No, Taiwan is not the Next Afghanistan.
After two decades of herculean efforts to eradicate extremism and establish democracy, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has finally come to an end. Critics of this departure and its haphazard method believe the withdrawal damages U.S. credibility. One could extrapolate from this departure to claim that the U.S. could abandon other key allies and partners elsewhere. Taiwan is a case in point.
Although U.S.-Taiwan relations are relatively strong, Taiwan could find itself being abandoned by the United States. Is Afghanistan a harbinger of the future of U.S.-Taiwan relations?
Why the U.S. left Afghanistan
Two words: national interests. When the U.S. intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, it had its eyes on two goals: supply of crude oil in neighboring countries and dismantling non-state actors like Al Qaeda. Over the span of 20 years, both issues have largely been resolved. During the Trump administration, the U.S. gradually became energy independent due to shale oil extraction.
Secondly, the threat of another major terror attack has also been diminished significantly since the September 11 attacks. Americans, by and large, are much safer than they were 20 years ago. With both objectives fulfilled, it is only a matter of time that the U.S. left Afghanistan.
The departure from Afghanistan allows the Biden administration to now focus on China. Not having to worry about the Middle East allows the U.S. to double down on its efforts in the Indo-Pacific region. The image of a benign China has largely been shattered in the minds of policymakers in Washington. As China begins to show its true color of being a revisionist power, Washington now worries about whether the current liberal international order can survive. Thus, leaving Afghanistan is a good signal from the U.S. to China that it is ready to meet this challenge head-on.
Why Taiwan is not the next Afghanistan
What role does Taiwan play in the Sino-U.S. competition? If Afghanistan was abandoned due to changes in strategic interests, could the same happen to Taiwan? Possibly, though occasional proposals of “selling out” Taiwan were never adopted and should remain so in the foreseeable future. Most in Washington now agree that containing China will not be a short-term goal but a long-term effort. Although policymakers have not agreed on a concrete policy or course of action, one thing is clear: Taiwan will play a central part in this effort. Several reasons make Taiwan indispensable in U.S. efforts to contain China.
The central goal of Taiwan’s foreign policy has been to resist Chinese oppression or even invasion, making it the U.S. natural security partner for fending off Chinese aggression. Second, situated on the first island chain, Taiwan’s location is strategic. The location of Taiwan provides viable military intelligence of China, which is critical for the U.S. to contain and manage any revisionist movements from China.
As a result, as national interests continue to wane in the Middle East, the opposite is true for U.S.-Taiwan relations. China has never abandoned its threat to use force to liberate the island, and as it gains a higher level of military capabilities, the threat continues to intensify for Taiwan, and relatedly, the U.S. The U.S. is bound by the Taiwan Relations Act to provide weapons of defensive nature to the island and consider helping defend it when faced with Chinese aggression. As China’s intention to revise the liberal world order established by the U.S. and its allies becomes clearer, Taiwan then becomes more important to the U.S. Losing it would expose the continental U.S. to direct attacks from China’s military. Consequently, the U.S. has been proclaiming many policies to help Taiwan offset pressure from China by passing legislation supportive of Taiwan.
Certainly, the U.S. could decide that its national interests in Taiwan have fundamentally changed and decide to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip. The fear seems to lead many inside Taiwan to criticize the U.S. as disingenuous, with their most favorable example that the U.S. does betray allies: the ending of official ties between Taiwan and the United States in 1979. Valid points, but at the end of the day, the U.S. does not station active troops in Taiwan, so the costs of a rapid policy change could be minuscule.
However, the fear of abandonment is like those who fear a terrorist attack – overblown. Moreover, the policy suggestion for U.S. doubters is risky – siding with China, a country whose malign intentions toward Taiwan are clear and documented. If the U.S. decides to sell out Taiwan, we do not have clear ideas of how it might take place, nor does it fulfill the current U.S. national interests in containing China. One hiccup of U.S.-Taiwan relations does not make China more trustworthy. As of this writing, U.S. national interests in perpetuating the current status quo have not changed.
Critics of U.S. foreign policy also often want the U.S. to rid the strategic ambiguity policy, which hinted that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense, but no guarantee, in favor of a clear policy that would defend Taiwan in a cross-Strait conflict. Doing so is unwise. An overly clear promise would trigger an attack from China as it realizes the promise of unification would seem impossible, damaging the long-standing internal propaganda the Chinese Communist Party endows.
Taking the uncertainty element out of the current U.S. policy toward Taiwan might do the opposite of what critics want. Another suggestion by U.S. doubters is to adopt a hedging policy and slide between both powers. Trying to go between both sides as a hedging strategy runs the risk of being abandoned or distrusted by both camps. The U.S. could voluntarily renounce its defense commitments to Taiwan, which only worsens the island’s security.
Most importantly, Taiwan should feel relieved seeing what the U.S. is doing in the Indo-Pacific region. To contain China, the United States is determined to shore up relations with countries in the Indo-Pacific region, such as India, Australia, and Japan in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and deepen those with long-standing allies such as Great Britain, the EU, or Canada. The goal is to reduce these countries’ economic dependency on China while seeking consensus on how China is wrecking the international system with its foreign policy. Such a policy has won bipartisan support and public support, further strengthening U.S. resolve.
In short, there are major ways that separate Taiwan apart from Afghanistan in American foreign policy. Nothing is certain in international politics, but the trends are clear for closer U.S.-Taiwan relations to contain China. It is an alliance that the U.S. needs to win a competition with China.