Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Fortress Taiwan is not desirable or viable for anyone

  • Taipei and Washington can go ‘all confrontational, all the time’ with mainland China. Or they can pursue a wiser course, such as that charted by the rapprochement policy of the now-ignored Kuomintang, or the delicate balancing act of Asean with US security and Chinese trade

Taiwan and the United States do not need greater intelligence and bigger bureaucracy to deal with mainland China; they need better policy.

In the wake of the war in Ukraine, the island’s defence ministry has boosted the number of intelligence staff and expanded intelligence operations targeting the People’s Liberation Army. Their thinking seems to be: if Russia can invade Ukraine, the mainland must want to do the same with the island. But if Russia didn’t invade Ukraine, would the Taiwanese have felt safer? Somehow, “monkey see, monkey do” may not be the best way to anticipate what Beijing may or may not do. At the moment, it seems to be, for China, more of a case of “monkey see, monkey don’t”.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has announced an ambitious plan to build “a China house”, which he defines as an integrated team across the US State Department to coordinate and implement American policy across issues and regions to address all challenges posed by China to his country. Some US experts say it’s about time; others counter it just means more bureaucracy.

Of course, both governments already have some of the world’s best experts on all aspects of the mainland, and the most advanced intelligence networks to track its developments across relevant fields. What they need is not more funding and bureaucratic resources, but better policy; and that’s what is lacking in their current anti-China bravado of being “all confrontational, all the time”. While money and bureaucracy can get you the most powerful military hardware and computer networks, they can’t give you wiser brains to formulate better policy.

As one US commentator puts it, though it seems obvious to many people by now, “the Biden administration is deeply committed to the containment of China as the keystone of its foreign policy”.

That might have worked 20 years ago. But now the horse has bolted. Much has been written about what China needs to learn from the Russian debacle in Ukraine. Maybe it’s time for the US to take some lessons too. If it’s already so difficult to punish Russia just over two key world commodities, oil and gas, imagine how much more challenging it would be to “contain” China. By some measure, the Chinese economy is already the world’s biggest, with its hand in every production pie and supply chain with most countries around the world. Such a “containment” against China, however successful, would inflict untold damage on the world economy and most nations. Maybe the US could ultimately beat China, but remember what Tacitus wrote: “They make a wasteland and call it peace.”

By virtue of its geography, Taiwan will always have to live with the mainland. It can turn itself into a fortress with indefinite US backing, assuming Washington is willing and that it even has the resources. Far more constructive will be some kind of rapprochement, as advocated by the Kuomintang, which is now completely ignored by Washington.

Alternatively, there is also the balancing act of the Asean nations in Southeast Asia, which understand the political realities of geography in relation to mainland China. They want security from the US but trade with China. It’s a delicate balancing act. But while Asean collectively has the brains and experience to deal with Beijing, it doesn’t have the brawn. However suspicious they are of China, they are also deeply sceptical of American aggressiveness in their neighbourhood.

Taiwan and the US certainly have enough brawn to take on the mainland. But is Fortress Taiwan even viable or desirable in the long run? Let’s hope the brawn comes with brains as well. So far, the signs are not hopeful.