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Fate of Ukraine will tempt China on Taiwan. And US might not be in a position to push back

As US commitments in Europe increase, many Asian nations – including India – will wonder if it’s wise to irk China, with no guarantee of American support.

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Fifteen talents of silver were the wage of a warship’s crew for a year – the price of peace was pitifully small. As the great Peloponnesian wars raged across the Aegean Sea from 431BCE–404BCE, thousands of Athenian soldiers landed on the rich trading island of Melos, demanding tribute. The independence of Melos, the Athenians argued, was emboldening would-be rebels; the superpower could not afford to be soft. The Melians invoked neutrality, morals and the gods, but their arguments failed. Finally, Melos chose to fight.

The men of Melos were annihilated, and the women and children sold into slavery. “The strong do what they can,” warrior and historian Thucydides famously recorded of this story, “and the weak suffer what they must.”

Even as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold, leaders across Asia have been considering their own Melian dilemma. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air force has been sending combat patrols into airspace claimed by island nation Taiwan on an almost everyday basis, testing the country’s air defence. In a single day in January 2022, the PLA sent in a record 29 jets.

In the event President Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, it could convince Beijing to unleash its full military power on Taiwan, and on other defiant states in its near-neighbourhood, including India. Fighting back, though, could invite terrible consequences.

Also read: China’s drawing lessons from Russia-Ukraine. It also believes in ‘sphere of influence’ theory

Looming superpower contest

Chinese President Xi Jinping hasn’t left much to the imagination on his Taiwan intentions. Last year, he proclaimed “the complete reunification of our country will be and can be realised.” Xi warned that “those who forget their heritage, betray their motherland and seek to split the country will come to no good end.” In a 2019 speech, Xi made clear he will “make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option to use all necessary means.”

Chiu Kuo-cheng, Taiwan’s defence minister, has said China will have the military capabilities it needs to realise that aim by 2025, and most military experts agree.

For now, the PLA’s jets have stayed out of Taiwan’s sovereign airspace, which extends 12 nautical miles from its coast. They avoided the so-called Median Line in the Taiwan strait, the half-way point between the two countries, only intruding into the Air Defence Identification Zone—the region where countries assert the right to demand that foreign aircraft identify themselves.

The PLA jets are sending a signal—to the United States. As the US sails warships through the Taiwan straits and stages naval exercises in the region, China is signalling that it can ratchet up the conflict. Like Russia, China sees the Western naval presence as an intrusion into its legitimate sphere of influence.

Fighting a war would not be easy. Taiwan’s air force and precision munitions would extract a terrible toll on the PLA. The logistics involved in an amphibious assault across the Taiwan straits, moreover, would make it impossible to conceal. Then, war would likely mean catastrophic costs, inviting sanctions and severing trade.

The real question is: How far would America go in response? In a recent conversation with Xi, US President Joe Biden reiterated his country’s commitment to a long-standing diplomatic formulation, which suggests the US will sell arms to Taiwan, but not recognise its sovereignty nor defend it from attack.

Last year, though, Biden publicly said he was committed to defending Taiwan against attack—only for the White House to roll this back, by announcing there was “no change in our policy.” His response in a crisis could shape the future of Asia.

Also read: Xi’s China isn’t just caught up with Ukraine, Taiwan. Someone’s disrupting Russia ties too

America’s Taiwan security guarantee

In 1949, the defeated Kuomintang fled mainland China for Taiwan. The PLA had no capabilities to stage naval operations, which gave the island de-facto independence. Early on, the US showed no interest in involving itself. Dean Acheson, the United States’ secretary of state, promised to protect a “defensive perimeter [that] runs from Ryukyus to the Philippine islands.” The red line excluded Taiwan. As scholar Tang Tsou writes, Acheson’s policy appealed to policy-makers who wished to “avoid any immediate risk of war.”

Inside months, though, the assumptions of the policy were tested. The US was forced to commit troops to Korea in 1950 and found itself fighting the PLA.

Then, in August 1954, the US was tested by a series of PLA raids on Taiwan’s offshore islands. The Americans responded by sending in seven aircraft carriers. Early in March, 1954, Dwight Eisenhower’s government signed a formal mutual defence treaty with Taiwan.

In August 1958, the PLA again probed US’ resolve, shelling the islands of Kinmen and Matsu, and initiating an amphibious landing on Tung Ting. This time, the United States sent in a fleet with four aircraft carriers, equipped with low-yield atomic weapons to annihilate the numerically superior PLA landing forces.

Even as Washington worked to secure an entente with Beijing, the security guarantee given to Taiwan expired in 1979.  Emboldened, China tried its luck again in 1995, firing rockets into waters north of Taiwan, and moving troops into invasion staging areas. Although it had no treaty obligation to do so, the US moved two carrier battle groups into waters near Taiwan. Yet again, China backed down.

Also read: Modi’s India is in a foreign policy sweet spot by playing all sides — US, China, EU, Russia

America’s diminishing Asia-Pacific interest

Will the US act similarly in a future Asian crisis? There’s no way to know, but there are plenty of reasons for concern. While Pentagon officials have spoken of China as the “priority theatre,” the Global Posture Review it concluded last year is reported to have decided against committing more resources to the region. The Pentagon’s $740 billion budget for the 2022 financial year,  experts Ashley Townshend and Tom Corben have pointed out, prioritises long-term modernisation over investments in the Indo-Pacific.

Though the US might provide intelligence assets and some assistance to allies in need—as it did for India in the course of the crisis on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh—there’s no evidence it is contemplating significant military investments in regional partners.

The US’ 2018 national defence strategy recommended 3 to 5 per cent real growth in defence spending to keep pace with China and Russia, but not a single defence budget since came close to the target. An ambitious $1 trillion plan to grow the United States navy has been shelved, and the numbers of ships due to be commissioned will barely keep up with attrition.

As American commitments in Europe grow, its ability to meet challenges in the Indo-Pacific will be stretched. As things stand, Townshend and Corben note, the United States “doesn’t enjoy the luxury of riches or unchallenged military primacy required to underwrite an expansive global strategy against two great-power rivals.”

Earlier this week, President Biden gently chided India for its “somewhat shaky” position on sanctions against Russia, contrasting that with other QUAD partners – Australia and Japan. Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, has also been pushing India to take a tougher line on Ukraine.

Even though Western aid for Ukraine might lead to Russian defeat, it will come at the cost of a ravaged economy, destroyed cities and thousands of deaths. That’s not a fate any leader wishes on their nations. Like New Delhi, though, many Asian capitals are likely to be wondering if it’s wise to enmesh themselves in great power conflicts—irking China, with no guarantee American power will be present by their side.

The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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