Mutual assured destruction

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

A Tsinoy I know and her husband packed up their bags and relocated from Taiwan to the US at the start of this year.

Apart from wanting to be with their only son, a graduate of a top US business school who is now working there, the couple is seriously worried about the Chinese invading Taiwan.

They have in mind what China has done to Hong Kong after Britain handed it back to Beijing. The ensuing departure of Hong Kong residents, many of them resettling in Commonwealth realms, has reportedly intensified in recent years, since pro-Beijing Carrie Lam became chief executive of the special administrative region.

The Tsinoy is now glad that they got out of Taiwan before the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised the hackles of China’s Xi Jinping.

Some analysts have warned that it is the excuse Beijing has been waiting for to forcibly retake Taiwan.

This doomsday scenario for democratic Taiwan, however, is fraught with risks that the world’s second largest economy surely must also be considering before launching an armed attack.

For its size, wealthy Taiwan has impressive self-defense capability. Of course it pales against the formidable capability of what Taipei described last Friday as its “evil neighbor.” There are reports that some Taiwanese are now worried about their island ending up like Ukraine, which its giant neighbor Russia is trying to gobble up and drag back into its sphere.

Still, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan isn’t going to be a walk in the park for the People’s Liberation Army. For one, tiny Taiwan is widely deemed to have US firepower behind it. US President Joe Biden has ended Washington’s long-held strategic ambiguity on the issue and has openly declared US commitment to defend Taiwan in case of armed attack.

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If Xi goes to war, he can’t afford defeat; the outcome will determine his political survival. A confrontation with US-backed Taiwan will be costly; can China afford it alongside an economic slowdown?

Following Pelosi’s visit, however, Xi can’t afford to lose face among his nationalist constituency, especially with his upcoming appointment to a third term just a few months away.

But he must also weigh the consequences of inspiring the creation of an international alliance – with many of the members affluent and having powerful military capability – against China and its most important security ally, Russia.

Moscow is currently fully preoccupied with Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin badly miscalculating the international support that Kiev has been receiving in firepower and through economic sanctions.

A weak Chinese reaction to Pelosi’s visit, on the other hand, could encourage more such trips not only by US officials but also by those from other countries, thereby building up Taiwan’s legitimacy as an independent state – and adding to Xi’s woes before the Communist Party congress.

So over the weekend, China rained ballistic missiles around Taiwan, intruded into its waters and air space, and announced unspecified sanctions against Pelosi.

But will Xi order an invasion? I think he’s practical enough to consider the risks of inviting international support for Taiwan, and the possibility of mutual assured destruction.

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In March last year, the outgoing chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, told a congressional session that if China moved to take Taiwan by force, it would likely be in 2027, the 100th founding anniversary of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

At the time of Davidson’s testimony, Uncle Xi was still espousing “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan.

But this was long before Pelosi’s visit. And this was over a year before Xi faces reelection to an unprecedented third five-year term as leader of the Communist Party of China during its 20th National Congress in Beijing this October or November.

In 2018, Chinese lawmakers removed the two-term limit for the president. The betting was that Xi was on track to become China’s president for life. But then came the pandemic, and Xi’s zero-COVID policy that has caused rare unrest in cities such as Shanghai. China has also not escaped the economic fallout from its close ally Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Last June in Madrid, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization declared China a security challenge for the first time. China’s strategic interests are increasingly seen to be in confluence with those of Russia, described by NATO as “the most significant and direct threat” to the alliance’s peace and security.

“China is substantially building up its military forces, including nuclear weapons, bullying its neighbors, threatening Taiwan … monitoring and controlling its own citizens through advanced technology, and spreading Russian lies and disinformation,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters.

“China is not our adversary,” he said, “but we must be clear-eyed about the serious challenges it represents.”

As expected, Beijing bristled at being regarded as a threat by NATO, saying its foreign policy was being “smeared.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the NATO meeting: “One of the things that [China is] doing is seeking to undermine the rules-based international order that we adhere to, that we believe in, that we helped build… And if China’s challenging it in one way or another, we will stand up to that.”

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For Filipinos, the concern is getting caught between two elephants fighting.

Last Saturday, Blinken met with President Marcos in Manila, during which he reiterated the “ironclad” US commitment to its security alliance with treaty ally the Philippines.

We have a Mutual Defense Treaty; is the commitment mutual? One of these days the Philippines’ standing as an ally will be tested.

Self-respecting states join alliances not out of convenience or other mercenary reasons, but out of shared values – in this case, a free way of life based on a rules-based international order, against what we are seeing in China, Russia and now in Hong Kong.

There’s also that thorny issue about Beijing refusing to bow to a United Nations-backed arbitral court ruling invalidating its greedy claim over nearly the entire South China Sea, and Chinese forces refusing to get out of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, over which the Philippines was awarded sovereign rights under the same court ruling.

Will China reunify with Taiwan by force? Their political systems and values appear irreconcilable – as did Hong Kong’s before Beijing gained full political control of the special administrative region.

With the end of China’s military drills yesterday, it looks like the Philippines won’t have to take sides at this time. We can still afford to say we’re a friend to all and enemy to none – and mean it.


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