Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed the rules of diplomacy. As Russia and China show budding unity, the world's diplomats must look at the effects of Eastern Europe on East Asia — and Taiwan specifically.
PARIS — A few days ago in Tokyo, during the “Quad” summit (the security group of Japan, Australia, India and the U.S.), President Joe Biden promised to use force if China ever attacked Taiwan. Shortly after, the White House made it clear that nothing had changed in the doctrine of "strategic ambiguity" which was (and remains?) U.S. policy on the question of Taiwan.
Where do these semantic variations come from? Do they reflect the deep personality of the U.S. president, who at this age and acquired experience, does not hide his distrust regarding the subtleties of diplomatic language?
Or more profoundly, is this change a direct consequence of the international context that radically shifted on Feb. 24 when Russia invaded Ukraine?
Moscow and Beijing get closer
In fact, it is no longer possible to address the question of Taiwan as though the invasion of Ukraine did not happen. At first, a wind of optimism blew from Taipei to Washington: the military difficulties that Russia faced felt like a warning to China and that this would maybe bring a few years of security to Taiwan.
What if the invasion of Ukraine was encouraging to China?
But as time passes, as Russian troops are slowly advancing in the Donbas region, hope was replaced by a completely different feeling. What if the invasion of Ukraine was encouraging to China?
On the eve of the French presidential election, I was interviewed by Chinese journalists. They directly brought up the subject of Ukraine and Taiwan: “You understand, young people in our country are nationalists. They want to take back Taiwan as fast as possible. And if need be, by military action.” Were they carrying a message of warning from Chinese authorities, or were they simply being frank with me, as I had been in my own answers to their questions regarding the future of French politics?
One thing is certain, the day after Joe Biden's tough talks in Tokyo regarding America's unlimited commitment to Taiwan, in a deliberately provocative show of force, Chinese and Russian strategic bombers flew over the Sea of Japan. They did not violate any rights as they stayed above international waters, but the message was anything but friendly and seemed to demonstrate the "unlimited" friendship formalized in Beijing at the opening of the Winter Olympics between China and Russia.
And what if Moscow and Beijing are encouraging each other in their respective revisionism and expansionism? If that were the case, wouldn’t it be time for the U.S. to come out of its “strategic ambiguity” towards Beijing? Isn’t it time to call a spade and spade and tell the Chinese that if they were to give in to the temptation and take Taiwan by force, they would be faced with America?
Has Vladimir Putin not been encouraged to invade Ukraine in 2022 by the more than uncertain response of the international community to the capture of Crimea in 2014? Shouldn't it be urgent to dissuade China from adopting the same behavior towards Asia as Russia has towards Eastern Europe?
From the South China Sea to the South Pacific, Beijing is adopting an increasingly aggressive behavior that no longer hides its expansionist ambitions. However, Taiwan is not Ukraine, and China is not Russia.
Luodong (Taiwan) night market
Revisionism vs. the status quo
“Never forget that Great Britain is an island,” said political scientist André Siegfried. Taiwan is also an island. There is no Poland, no Baltic states, nor Romania on Taiwan’s borders. Engaging with it means delivering weapons directly to it on its territory.
And contrary to what Beijing claims, the “Quad” is not the Asian NATO. In its support to Taiwan, and in the event of an invasion by mainland China, Washington would be almost alone on the front line.
The “Quad” is not the Asian NATO.
Meanwhile, clarity, far from being a universal strategic imperative, can also constitute a major risk. One of the most worrying elements of the current international situation is that the main actors all seem (except for the European Union, as it already is a strategic actor) to be revisionists to different extents. The Cold War was between two groups, one in favor of the status quo behind the United States and the other revisionist backing the USSR.
Powers fighting for influence
There is nothing of the sort today. From Beijing to Moscow and Washington, each seem eager to transform the current existing order so they can spread their influence.
This confrontation between revisionists is even more problematic and dangerous due to the nuclear deterrence becoming more and more abstract. It is as though, from a military standpoint, nuclear weapons seem a little less frightening. Their use on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki goes back far in the past, nearly 80 years.
While China and Russia seem ever closer in their desire to move their pawns and impose their respective powers on their regional environment, we must do everything we can to resist them. However, we need to do that without providing them an extra measure of determination. To be firm with Moscow and Beijing is one thing; to talk openly about regime change in Moscow is another.