Sam E Lewis
Afghanistan aside, Taiwan can still count on the United States
This article was first published on 19th August 2021 in National Interest
As the Taliban breached the gates of the Afghan capital and citizens fled for their lives in scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in 1975, Chinese news agency Xin
hua spat that “The fall of Kabul marks the collapse of US’ international image and credibility.”
A mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, The Global Times went further and used the fall of Kabul as an opportunity to crow that those with high opinions of the U.S. in Taiwan “cannot count on Washington,” that the U.S. would “cast Taiwan aside just as it has done with Vietnam, and now Afghanistan.”
Though commentary in the West has questioned how far the U.S. will go to maintain the international order from now on, we should not get carried away with ourselves. To suggest that the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan means Taiwanese leaders should prepare themselves for inevitable betrayal is wrong for several reasons.
First, Taiwan is already a fully functioning democracy in a way Afghanistan never was. The 2020 Taiwanese Presidential election drew a turnout of 74.9% — figures most democracies can only dream of. In comparison, due to threats from the Taliban, the Afghan Presidential election in 2019 drew a turnout of only 20%. The countries bear no resemblance to one another whatsoever. With each withdrawal of allied troops, Afghanistan has been on the brink of civil war for over a decade. Taiwan hasn’t. Although Taiwan is not a part of the UN, it is an important example of the liberal international order at work — something all Western nations have expressed an interest in defending.
What’s more, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was never declared to be a long-term plan. Thanks to some poor decisions and As President Biden outlined Monday in his first speech since Kabul fell, the reason the U.S. went was to “get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001.” In an attempt to create long-term stability, the U.S and allies initially engaged in the time-consuming process of nation building, but as the President pointed out, “a decades long effort to overcome centuries of history and permanently remake and change Afghanistan” was unsuccessful.
East Asia, on the other hand, is entirely different. The U.S. has maintained a presence there since the end of WWII. With 38,000 U.S. service members stationed in Japan and over 28,000 stationed in South Korea, interests in the area are far better defined. Any change in the region caused by a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would alter the balance of power in a way that even a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan would not. Keeping shipping lanes open in the East and South China Seas is of a far greater concern to the U.S. than stability in the vast Plains of Central Asia. That is why U.S. Presidents have consistently sold arms to Taiwan, most recently at the beginning of this month.
Finally, there comes the question of political will. It has been the case for a number of years that many Americans, and indeed Western allies, have been against the U.S. staying in Afghanistan. A June 2011 Transatlantic Trends survey of 13 NATO countries by the German Marshall Fund found 66% of US respondents wanted to reduce or withdraw all troops from Afghanistan — 69% of British and 64% of French respondents felt the same way. The opinion polls have been clear for a while — withdrawal was inevitable.
Taiwan, on the other hand, has received an uptick in support from the publics of Western countries and, conversely, the actions of the CCP have increased skepticism of the Chinese. A Pew Research poll towards the end of last year found increasingly negative opinions of China across the board, with 73% of respondents in the US reporting unfavourable views and similar numbers elsewhere. Perhaps most strikingly, Japan, the one nation whose deputy Prime Minister advocated defending Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion, polled 86% unfavourable views of China. The political will would be there to defend Taiwan in a way that it hasn’t been for Afghanistan.
When Joe Biden declared “America is back” at his inauguration, nobody foresaw the scenes of chaos at Kabul airport. The US and its allies have taken a hammering for its actions these past few weeks and perhaps rightly so — the withdrawal didn’t have to be this chaotic. But as President Biden made clear, Afghanistan was about counter-terrorism, not nation building. East Asia is about geopolitics and the future of the international order, and the US just freed up a lot of time, energy and resources to focus on the region.
Those inclined to get jittery about whether the U.S. can be trusted as a long-term ally in Asia should remember the situation in Taiwan and South-East Asia is very different to that in Afghanistan. Don’t listen to those that suggest otherwise.