies.
The authors believe that sufficient allied cooperation can be generated if the United States begins (ASAP!) “a series of detailed discussions with key allies about their roles in different contingency scenarios involving China and Taiwan (and for some, the South China Sea).” That advice sounds fine as far as it goes.
But the need in the first place for “detailed discussions” on such dangerous and perhaps rapidly growing threats – which would leave all countries in the region far less prosperous and prosperous if not deterred or beaten back – makes appallingly clear just how dysfunctional these alliance relationships have become. Moreover, you can be sure that the longer and more detailed these discussions become, the more allied doubts they’ll reflect, and the less likely they’ll be to produce the kind of certainty when push comes to shove that the United States or Taiwan will need.
I don’t view Cooper and Greitens analysis as gospel. But in my experience, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center has done serious work on Asian security issues in the past, and the larger project of which this essay is a part has had support from sponsors across the political spectrum. So its warning is worth taking seriously, and if its arguments are on target, the problem they describe will resist easy solution – and not just because truly worthwhile agreements with the allies could take years to negotiate, but because the U.S.-based semiconductor production capacity needed to reduce Taiwan’s importance will take just as long to create.
Luckily, as indicated in the piece linked just above, both Congress and the new administration claim to recognize the need – at least rhetorically – to restore cutting-edge U.S. competitiveness in this and other information technology manufacturing. In the meantime, the Biden administration should of course try maintaining enough of a semblance of allied unity vis-a-vis China to give Beijing pause over Taiwan. Hopefully, Washington can even inspire some genuine support for preserving the island’s independence.
But as I’ve written previously (in the afore-linked National Interest piece), the greater the emphasis placed on resolving the semiconductor challenge via the homegrown solution of reviving the domestic industry, instead of relying mainly on protecting Taiwan’s security militarily, the better the odds of maintaining American security and prosperity. And in any necessary negotiations with the allies, the sooner President Biden abandons his globalist faith in apologetics and gauzy preaching, and acknowledges the need for at least some of the hard-bargaining Trump-ian “transactionalism” he’s decried, the better.