On April 11, 2022, the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and the Global China Hub co-hosted a virtual public Cross-Strait Seminar as part of the Asia Security Initiative’s longstanding partnership with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO). The seminar focused specifically on the implications of the Ukraine crisis on Taiwan and the broader Indo-Pacific region.
The seminar opened with remarks by Dr. Miyeon Oh, Director and Senior Fellow for the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and Mr. Barry Pavel, Senior Vice President and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. They highlighted Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine as the most severe challenge to the rules-based international order since the end of the Cold War. In a similar vein, Taiwan plays a critical role in the ongoing global struggle between democracy and autocracy, as it faces increased intimidation efforts and aggressive rhetoric from Beijing. In line with the Asia Security Initiative’s mission, this dialogue aims to discuss concrete and actionable policy recommendations for a coordinated response to China’s rise, in coordination with US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.
Following opening remarks, Ms. Michèle Flournoy, Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, began by conveying that Xi Jinping has thrown his support behind Russian efforts in Ukraine, due to a shared interest in questioning the democratic model. However, she points out that the failure of the initial military plan, direct targeting of civilians, and charges for apparent war crimes have led Xi to be mindful of the reputational risks that come with being too closely associated with Putin. China conducts quiet cooperation to lessen the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy but stops short of any action that would warrant secondary sanctions from the US or its allies and partners. She articulated that China will be watching closely to see how the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolds, in particular whether Vladmir Putin succeeds or becomes a lifetime pariah, as well as what lessons it can take away vis-à-vis Taiwan. Ms. Flournoy suspects that China’s reintegration of Taiwan will be through economic rather than military means, much like the absorption into the Borg seen in Star Trek. She stresses that China is using the ongoing crisis in Ukraine to intimidate Taiwan with slogans such as, “Today Ukraine, Tomorrow Taiwan” to reaffirm that resistance is futile. However, two can play at this game as Tsai Ing-wen emphasizes that when you stand up for democracy, you will inspire the support of the global community.
Gen. James L. Jones Jr., Former National Security Advisor to the President of the United States and Executive Chairman Emeritus at the Atlantic Council, commenced by underscoring the importance of reinvigorating US relations with allies and partners. Given the lack of international condemnation during the Chinese incursion of Hong Kong and Russian annexation of Crimea, Xi and Putin have come to conclude that US global commitments are not what they used to be. From an economic standpoint, Gen. Jones states that the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership under the Trump administration and lack of an alternative trade agreement has sent a clear message. He therefore suggests that the United States take the lead in creating an economic vortex to counter China’s growing economic presence in the Indo-Pacific with the support of like-minded nations such as the Republic of Korea, Japan, India, and Australia. Further, he states that it is vital for the United States to communicate clearly and proactively to China that a military option, at least in the near future, is not in their best interest.
Implications of the Ukraine Crisis on Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific Region
Mr. Pavel kicks off the panel discussion by asking Ms. Flournoy what specific and proactive steps the Biden Administration should take on top of providing Taiwan with military aid. Ms. Flournoy responds that while the United States should maintain support for Taiwanese defense capabilities, a key shift towards asymmetric defense mechanisms needs to take place. Although in the event of an unprovoked Chinese incursion the international community would certainly step in, Taiwan will need to act as a porcupine to make Chinese aggression as slow, costly, and difficult as possible. The Biden administration has placed high priority on long-term investments that will bolster integrated deterrence, but Ms. Flournoy asserts that greater attention should be paid to the near-term risks. This could for instance include devising novel combinations of existing technologies to meaningfully enhance Taiwanese deterrence mechanisms before the longer-term investments come online.
Mr. Pavel then brings to question what the US government should do to ensure it remains a force for stability in the Taiwan Strait and beyond, particularly in the face of Beijing’s military modernization and expansion. Gen. Jones responds by highlighting the reestablishment of US commitments to partners and allies in the region in order to make up for the previous administration’s efforts to scale back. Although such stances may have previously allowed Russia and China to get away with hostile actions, it is not too late to turn this around. Gen. Jones stresses that the United States and its allies and partners must place political, diplomatic, and economic consequences on the table to communicate the seriousness of consequences should China choose to take unprovoked aggressive actions against Taiwan.
Mr. Pavel asks the panelists to consider the differences between the current Russian invasion of Ukraine and a potential Chinese incursion into Taiwan, in particular the proportion of America’s GDP that China represents in comparison with the proportion of Europe’s GDP that trade with Russia can be attributed to. Ms. Flournoy elaborates that the Chinese economy is much more integrated with the US and its allies and partners, acting as a major market and player in various supply chains, which adds an additional layer of complexity to a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait. She adds that a major barrier for the US as it seeks to establish new initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region, such as a digital trade agreement, is the deep polarization that exists in domestic politics. Given the interconnectedness with the Chinese market, Ms. Flournoy ponders how sanctions and market constraints can be crafted to not only be effective but also be seen as acceptable to both parties and the American populace? Despite limited American engagement with Russia, the reverberations from the sanctions it has imposed are already widespread, which is particularly evident in the rising price of oil.
Consequences of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict on the Rules-Based International Order
Gen. Jones notes that the current situation presents the United States with an opportunity to remove doubts from key allies and partners, including Japan and the Republic of Korea, and demonstrate that it has real resolve with regards to the Taiwan Strait and the Indo-Pacific region more broadly. In addition, there are wide-ranging implications for the entire world as a match between democracy and autocracy ensues. If the liberal international community continues to show strength and unity in its response to Putin, Xi will not want to suffer the same fate, but if it shows signs of weakness, for instance by welcoming Putin with open arms to the Munich Security Conference, it will only further embolden Xi and other dictators.
Mr. Pavel wonders why key US partners, such as India and the Gulf nations, are either acting in a neutral manner or in favor of Putin, and how they can be incentivized to act differently. These partners have not contributed to efforts to counter Putin including through the imposition of sanctions, delivery of humanitarian aid supplies, or key UN voting to implement punitive measures. Gen. Jones remarks that there is still plenty of work cut out for the United States if it wishes to re-convince the rest of the world that it will honor its long-term commitments. However, there are certain small and simple actions that can send substantial messages. For instance, the United States can send Ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia where there are yet to be Ambassadors named under the Biden administration. As the political agenda tends to shift drastically with each new US administration, politically appointed ambassadors are often forced to resign rather that stay on until they are properly relieved, which gives the impression that the United States does not prioritize or value relationships with these countries.
Ms. Flournoy emphasizes the need for the US and its allies and partners to conduct a systematic assessment followed by a 10-year plan to dramatically reduce their areas of vulnerability, such as Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas. As for India, one of the reasons it has refrained from aligning directly with the United States is that it depends heavily on Russia for its spare parts supply as a defense mechanism along its border with China. She therefore urges the United States to assist India in its efforts to wean off Soviet equipment. In a similar manner, Ms. Flournoy implores the United States to safeguard key technologies such as semiconductors by collaborating with allies and partners to widen the gap with China. Gen. Jones adds that US leadership is critical on two additional emerging fronts: the security of critical cyber infrastructure and diversion of non-renewable energy flows away from autocratic countries and towards cleaner energy sources.
Mr. Pavel notes that existing multilateral frameworks such as the Quad and AUKUS aim to strengthen partnerships between the Atlantic and Pacific regions but asks Ms. Flournoy what other countries the United States and Taiwan can work more closely with, in order to strengthen deterrence against Chinese aggression. Ms. Flournoy points out that since the AUKUS deal on nuclear-powered submarines will take generations to realize, additional efforts should be made within this multilateral framework to create early wins and build momentum through cooperation on other areas of common interest such as energy security. She echoes Gen. Jones’ sentiment that the United States simply needs to show up. Under the Obama administration, the United States succeeded in supporting ASEAN efforts to push back against Chinese violations of international rules regarding territorial integrity such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Given the current US absence from trade agreements in the Indo-Pacific, it should work on strengthening bilateral relations with key states in the region.
Audience Q & A
An audience member asks, “How can the US and its partners and allies continue to enhance Taiwan’s security while also seeking to manage tensions with an increasingly assertive Beijing?”. Ms. Flournoy responds by underscoring the benefits of continued US strategic ambiguity. First and foremost, complete abandonment would provoke a major crisis with China. Furthermore, this position creates a space for other countries to develop relations with Taiwan, perhaps not in an official capacity but in other useful and beneficial means. However, if these countries were forced to choose sides, it would only serve to isolate Taiwan even further. Ms. Flournoy puts the responsibility of reducing tensions on the shoulders of Beijing due to its violations of Taiwan’s air defense zone, issuance of threatening rhetoric, and infiltration of Taiwanese social media. The United States should clarify its resolve to intervene in the face of aggressive actions, which could include actions such as conducting freedom of navigation operations in response to violations of foreign maritime domains. She posits that a military incursion in Taiwan will be unlikely especially following the Ukraine crisis. However, she anticipates that China will trigger an incident in the South China Sea to test American resolve prior to attempting any such action in Taiwan.
The final audience question points to possible counter messages in response to Russian and Chinese coordinated disinformation campaigns. Ms. Flournoy’s three-part answer involves first ensuring that Russian and Chinese populations have free and open access to the internet whether through satellite-based access or cable labels. She asserts that this should be coupled with a 21st century Artificial Intelligence Agency, something akin to the United States Information Agency, which maintained libraries in key cities and established the Voice of America in the late 1900s. Lastly, she proposes that the United States further invest in free and open journalism and investigative reporting in authoritarian countries to create alternative eco-systems and counterweights against disinformation efforts.
James L. Jones, Jr.
Executive Chairman Emeritus, Atlantic Council; Former National Security Advisor to the President of the United States; Founder, Jones Group International
Chair, Board of Directors, Center for a New American Security, Co-founder and Managing Partner, WestExec Advisors
Senior Vice President and Director, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Atlantic Council
The Asia Security Initiative, housed within the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, fosters a trans-Atlantic-Pacific Community with a dual analytical approach grounded in key traditional and non-traditional security issues in order to develop new strategies and policies for the United States, its allies, and its partners.
The Global China Hub researches and devises allied solutions to the global challenges posed by China’s rise, leveraging and amplifying the Atlantic Council’s work on China across its 15 other programs and centers.