BY COREY LEE BELL
TAIPEI (May 7, 2021) — The United States must prevent Taiwan from capitulating to China or face a “century of humiliation,” the former American diplomat and military professor Dr. Patrick Mendis told an assembly of Taiwanese dignitaries and scholars at a forum held at Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan recently.
Reflecting on U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, Mendis opined that the new administration was right to follow Trump’s policy of responding to Chinese aggression and showing solidarity with Taiwan by sending officials to the island and deploying military assets to the region.
However, he felt that now was the time to abandon the U.S.’s long standing position of “strategic ambiguity” in relation to Taiwan, and show instead “strategic clarity.” This means that the U.S. should be committed to defending Taiwan unconditionally, he said.
In the backdrop of a discussion Sino-American competition, Mendis stated that Taiwan was vital to American interests from both a geostrategic perspective, and in terms of retaining American prestige and influence within and beyond East Asia.
The American credibility in Asia, Mendis noted, harks back to World War II General Douglas MacArthur’s famous statement that the island is an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” Now just as much as during the early Cold War period, the fear is that an occupied Taiwan could be used by America’s rivals to serve as a base to threaten American facilities in Okinawa, Guam, and beyond. It could also be used as a platform to push the U.S. military out of the Western Pacific completely.
The issue of prestige and credibility relates to the point that America’s global influence rests on the confidence its allies have that it retains the willingness and capacity to protect those who share its founding values and democratic ideals. If Taiwan fell to China, regional allies such as Japan and South Korea will immediately come under threat and could be dragged out of America’s sphere of influence.
However, the loss of American authority and influence would likely extend globally and be irreversible over the medium- to long-term. This would perhaps mark the beginning of an American “century of humiliation” – a term used to describe the dramatic collapse of China’s power and prestige after Hong Kong was ceded to the British in the wake of the Opium Wars (1839-1942).
Outlining the challenges America faces, Mendis pointed out the remarkable success of China’s efforts to extend its influence in other parts of the region. This success, he noted, could be attributed to its adeptness at using a mixture of soft and sharp power in line with its “water and rock” doctrine. This doctrine draws upon the idea, discussed in the Chinese Daoist classic the “Lao-tzu,” that water has the ability to flow around hard obstacles, while retaining the power to erode and penetrate rock. Highlighting the potency of this approach, Mendis cited the example of China’s use of ‘Buddhist’ and debt-trap diplomacy to help secure a 99-year lease of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, an island which he referred to as the other “unsinkable aircraft carrier” of the Indian Ocean.
If China gains control of both these Pacific and Indian Ocean “unsinkable aircraft carriers,” it will be well positioned to control key maritime trade routes and the seas more generally, Mendis explained to the Taiwan Legislative body in his presentation on “The Two Unsinkable Aircraft Carriers of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy.”
To meet these challenges, Mendis suggested that America should take a leaf out of the book of China’s “water and rock” approach. He said that when the U.S. was a rising and then dominant power, its overarching freedom agenda for making “the world safe for democracy” was one of “guns and butter” strategy by using massive surplus fiscal economic and resources to develop unparalleled military power and influence.
With China making huge relative gains in economic and military power, America will need to better leverage its soft power, diplomatic, economic, and intellectual resources to achieve the same geostrategic goals. He pointed to President Biden’s success in expanding consensus and cooperation with other “Quad” nations of Japan, India, and Australia as proof that a nascent form of this strategy is beginning to take shape and pay dividends.
The speech of Mendis was as part of the Legislative Yuan symposium titled “New Cold War between the U.S. and China? What Strategies Should Taiwan Pursue?” which was hosted by the Taiwan New Power think tank. Other speakers included former Taiwan President Ma Ying Jeou (2008-2016) administration advisor Dr. Chunshan Zhao, the Democratic Progressive Party Lawmaker Hon. Mark Ho Chih-wei, and the senior Taiwanese diplomat, Ambassador Douglas Yu-Tien Hsu of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China.
Dr. Corey Lee Bell is an international relations expert based in Taiwan, an alumnus of Melbourne University’s Asia Institute and a former editor of Taiwan Insight, a publication of the Nottingham University in the United Kingdom.