Although there is still a war raging in Ukraine, Taiwan is increasingly on the minds of US diplomats and military leaders. Following President Biden’s trip to Asia and his comments on the possibility of the US militarily supporting Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack there are many questions being raised about how the US might intervene to defend Taiwan if the PRC launches an attack. Policy debates on the shape and size of a potential US intervention are taking on a new importance in the aftermath of Biden’s ambiguous remarks in Tokyo. The president was less than clear, whether by design or circumstance, on the conditions needed to be met in order to trigger a US military response. For example, is Washington willing to intervene in the event of a Chinese military blockade of Taiwan, or will the red line only be crossed after the first Chinese troops land on Taiwanese soil?
Practically speaking, there are considerable obstacles US forces will need to overcome to successfully defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack. Geography and force posture are two of the most crucial. Taiwan is situated in the PRC’s front yard. Just 110 miles of water separate the island-nation from the Mainland. This is an advantage that cannot be negated or minimized. Hundreds of tactical aircraft and ballistic missiles, dozens of warships and thousands of troops ready for embarkation are normally based in close proximity to the Taiwan Strait. During a buildup to hostilities, reinforcements will pour into the Eastern Theater Command area and greatly increase the combat power available for an operation against Taiwan. Considerably more combat power than the US and select allied nations in the region could bring to bare or use as a deterrent. Improvements in Chinese air and naval capabilities over the last twelve years also make the formula more than a numbers game. The US forces still maintain a qualitative edge, but that is diminishing somewhat. Expanding capabilities, coupled with China’s already immense advantage in quantity might be enough to keep the US military at bay and unable to effectively influence the battle.
Periodically in the coming weeks, Today’s DIRT will examine the options available for the US to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack, as well as taking a detailed look at the forces available to both the US and China.
With US President Joe Biden heading to Asia today, the focus of the US government will pivot away from the war in Ukraine and Europe for the first time in months. Even though the pivot will be temporary, Biden’s trip to Japan and then South Korea will reveal a glimpse or two at future US economic and security policies and postures in the Western Pacific. As expected, even though Biden’s trip will take him to Japan and South Korea, two staunch US allies, this visit is all about North Korea and China.
Tensions in the region are evident at first glance. China is contending with issues close to home stemming from the latest COVID-19 outbreak on the mainland, redoubled efforts to replenish strategic oil reserves and of course, Taiwan. Then there is North Korea, dealing with its first official outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, as well as preparing for either a ballistic missile or underground nuclear test in the near future. Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine and Russia has delayed the Biden administration’s intentions to refocus on Asia this year.
The Ukraine crisis and subsequent war is raising concerns about the ability of the United States to handle simultaneous crises in different parts of the world diplomatically and politically. China’s designs on Taiwan are at the core of these concerns. One of Biden’s primary goals for this trip will be to address the worries of allies and non-aligned regions in the region and demonstrate how solid US security commitments in the region are. The president also needs to address why his administration has failed to apply an economic component to US Indo-Pacific strategy. During this trip, Biden is expected to present the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as an answer to the economic questions.
The victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr in Monday’s presidential election is official. The era of his father was one marked by immense greed and brutality that left a permanent scar on the soul of the Philippines. As the son and namesake of the former dictator, Bongbong’s rise to the presidency was made possible by a combination of prestige held from being the new face of the nation’s former ruling family, and the organization of the Duterte political machine. Bongbong’s running mate was Sara Duterte, daughter of the soon to be outgoing president. With the Philippines now poised to begin a new era, questions about the nation’s future relations with China and the United States have become more significant.
Marcos seems to want friendlier ties with China, but not at the expense of ceding sovereign territory. During the campaign, Bongbong bragged of having friends in Beijing and spoke of working towards a bilateral agreement with China to settle differences between Manila and Beijing. “If you let the US come in, you make China your enemy,” Marcos said during the campaign. “I think we can come to an agreement (with China). As a matter of fact, people from the Chinese embassy are my friends. We have been talking about that.” He is also eager to attract investors from China to help finance a massive national infrastructure plan.
Marcos is said to hold some personal issues with the United States. Understandable, given the manner in which the US government handled the aftermath of the elder Marcos’ departure from power. However, the current geopolitical situation in the Western Pacific has made relations with the US exceedingly important. The same holds true for the US-Philippines defense relationship. Marcos will seek to maintain the national interests of his country as a priority, even in the face of US-China power politics and competition in the region.
It will be a pretty neat trick if he can pull it off.
There are growing indications that North Korea is moving forward with plans for its first nuclear weapons test in over four years. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on the rise lately, though this has been underreported in light of the war in Ukraine. Last week, Kim Jong Un promised to continue development of its nuclear weapons “at the fastest possible speed.” This has prompted concerns that a test will be scheduled to disrupt the late May visit of US President Joe Biden to South Korea. Chinese and South Korea diplomats met in Seoul on Tuesday with China pledging to play a ‘constructive role’ in attempting to get North Korea to resume negotiations.
South Korea, with a new administration taking power on 10 May, is quite interested in deterring North Korea from escalating the situation. One element that appears to be coaxing the North along the slippery path it’s on at present is Russia. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin have forged close ties over the years and the North is one of the few nations supporting Russia in its war without misgivings. In exchange for this loyalty, Russia could return the favor by blocking a UN effort to impose severe sanctions on North Korea if it does move forward with a nuclear test.
Having said this, it must be mentioned that the global economic fallout from Russia’s adventure in Ukraine and the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in China could hit the North Korean economy especially hard. Supply chain issues now coming into play will exacerbate food shortages. Inflation will also play a greater role. Food prices in North Korea often mirror global prices. With food prices rising around the world, the North’s prices are expected to do the same in the coming weeks, taking the country’s economic issues from bad to worse in the process.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned the world against underestimating the chances of a nuclear conflict emerging from Russia’s war in Ukraine. “The risks now are considerable,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russia’s state television. “I would not want to elevate those risks artificially. Many would like that. The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it.” Lavrov’s warning comes as the West increases its material support for Ukraine as the war shifts to the Donbas region. Heavy weapons are now being shipped from NATO nations into Ukraine, including self-propelled artillery and self-propelled anti-aircraft gun systems. Russia’s previous warnings that NATO equipment could be considered a legitimate target of war once it enters Ukrainian territory. In Washington, Moscow’s ambassador to Russia has told the United States to stop weapons shipments to Ukraine, warning that Western weapons are inflaming the conflict. Lavrov extended the argument in his comments. “NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.”
While Lavrov’s warnings could be nothing except for bluster, his words should not be dismissed entirely. The risks of a potential nuclear escalation are at least present at this stage. We’re at a point now where the United States and her allies need to consider the viewpoint of Russian leadership. It would help to view the situation from the perspective of Russia and not make decisions largely based on interpretations stemming from a prism of Western views and opinion. The stakes for Russia in this conflict are enormous, to say the least. If Vladimir Putin concludes there is no chance of a victory on the battlefield through only conventional means, all bets are off.
The West should not be intimidated from supporting Ukraine. However, at the same time, some government officials in Europe and the US might want to consider how their recent remarks are being interpreted by the Kremlin. For example, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin admitted a US goal now is to see Russian military capabilities significantly weakened to the point where it cannot conduct military operations abroad in the aftermath of this conflict. Austin’s words run the risk of being interpreted as the US posing an existential threat to Russia and provoking Moscow into expanding the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Escalation is not in the best interests of anyone.