Su Chi

Chairman of Taipei Forum
United Daily News(聯合報), October 17, 2021, Page A12

A new book Peril recently set off a wave of heated discussion in Washington. It revealed that four days before the U.S. election last November, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng of Central Military Commission, Chinese Communist Party, and told him that "We are not going to," "If we’re going to attack, I'm going to call you ahead of time." Former President Trump immediately denounced it "a treasonous act." Later, General Milley and the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin were grilled in the Senate and the House for two full days.


We in Taiwan should not treat it as just another episode of sound and fury in American politics, neglecting the rich but hidden implications therein for Taiwan's national security.


First, under the prevailing anti-China mood in the United States, the uniformed military are less inclined toward “confrontation” than the civilian officials and politicians. The reason is simple: the military is more concerned about causalities as well as the end result of the fighting, while the civilians care more about political gains for their political parties or themselves.


So the civilians in the Trump administration sought confrontation with China on many fronts, such as diplomacy, trade, technology, finance, legal, education, South China Sea, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and propaganda, etc. Former Secretary of State Pompeo played "Taiwan Card" by initiating a series of high-level officials’ visits to Taiwan.


In October, when Mr. Trump's campaign was losing its steam, it was widely rumored that he would pull off a so-called "October surprise." The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was put on high alert. The U.S. uniformed military decided to ask the civilians to step on the brakes, even doubling down with a phone call by General Milley to his counterpart. Finally, Chinese doubts and anger subsided.


Second, why did U.S. military and civilians yield after the Chinese military flexed its muscles? The answer lies in the new military balance between the United States and China in East Asia. The annual reports in recent years by the Pentagon and the conclusions made by think tanks of various shades all concurred that while the U.S. remains No. 1 global power militarily, it is at a distinct disadvantage in East Asia, especially in the Taiwan Strait. A few days earlier, a former intelligence officer in U.S. Pacific Command revealed that in the South China Sea "the Chinese can probably put ten ships into the water for every one that the Americans can send in.” Presumably the ratio in the Taiwan Strait would be much more lopsided.


So the occasional appearances of U.S. battleships in the Taiwan Strait or South China Sea, sometimes together with those from U.S. allies, may give the laymen peace of mind. But the experts definitely know how to behave if the situation gets “real.”


Prospects may be worse. According to the U.S. open sources, the average age of U.S. Air Force aircraft is roughly 30 years, equivalent to their programed life spans. And the pilot manning level has fallen short for years. Likewise, the combat fleets are pushing the limits of their life expectancy. And the U.S. shipbuilding capability lags far behind China’s. In addition, the PLA enjoys a favorable balance of aircraft and missile ranges over the U.S. military. And it will be years before the planned land-based missiles capable of hitting China proper could be deployed in the Pacific. In other word, it would take the United States quite a few years to build its arsenal in the Pacific to a level matching that of the PLA, which has been building and practicing its Taiwan scenario for decades. General Milley's phone calls put in sharp relief the intent on the part of U.S. uniformed military, with more direct and in-depth knowledge of the military balance, to avert armed conflict.


Third, for many years, there existed a high-level "strategic dialogue” between Washington and Beijing. But the civilians in the Trump administration suspended the channel intentionally. Fortunately, at the critical moment last November, the mil-to-mil hot line played the role of the lightning rod during an impending storm and averted the potential crisis.


Finally, the role of former President Trump. Milley’s phone calls exposed the total distrust of Mr. Trump by the high-level military officials in both the U.S. and China for his nonchalant attitude toward issues on national security. What if Trump comes back?


This possibility not only exists, but is rising. First of all, Trump never admitted defeat, consistently asserting that Biden “stole” his victory. He told Washington Post in March, “If George Washington came back from the dead and he chose Abraham Lincoln as his vice president, I think it would have been very hard for them to beat me.”


Furthermore, the Republican Party seems to be following his lead more than ever. In an incessant stream, Republican politicians traveled to Mar-a-Lago to seek his blessings. He also sought to punish those Republicans who refused to help him discredit the election after the November vote. And he mobilized his supporters in various States to meddle with redistricting or revise the laws in his favor. The establishment in the Republican party seems unable to do anything to convince him otherwise.


If President Biden's performance in office does not live up to popular expectations, there is a good chance that the Democratic Party would lose the mid-term election next year, which would then enhance the possibility of Trump's comeback.


Four lessons could be drawn from these implications for Taiwan.


First, Taiwan should not take at face value the pro-Taiwan rhetoric by the civilians in the U.S. Their motivation should always be carefully weighed.


Next, those in Taiwan who believe "China will not strike Taiwan" and "the United States will come to our rescue" should keep their eyes open and think again.


Third, President Tsai’s decision to jettison the lightning rod in cross-strait relations is not an act of bravery. Rather, it is a sign of tactical incompetence to manage cross-strait relations. Strategically it courts danger to our security. She should learn from the United States, or at least, from Japan or Korea.


Fourth, since the prospect of resumption of cross-strait dialogue is nearly zero, we could only pray that the United States and China will reach an agreement on the Taiwan issue in a year or two. Otherwise, should Trump's political fortune rebound, China will definitel