What the US Withdrawal From Afghanistan Means For Taiwan

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In August, the US left Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation. However, the US nation-building experiment crumbled in a matter of days as Taliban forces took over Kabul on August 15. Instead of assisting the now fled government, President Joe Biden defended the withdrawal and stated he was not willing to let “American troops fight and die [sic] in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight”. Public opinion supported his statement. According to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll, 70% of Americans agreed that the military presence in Afghanistan needed to end.

The Asian allies followed the events closely as the White House remained firm in its plan to leave Afghanistan despite the return of Taliban rule and the crisis that ensued as millions of nationals and foreigners were trying to flee the country. The US did not seem to mind that the two-decades-long and $3 trillion plan was intended to remake the country, ensure democracy and keep the Taliban at bay. Additionally, the withdrawal marked the beginning of a new foreign policy for the US, which now pledges to avoid major military operations. The announcement left many US allies questioning Washington’s future commitment in the region, particularly in Taiwan.

Although holding unofficial ties with the US, Taiwan relies on it for maintaining its self-defense capabilities ever since the 1979 Taiwan Relation Act was enforced. It is mainly thanks to its strong ties with the US that Taiwan is able to keep China’s ambitions of reunification at bay, despite the fact that its diplomatic allies have dwindled in the past twenty years and that now, only 15 are left. However, the US’ lack of action to counter the Taliban and its new foreign policy approach come at possibly the worst time: China has increased its military activities in the Strait of Taiwan and is poised to retake the island as “China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment”. Xi Jinping’s celebratory speech for the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party also vowed to thwart any attempts towards Taiwan becoming independent.

Beijing is intent on using this shift in US policy to its advantage. China’s military incursions have escalated in the past year, particularly in the past month. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense started sharing daily figures of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) incursions to their ADIZ in mid-September 2020 after China crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait. In that month, sources reported 48 incursions. Total numbers have increased in 2021. Authorities reported 77 incursions in January. April has so far been the most prolific month with 110 incursions;  followed closely by September, which has a tally of 109 incursions as of September 27.

Taiwan has reported single-digit PLA incursions almost on a daily basis since September 2020. However, the most prolific incursions have taken place in response to Taiwan’s diplomatic rapprochement with the US and the EU, and more recently Taiwan’s bid to join the ​​Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). One of the most discussed PLA incursions, however, took place on August 17, when China sent 11 jets and conducted assault drills to condemn “external interference and provocations by Taiwan independence forces”. Due to the proximity with the fall of Kabul and Biden’s statement, it seemed as if the assault drill were meant to send Taiwan a warning over its reliance on the US.

On the other hand, political consensus in Taiwan regarding China and the US is hard to come by, which could hinder the island’s future as China’s actions grow more assertive and PLA military incursions become the new normal. The fall of Kabul only managed to ensure a small consensus: both Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and opposition leader Eric Chu of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) refused any comparisons with Afghanistan. According to them, Taiwan has the will and enough resources to defend itself.

Any further agreements are so far unattainable. Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) vows for Taiwan’s recognition as a country in defiance of the One China Consensus reached in 1992 with Beijing. The DPP’s answer to the Afghanistan debacle has been to focus on the strength of US-Taiwan ties and to call for Taiwan to be self-reliant. Conversely, the KMT has a closer relationship with China and abides by the 1992 Consensus. KMT leader Chu announced his will to rekindle high-level contacts with Beijing as the KMT is skeptical about  US commitment and believes it is losing influence in the region. The KMT also called for more self-reliance in response to the events in Afghanistan, although in this case, the statement did not refer to the island as Taiwan to appease Beijing.

While no true comparisons can be drawn between Taiwan and Afghanistan, the US actions in the latter mark a pivotal moment for Washington’s image around the world. Even more staunch regional allies may seek to lessen their dependence on the US and consider strengthening ties with China. So far, Taiwan is decidedly betting on the US despite rising concerns that the US would not be willing to sacrifice its troops for Taiwan in case of an invasion. However, if recurrent PLA military incursions escalate and the US does not show a strong commitment towards the island, China-friendly parties like the KMT could garner more popular support and win the upcoming 2024 elections. If so, the US would decidedly lose influence over China in a region Eboth superpowers are fighting to control.

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