Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, published an opinion piece Monday in Bloomberg news on Taiwan question, writing, “Losing – or not even fighting for – Taiwan would be seen all over Asia as the end of American predominance in the region we now call the ‘Indo-Pacific.’ It would confirm the long-standing hypothesis of China’s return to primacy in Asia after two centuries of eclipse and ‘humiliation.'” He also wrote, “That big thing may be that he who rules Taiwan rules the world.”
Ferguson is not a specialist on Taiwan question, not even on China-US relations. His analysis on Taiwan question is not convincing. But his view reflects some Americans’ increasing anxiety over whether or not the Chinese mainland will lose patience with the island, or whether the Chinese mainland might resort to force to realize its reunification. Cross-Straits relations have been tense in recent years. They are expected to remain this way. The US now worries about getting itself involved if heated conflicts break out between the two sides.
In terms of the Taiwan question, the US has been maintaining strategic ambiguity. US’ anxiety is also reflected in the debate among many elites about the outcomes that might ensue should they move toward strategic clarity.
But Ferguson exaggerates the significance of Taiwan. Losing, or “not even fighting for” Taiwan does not necessarily mean Washington will end its “predominance” in the Indo-Pacific region. Previously, the US had ever abandoned the island. The US established diplomatic relations with China in 1979, and severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It is not uncommon for the US to abandon its allies or partners to pursue its national interests. Yet it has not been seen that the US has ended its regional or global hegemony.
If the US has any military conflicts with China over the Taiwan question, then this would end the US predominance in the region. An outbreak like that will gravely impair US’ national strength. China has engaged, directly or indirectly, in military clashes in the Korean War and Vietnam War with the US before. Neither of them could the US claim a victory. If a war breaks out between China and the US over the Taiwan question, how can the US guarantee triumph?
Ferguson’s arguments are also aimed at maintaining US’ hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. And perhaps globally. It also exposes common concerns of the US: The national strength of China and the US is approaching, the gap between Chinese mainland and the island is widening. China is becoming more and more confident. Particularly after the pandemic.
Ferguson stressed in his article that since the normalization of China-US relations, Taiwan and the US’ attitude toward Taiwan have been Beijing’s biggest concerns. In fact, US elites understand this well. But they still repeatedly touch China’s red line on the Taiwan question. In Washington’s opinion, Taiwan is a card to play against Beijing. In 1970s, the Soviet Union was the US’ biggest strategic competitor. To contain the Soviet Union, the US established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China and abandoned Taiwan. Now, China has replaced the Soviet Union as the US’ major strategic rival. Thus, it has become Washington’s inevitable choice to exploit Taiwan card to contain China. It will not give up Taiwan card too easily. By playing the Taiwan card, the US hopes to gain huge geopolitical interests. US strategic elites know this all too well.
The Taiwan question has always been the most sensitive topic in China-US relations, as it involves China’s core interests. China will resolutely contain and combat both the “Taiwan secessionist” forces and those who support it. The Biden administration should have a clear understanding of this matter now. Although some people in the US, such as Ferguson, have elevated the Taiwan question to a higher level, the US strategic community probably cannot make up its mind or reach a common consensus about engaging in military clashes with China on this matter.
The author is an expert on China-US relations based in Shanghai.