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Asian allies worry that Blinken blinked in Beijing

opinionAsian allies worry that Blinken blinked in Beijing

Blinken’s China visit will do nothing to quiet fears in Taiwan that Washington will look the other way were there to be a total blockade imposed on Taiwan.

TAIPEI: Two of the defining images of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing last week were the underwhelming welcome accorded to him in the Chinese capital and the manner in which the CCP General Secretary read out the riot act to him at their meeting. There were no important Chinese office-holders to receive the man who is third in the line of succession to the Presidency, nor even a red carpet. Instead, Blinken walked along a red line painted on to the tarmac, a less than subtle indication of what his hosts expected Washington not to cross, not just at the Beijing airport but everywhere else in the world. And judging by the images released of the Xi-Blinken meeting so eagerly sought by the US side, the Secretary of State listened to the translated version of Xi’s homily in silence. Officials in the Department of State have been floating stories about the “robust” exchange of views that the two sides had, with Blinken leading the charge behind the privacy of closed doors. Yet it is difficult to disguise the fact that the Chinese side appears to have ceded no ground whatsoever from its maximalist position that whatever the CCP carries out through its agencies has to be accepted by the rest of the world, no country excepted. There were even reports on social media that the Secretary of State emulated the example of US Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, who told the then dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein on 26 July 1990 that US Secretary of State James Baker had instructed her to tell him that the George H.W. Bush administration “had no opinion on Iraq’s dealings with the Arab world, including in Kuwait”. This was reportedly taken by Saddam as an indication that the US was not concerned about the future of Kuwait, and hence that his forces could move in and occupy that US ally without any blowback from Washington. Blinken was quoted in these reports as having in effect given a green light to CCP General Secretary Xi to invade and occupy Taiwan, something that is not just improbable but impossible, given the importance of Taiwan, including to the security of that key US ally in the northeast of Asia, Japan. The joker in the diplomatic pack is whether the Chinese side misconstrued Blinken’s mild and courteous manner, refined over years spent as a staffer to Senator Biden, as an indication that there was any inadvertent smudging of Washington’s red line that would be crossed were Beijing to attempt a kinetic change in the status quo over the Taiwan Straits.

Should China attempt a change through force of the status quo, the frontline would be populated by Taiwanese youth. Which is why it is no accident that they as voters have been migrating from the ruling DPP to the Taiwan People’s Party launched by former Taipei Mayor Ko wen-jie. The TPP says that there is no need to buy more weapons from the US or from anywhere else should they come to power, as the TPP would see to it that a cross-strait war is avoided. Such a policy is reminiscent of the stance taken by Prime Minister Nehru until the 1962 war with China, which was that India had no need of an expanded military as skillful “non-aligned” diplomacy would keep the peace between India and its neighbour China. Unilaterally reducing the kinetic defensive capabilities of Taiwan would meet one of the conditions required for the PLA to launch an attack on the island, while the other condition would be a tepid response to such an invasion by the US and its Quad partners Japan, India, Australia and South Korea. In this context, the response by the Biden administration to the furious and kinetic PRC reaction to Nancy Pelosi’s 2 August 2022 visit to Taiwan was not reassuring. Instead of a US carrier in the vicinity sailing towards the air and sea defence zone that the PLA was invading, the naval vessel and its accompanying fleet sailed away from the region even while close to a total blockade was imposed on Taiwan by the PRC for nearly five days. There was a reduction rather than an intensification of US air activity around Taiwan, almost as though a PRC blockade of the island (which would be the first stage of any invasion) would not matter. Such seeming pusillanimity was in contrast to the (admittedly much smaller) 1996 kinetic threats made by China to Taiwan, when two US carriers steamed towards the region and forced the Chinese side to abandon their show of force. Blinken’s visit will do nothing to quiet fears in Taiwan that Washington will look the other way were there to be a total blockade imposed on Taiwan. There is also the discouraging reality that NATO, despite its assurances of support to Kiev, has not sought to impose a No Fly zone over Ukraine and has restrained Kiev from attacking bases in Russia that are regularly causing havoc on the front line. How can Taiwan repel a PLA assault without attacking targets in the PRC? A reduction in the credibility of the US as the guarantor of Security has been why the neo-Nehruvian, former Mayor Ko wen-jie, has emerged as the favourite in the 13 January 2024 Presidential elections in Taiwan.

While spinmeisters in the Biden administration claim its response to the 24 February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine as a morale booster for the Taiwanese, in reality the images daily coming on television screens of battered cities across the country are feeding into a growing scepticism across the island nation that the US has the will to go into battle with the PRC over Taiwan. The way in which Ukraine is being pummeled into ruins is apparent, despite efforts by western media to portray the battle as going Ukraine’s way. Rather than a confidence booster, across Asia the war in Ukraine has become a cautionary tale for countries that were formerly confident of the ability of the US to defend them against PRC expansionism, something that western media appears not to have noticed.

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