Mutual peeling away of Taiwan-related ambiguity by the PRC and the US points to the rising risk of a cross-strait confrontation between the two superpowers.
TAIPEI: If an international news channel is to be believed, Prime Minister “Bibi” Netanyahu of Israel has warned that his navy could soon move to prevent oil exports from Iran from reaching markets such as India, South Korea and Japan. It is impossible to close access through the Persian Gulf to Iran and keep the blockade limited to that country. The clerical regime in Teheran (as distinct from the lay establishment headed by President Hassan Rouhani) has both the means as well as the will to ensure that oil exports from other nearby countries too will get blocked through that passageway, a situation that could immediately double and treble oil prices to the detriment of the global economy. The Prime Minister of Israel, assuming that he is serious about seeking to block all exports of oil from Iran, will expect that the United States and Saudi Arabia will back him in such an enterprise. Unfortunately for him, the coming together of two friends of Iran—Russia and China—has resulted in another powerful military alliance being formed that is arrayed against select US strategic objectives (such as the emasculation of Iran). The potential for a major conflict is therefore far from absent. The Iranian military and security system is likely to respond to US-Israel-KSA moves not only by conventional means, but through the use of asymmetric methods, especially within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a grouping in which substantial Iran-responsive networks are embedded. Fresh fronts are likely to get launched against Israel via Lebanon, Syria and parts of Palestinian territory. Although President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarief of Iran are trying to convince the rest of the country’s leadership that the nuclear deal, or JCPOA, is still alive after the deathblows landed on it by Donald Trump, it is unlikely that many will fail to reach the conclusion that only a nuclear deterrent has the heft needed to protect Khameini’s Iran from going the way of Saddam’s Iraq or Gaddafi’s Libya. Just as Boltonesque US demands have almost certainly resulted in North Korea resuming work on developing and testing a hydrogen device as well as missiles capable of reaching the US east coast, it is likely that Iran will before long resume its march towards nuclear capability at an accelerated pace, to make up for the time lost through trusting the NATO powers to adhere to not just the letter but the spirit of the JCPOA. The US has abandoned both, the Europeans the latter. While North Korea seems to have crossed a deterrence threshold, thereby ensuring that military action against it would inflict unacceptable harm on Japan and Guam at the least, Iran is some way away from such immunity. Because of the hiatus in Teheran’s development of nuclear capability caused by the JCPOA negotiations and signing, the clerical regime in Iran is still vulnerable to an all-out military strike by the US and Israel, although such an attack is likely to generate side effects that are more toxic to the security of Israel than prevails at present. However, just as George W. Bush thought about Iraq in 2003, “Bibi” Netanyahu may believe that divine forces are on his side during a conflict with Iran, and this may lead to him pressing the long-threatened war trigger, especially once assured of US participation.
Another fuse waiting to be lit is across both sides of the Taiwan Straits. For decades, a deliberate ambiguity about the indefinite future course of events helped ensure that nothing more lethal than missile-rattling or warship cruises take place. However, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong early this year removed all ambiguity about Beijing’s operative plans for Taiwan. Xi Jinping has made it explicit that the “1992 Consensus” (embodying the fiction that while there is one China, both sides of the strait have different interpretations about the concept) cannot mark an indefinite pause, or indeed two different interpretations. The “1992 Consensus” must in a relatively brief period be followed by the absorption of Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China in a variation of Deng Xiaoping’s “One Country Two Systems” Hong Kong model. Under the Xi formulation, at best, Taipei can expect a “One Country Three Systems” solution, but cannot for much longer avoid merger with the PRC.
On the US side, there has been since the 1980s a corresponding ambiguity about the security status of Taiwan vis-a-vis what is still the world’s most lethal military. The Taiwan Relations Act does not explicitly make mandatory a US military response in the event of an armed attack on Taiwan by the PRC, nor thus far has Taipei been designated a US ally on the lines of Tokyo, Seoul and (despite Rodrigo Duterte) Manila. That is changing. A sprawling US “representative office”, complete with uniformed military guards, will soon open for business in Taipei, and it is likely that high level visits on both sides will begin, even before the next Taiwanese presidential election early next year. As yet unacknowledged in public, Taiwan seems on the way to becoming a defence and security ally of the US. This will be as part of the “First Island Chain”,which is intended to keep the PRC from accessing the eastern waters of the Indo-Pacific unimpeded. Driven by the imperative of regime survival in Taiwan, the DPP, under the shrewd and feisty Tsai Ing-wen, seems on course to strengthen US-Taiwan defence linkages in a second term enough as to remove any ambiguity about Washington’s response to a PRC invasion of the island. Clearly, the calculation in both Washington as well as Taipei is that such a development would take away the appetite in Beijing for initiating a cross-strait conflict. This mutual peeling away of Taiwan-related ambiguity by both the PRC as well as the US draws attention to the rising risk of a cross-strait confrontation between the two superpowers, which are now explicitly foes of each other in the manner that the US earlier was with the USSR
Should the JCPOA with Iran melt down formally as it already has in practice; should Netanyahu form a ruling coalition of even more hardline elements than presently after the Israeli election and move against Teheran; and should the PRC accelerate its drive to absorb Taiwan, a step that is likely to meet with kinetic resistance from Washington, the world will move into still more “interesting” times.