In an attempt to draw Taiwan closer, China is trying to portray the U.S. as a weak power that cannot be counted on — by highlighting the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, a geopolitical expert told CNBC.
Rodger Baker, senior vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor, noted that China’s latest military exercise near Taiwan came at the same time that Chinese state media attempted to paint the U.S. as a “weak and unreliable power” in Afghanistan.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing claims democratically governed Taiwan as a renegade province that must be returned to the mainland. The U.S. has no official diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but the U.S. is the island’s most important international supporter and arms supplier. Beijing opposes that.
Chinese state-run media Global Times published an editorial Monday blaming the defeat of the Afghan government on the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The article suggested that the U.S. would not defend Taiwan should Beijing invade the island, and Taiwan could see the same “fate” as Afghanistan.
“So you look at this exercise, you put it in the context of the Chinese allowing state media to issue reports basically saying that the U.S. would abandon Taiwan just as fast as it would abandon Afghanistan,” Baker told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” on Wednesday.
“And the Chinese are able to try to use that to shape perceptions in Taiwan that there is no path forward for independence and they ought to rethink their relationship with the mainland,” he added.
To be clear, the Chinese Communist Party has never governed Taiwan — but Beijing has in recent months increased military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan to accept Chinese rule.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told CNBC that Taiwan and Afghanistan are two “very different” policy issues. The spokesperson said the U.S. went to Afghanistan “with a mission to deal with the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11,” while its policy on Taiwan focuses on maintaining “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait.
The Taiwan Strait — which is only about 100 miles wide (160 km) at its narrowest point — separates Taiwan and mainland China.
“We have an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. We consider this central to the security and stability of the broader Indo-Pacific region. Events elsewhere in the world are not going to change this enduring interest,” said the spokesperson.
Taiwan also hit back at China’s rhetoric.
Premier Su Tseng-chang said Tuesday that Taiwan would not collapse like Afghanistan in the event of an attack, and warned “foreign forces” not to be “deluded” in thinking they can invade the island, according to Reuters.
It’s “too crude” to draw a parallel between Afghanistan and Taiwan, said Ian Johnson, Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“But it is true that it will make it easier for China to argue that the United States does not stand by its word and that … at the end of the day, it loses interest and it loses patience and it leaves, it abandons its commitments,” he said.
The U.S. and Taiwan have no formal defense treaty and Washington has no legal obligation to come to Taiwan’s rescue if the island was attacked.
However, through the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. is committed to provide Taiwan with arms “of a defensive character” as well as maintain peace and stability in the Western Pacific.
Baker said the administration of President Joe Biden will likely remain ambiguous about whether it will defend Taiwan if Beijing uses force against the island.
“I’d say that the administration is probably going to continue along the ambiguous path rather than a clear stated path,” said the analyst.
“The expectation is if you state very clearly if there is an attack on Taiwan and the U.S. will intervene, then that will be perceived by China as very clear determination by the United States to preserve or defend the independence of Taiwan as a separate entity.”
— CNBC’s Abigail Ng contributed to this report.