East Asian Countries Send Taiwan — and the U.S. — a Message

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Recently, the governments of Australia and Singapore gave high‐​profile warnings to Taiwan to avoid actions that might provoke Beijing and create a military crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Both governments stressed that they would not come to Taiwan’s aid if the island’s increasingly assertive efforts to consolidate its de facto independence from China lead to armed conflict.

Those comments reflect the growing concern throughout East Asia that tensions over the Taiwan issue are beginning to reach alarming levels. It is clear that Australia and Singapore were sending Taiwan a blunt message. What is less clear, but important, is that they were also sending a crucial message to the United States: Do not count on your friends and allies in the region to help you fulfill your commitment to defend Taiwan. Given the statements and conduct of the East Asian countries regarding the Taiwan issue over the past decade, that should not come as a surprise to Washington.

Virtually all of the East Asian governments made a concerted effort to distance their policies from that of the United States when the Clinton administration dispatched two aircraft carriers to the western Pacific to demonstrate concern about rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait in 1996. South Korea and the Philippines both stressed that their “mutual” defense treaties with the United States did not cover contingencies in the Strait. Such countries as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Australia contented themselves with the banal response of urging restraint on all sides, conspicuously declining to endorse Washington’s moves. Indeed, they echoed Beijing’s position that Taiwan is a renegade province. Even Japan, the principal U.S. ally in the region, merely expressed “understanding” of the naval deployment.

The reluctance of America’s professed friends and allies in East Asia to take a hard‐​line policy toward China extends beyond the Taiwan issue. That point became clear in April 2001 when a Chinese jet collided with a U.S. spy plane that was conducting surveillance from international air space. The collision forced the U.S. plane to land on China’s Hainan Island. PRC authorities held the crew for nearly two weeks, until Washington conveyed a carefully worded expression of regret for the incident, and kept the plane. During this period of acute tension, what was the response of America’s East Asian allies?

Vocal support for the U.S. position was notably absent. Even Washington’s treaty allies in the region — Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines — declined to say that a U.S. apology to Beijing was unwarranted. Only Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew unequivocally supported the U.S. position.

Japan’s tepid, ambiguous stance epitomized the reaction of America’s friends and allies. Kauzuhiko Koshikawa, a spokesman for Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, stated: “We strongly hope this case will be settled in an appropriate and acceptable manner.” Beijing could take as much comfort as Washington from such a comment.

The responses of the various East Asian countries in both episodes underscore an important point. China’s neighbors have no incentive to antagonize that rising power by backing the United States in disputes that do not seem vital to — or even relevant to — their interests. We can expect such discreet neutrality in most, if not all, future confrontations between the United States and the PRC. Beijing has cultivated U.S. allies’ tendency toward neutrality through astute diplomacy that has softened Beijing’s abrasive image among its neighbors while quietly underscoring the PRC’s importance to the economies of those nations. The latter is a critically important factor. For example, China this year will likely supplant the United States as Japan’s largest trading partner.

These developments raise serious questions about the wisdom of Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan, especially given Beijing’s increasingly obvious impatience about the reunification issue. Not only could the United States find itself entangled in a perilous military confrontation with China over Taiwan, it might have to wage the ensuing struggle virtually alone. Taiwan would undoubtedly contribute to its own defense, but the reaction in various East Asian capitals to Beijing’s menacing behavior toward the island in recent years suggests that assistance from Washington’s other “friends” would be problematic, at best. The United States had better take that factor into account when it calculates the prospective costs and benefits of its security pledge to Taiwan.