international analysis and commentary

Washington’s shaky coalition to contain China and defend Taiwan

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US policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) increasingly is designed to limit that country’s power and influence. Two goals stand out. One is to induce Washington’s allies, both in Europe and East Asia, to reduce their economic connections to the PRC. Although that strategy falls short of advocating comprehensive “decoupling,” it does seek to reduce Beijing’s leverage against the democratic West in such crucial areas as computer chips and pharmaceuticals. The second prominent element in Washington’s approach is to secure greater allied backing for a firm policy to support Taiwan’s efforts to preserve its de facto independence from the PRC.

 

Significant international players seem to be coalescing into three factions with respect to US aims. One group is comprised of those countries that clearly support Washington’s efforts. Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, and several East European members of NATO are at the forefront. The second faction consists of countries that openly court Beijing and either overtly or covertly oppose even a generic containment policy, much less one that involves tangible diplomatic or military support for Taiwan. North Korea, Iran, and Russia are prominent members of that faction. The third, and largest, contingent consists of governments that are trying to chart a middle course – one that will avoid antagonizing either the PRC or the United States. India, Indonesia, and many other countries in Asia, Africa, and even Latin America are in that category. So, too, are some key members of the European Union, especially France. There also are signs that Washington’s longtime ally, the Republic of Korea (ROK), is hedging its position with regard to both calls for economic decoupling and providing firm backing for Taiwan.

Such an array of strong supporters, staunch opponents, and ambivalent powers poses a major challenge for US policymakers. That situation is especially true with respect to countries in the last category. The United States is troubled by the mixed signals it is getting even from some of its European partners. Following his state visit to China in April 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to go out of his way to distance his country from Washington’s  China policy, especially with respect to the Taiwan issue. “The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and adapt to the American rhythm or a Chinese overreaction,” he stated in a media interview. Macron added that Europe must better fund its defense industry, develop nuclear and renewable energy and reduce dependence on the US dollar to limit its reliance on the United States and not play the role of a vassal.

Within days, however, several of his EU colleagues rejected Macron’s rhetoric and emphasized continued solidarity with the United States. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, even proposed European naval patrols through the Taiwan Strait. Vessels from several European countries, including Britain, France, and Germany already make periodic passages through the Strait to assert the legal right of navigation, but Borrell clearly had something much larger and more systematic in mind.

 

Read also: Can a mouse roar? Europe, China and strategic autonomy

 

That episode was the latest illustration of the lack of European unity regarding relations with the PRC. There were earlier indications of hedging strategy that exhibits only a modest tilt toward the United States. The April 2023 G7 communique illustrated that approach. “We recognize the importance of engaging candidly with and expressing our concerns directly to China. We acknowledge the need to work together with China on global challenges as well as areas of common interest, including on climate change, biodiversity, global health security, and gender equality. We reiterate our call for China to act as a responsible member of the international community”. On the contentious Taiwan issue: “We reaffirm the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element in security and prosperity in the international community, and call for the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues. There is no change in the basic positions of the G7 members on Taiwan, including stated one China policies”.

 

Read also: The Taiwan crisis: Sleepwalking towards a global conflict

 

One need only compare that generally bland phrasing to the communique’s harsh, utterly uncompromising language with respect to policy toward Russia to appreciate a fundamental point. The United States and its principal allies are largely on the same page about how to deal with Moscow. Such unity is paper thin and not very substantive with respect to policy toward China. At best, it amounts to lackluster support for a hardline approach to relations with Beijing.

Washington even has to court important countries in East Asia and try to shore up support. The ASEAN powers clearly seek to avoid getting caught up in a nasty confrontation between the United States and China. The ROK senses that it faces a similar dilemma. Seoul would prefer to avoid antagonizing the PRC regarding either economic decoupling or Taiwan.  China is a major ROK trading and investment partner, and Seoul needs the PRC to discourage North Korea from engaging in rash actions. However, the United States is the ROK’s longstanding protector from aggression, as well as a vital trading partner.

Loss of that patron-client relationship would trigger an unwelcome domestic debate in the ROK over higher military spending and the acquisition of an independent nuclear deterrent. The joint declaration at the conclusion of Biden’s April 2023 summit meeting with ROK President Yoon Suk Yeol clearly sought to convey an even more robust US commitment to South Korea’s security, including the symbolic gesture of sending a nuclear submarine to dock in the ROK for the first time since the 1980s. Whether such measures will be sufficient not only to keep South Korea in Washington’s camp, but to induce ROK leaders to commit their country to defend Taiwan or adopt other anti-PRC positions is doubtful, however.

It was predictable that countries such as North Korea and Iran would be solidly on Beijing’s side regarding Taiwan or in any other dispute with the United States. But it was not inevitable that Russia would end up in that category. Washington’s clumsy, hostile policies toward Moscow have gutted prospects for an optimal anti-PRC coalition. Those policies, especially NATO expansion and then the U.S.-led sanctions regime imposed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have caused Moscow to tilt its policies toward Beijing.

That development has occurred even though long-term Russian economic and security interests would logically have created incentives for the Kremlin to join a coalition to contain the PRC’s power and influence. Intense economic rivalries between the two countries throughout Central Asia, combined with a lengthy border that has been the arena for armed conflict in the past, should have been sufficient to preclude a cordial relationship, much less extensive collaboration.

However, both the PRC and Russia now are more worried about the consequences of continued US global hegemony than they are about each other’s ambitions. Moscow now firmly backs Beijing’s stance on Taiwan. Perhaps even more significant, the extent of economic and military cooperation between the two Asian great powers is mounting rapidly. They have signed several agreements in recent months increasing the extent of economic cooperation.  In June 2022, Russia became the PRC’s largest oil supplier, eclipsing Saudi Arabia.

Something even deeper than growing bilateral ties on energy policy seems to be taking place. Russia and the PRC (along with Iran and some other actors) are making an unsubtle effort to dilute the US dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. Sino-Russian cooperation on strategic issues is increasing as well. Joint military exercises have taken place on several occasions over the past 18 months. These various moves appear to reflect a collaborative effort to resist US hegemony on multiple levels.

Given all of these developments, US leaders may well find that reliable international support is lacking for any kind of confrontational posture toward the PRC. Getting other countries to back Washington’s increasingly unequivocal policy to defend Taiwan is especially problematic. At best, the United States has a shaky and relatively small coalition that it can rely on to help curb China’s power.