A Message for Taiwan in the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan?

12 Dec, 2021    ·   5798

Dr Prashant Kumar Singh draws from Chinese media editorials to compare US engagement with Afghanistan and Taiwan

In August 2021, the Global Times declared the US “abandonment” of Afghanistan a lesson for Taiwan. It warned that it was “Afghanistan today” and will be “Taiwan tomorrow.” Separate headlines in the the Global Times’ online editions said that the US was “reaffirming commitment only to ‘fool Taiwan separatists’,” and that “US treachery” has scared the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). It also used the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to remind us of its other withdrawals—from Iraq in 2011 and South Vietnam in 1973.

Even though the US, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, has been underwriting Taiwan’s security, the question remains: does Taiwan matter, or does the US think it is time to abandon it altogether? Concerns about whether the US should bid Taiwan a strategic goodbye augment fears of possible abandonment. Even though former President Donald Trump strengthened bilateral relations, apprehensions about him chiefly using Taiwan as a bargaining chip with China developed early on in his tenure. Thus, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is seen as a reminder of Taiwan’s vulnerability, too. This is the fear that the Global Times played on.

However, contrary to what the Global Times would have its readers believe, the withdrawal from Afghanistan may actually help the US focus on the Asia-Pacific and support allies and partners, including Taiwan, more solidly. President Tsai Ing-wen recently confirmed the presence of US training troops in Taiwan—a first-of-its-kind acknowledgement since US troops ‘officially’ left Taiwan in 1979. The same Global Times that predicted an imminent abandonment of Taiwan saw this development as the US crossing a red line, a move that could trigger war in the Taiwan Strait. This raises another question: Could Taiwan actually stand to gain from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

Comparing US Engagement with Afghanistan and Taiwan

Democratic and liberal constituencies in Afghanistan and abroad were expecting open-ended US support, in which democratic solidarity played a significant role against religious fundamentalism. This is the same ambiguous yet not time-bound spirit seen in the US support for Taiwan. However, beyond this marginal similarity, the differences between the two contexts are too deep.

US entry into Afghanistan was occasioned by the 9/11 attacks. Withdrawal has been overdue since its mission was completed with the killing of Osama in 2011. In Taiwan’s case, the US commitment has deep historical context. Both societal forces and strategic imperatives drive their relationship. Democratic solidarity defines it. Taiwan is a leading contributor to the global economy, a knowledge hub, and a technology powerhouse. It is an internally robust state with legitimate governments that enjoy the people’s consent. Afghanistan and Taiwan are not on the same playing field in terms of their relationship with the US, especially when it comes to partnering in the economic, social, cultural, and science and technological domains.

Further, US support for Taiwan is not tied to deadlines. This is a relationship without an ‘expiry’ date, whereas Afghanistan was primarily a counterterrorism mission for the US. Taiwan is a key player in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. Defending it against Chinese authoritarianism is thus an ideological commitment for the US. Abandoning Taiwan will leave lasting doubts about US resolve against China. It will therefore employ every available instrument of power to deter a Chinese threat against Taiwan, as long as the Taiwanese themselves resist unification. National Security Adviser to President Biden Jake Sullivan sums it up: “when it comes to Taiwan, it is a fundamentally different question, in a different context.” President Biden has reiterated that the US would “‘respond’ to any possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan,” bracketing it with Japan, South Korea, and NATO allies.

The US is currently in intense strategic contestation with China, and able to concentrate on the Asia-Pacific, away from its quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, analysts differ on whether US policy towards Taiwan has moved from strategic ambiguity to strategic clarity. Trump raised the bar for relations with Taiwan, and it continues to remain high under Biden. He has held the line and stepped-up investment in relations. In the latest development, Biden has invited Taiwan to the Summit for Democracy, to be held in December 2021. Taiwan also appears to have become a rallying point for the US and its allies such as Japan, Australia, and the UK.

New Strides in US-Taiwan Relations, and China’s Position

All three China-US joint communiques in 1972, 1979, and 1982 addressed the Taiwan question, and China has been ‘discussing’ it with the US ever since. The US is clearly a stakeholder in the Taiwan Strait and practically a party to the cross-Strait issue. The issue is thus a sub-set of overall US-China bilateral relations.

Uncertainty about the US response is the single most crucial deterrent against Chinese use of force to reunify Taiwan. China would prefer to avoid irretrievably broken relations or a situation of war with the US because this would destabilise its development trajectory. It would disrupt the timeline to realise the ‘Chinese Dream’ by 2049. An invasion of Taiwan is thus unlikely despite threats by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Meanwhile, media reports suggest that the Taiwan issue was discussed prominently between Biden and Xi. Washington may be able to extract a renewed commitment from Beijing for Taiwan’s peaceful reunification as part of a possible thaw or strategic deal. In such a situation, a lie-low approach by the DPP government would be a good move. In case of a Kuomintang (KMT) victory in the next presidential election, the situation may be even more conducive for China to save face. The KMT shares the 1992 Consensus and One-China principle with Beijing, albeit with its own version, and believes in eventual reunification.

In the meantime, strengthened US-Taiwan relations have created new benchmarks. These are unlikely to be reversed. The deterioration in US-China relations has a larger context and is likely to continue for a prolonged period with varying degrees of intensity. Against this backdrop, Taiwan is no longer seen as a nuisance in relations with China. US public support to defend Taiwan has also deepened. A post-Afghan withdrawal US could see deepened focus on the Asia-Pacific. Taiwan could consolidate old gains and accrue new ones in its ties with the US—contrary to the Global Times’ predictions.


Dr Prashant Kumar Singh is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. He can be reached at prashant.idsa@gmail.com.