Home Top News Opinion | How Afghanistan Changed China's Taiwan Calculus

Opinion | How Afghanistan Changed China’s Taiwan Calculus

The U.S. policy toward Taiwan is “strategic ambiguity” — there is no explicit promise to defend it from Chinese attack. In this tense environment, U.S. policymakers and experts are feverishly considering ways to make U.S. commitment to Taiwan more credible and enhance overall military deterrence against China. A recent $750 million arms sale proposal to Taiwan is part of these efforts, as is talk of inviting Taiwan to a democracy summit, which undoubtedly would provoke Beijing’s ire.

Some have argued that America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan undermines efforts to signal U.S. support for Taiwan. On the surface, it may seem as if the U.S. withdrawal would be a good thing for China’s prospects at what it calls “armed reunification.” Indeed, this is the message the nationalist Chinese newspaper The Global Times is peddling: The United States will cast Taiwan aside just as it has done with Vietnam, and now Afghanistan.

However, the American departure from Afghanistan creates security concerns in China’s own backyard that could distract it from its competition with the United States. Beijing’s strategy to protect its global interests is a combination of relying on host nation security forces and private security contractors and free-riding off other countries’ military presence. Analysts have concluded that China is less likely than the United States to rely on its military to protect its interests abroad. Beijing appears committed to avoiding making the same mistakes as Washington — namely, an overreliance on military intervention overseas to advance foreign policy objectives.

Now there will be no reliable security presence in Afghanistan and undoubtedly broader instability in a region with significant economic and commercial interests for China. Chinese leaders are also worried that conflict in Afghanistan could spill across the border into neighboring Xinjiang, where Beijing’s repressive tactics have already been the cause of much international opprobrium.

The reality is, the United States stayed much longer in Afghanistan than most expected. This upsets China’s calculus about what the United States would do in a Taiwan crisis, since conventional wisdom in Beijing had been that the painful legacy of Somalia would deter Washington from ever coming to Taipei’s aid.

But U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have called these assumptions into question. Taiwan, with its proportionately large economy and semiconductor industry, is strategically important to the United States. U.S. power and influence in East Asia are reliant on its allies and military bases in the region and America’s broader role as the security partner of choice. If Taiwan were to fall to Chinese aggression, many countries, U.S. allies included, would see it as a sign of the arrival of a Chinese world order. By comparison, Afghanistan is less strategically important, and yet the United States stayed there for 20 years.

This does not bode well for any designs Beijing might have for Taiwan.

It’s true that China would benefit from a home-field advantage given Taiwan’s proximity, and that Beijing’s arsenal is far greater than Taiwan’s. China, too, would likely enjoy more domestic public support for any conflict than the U.S. would for yet another intervention.

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