South China Sea flare-up risk ‘much higher’ than across Taiwan Strait, former US ‘envoy’ to Taipei Douglas Paal says

Exclusive | South China Sea flare-up risk ‘much higher’ than across Taiwan Strait, former US ‘envoy’ to Taipei Douglas Paal says

The latest in our Open Questions interview series features Douglas Paal, a former senior White House member and seasoned expert on China and broader Asian affairs. Paal was the unofficial US representative to Taipei as director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 2002 to 2006, and was also on the National Security Council staff of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Currently a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Paal speaks to Hayley Wong about the latest developments in US-China relations, and compares risks in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

Read the previous instalment in the series, with former People’s Liberation Army senior colonel Zhou Bo, here.

In the years when you were in the White House, and during your time at the American Institute in Taiwan, what was the US-China interaction like and how would you compare it to the present times?

Well, before 1989, we had a common anti-Soviet focus, and that allowed a lot of cooperation to take place in areas that today would be impossible. We had military-to-military cooperation, and the [Jimmy] Carter administration had set out to create relationships among every major agency of the US government’s counterparts in China.

All those lasted and were a source of a lot of work until 1989. And then we started to reduce those connections in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise in differences between the United States and China.

Speaking of now, what would you say are the areas of possible cooperation missing in the interaction between Beijing and Washington?

I’d say that the areas of cooperation that normally are mentioned are environment and pandemics, and space and nuclear weapons proliferation – these are standard issues. I think one that you don’t hear so often is how to manage coexistence into the future with two very different types of political systems. And we haven’t figured out the means or the end of that coexistence programme yet, that’s still a little early and a little sensitive for both sides.

You say that there is not very much talk about how we can coexist with two different types of systems. Are there any lessons to be learned from the Carter administration?

Well, I think when the US began its rapprochement with China in 1971, our systems were far more opposed to each other than they are even today. With the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao was in charge, even though he was very sick at the time, [and] China was deeply fractionated. The US was coming out of the Vietnam war, we had our own problems. And yet we found ways of working with a common adversary in the Soviet Union.

The absence of that common adversary today makes the situation very different, it’s not going to be as easy to find points of compromise. In principles and general topics, compromises are going to have to be carved out of specific issues with specific benefits for both sides, or things to avoid for both sides such as conflict.

How would you compare the risk of conflicts in the Taiwan Strait, and in the broader South China Sea?

I think the risks of a confrontation over the South China Sea, especially over the Second Thomas Shoal, Renai Jiao [in Chinese], near the Philippines, are much higher. It risks turning into something more dangerous than our cross-strait relations between Taiwan and the mainland.

There is no easily identifiable off-ramp. China thinks it’s going to prevent the Philippines from restoring or maintaining, [or] rebuilding the Sierra Madre [warship] presence on the Second Thomas Shoal and the Philippines believes it has every right to do so. So far, we haven’t found an identifiable meeting point where we can agree to stand back from each other. China thinks time is on its side and the Philippines has good reason to believe international law is on its side. What we need to do is find something in between.

Meanwhile, I think the Biden administration has done the right thing, which is to emphasise the strong alliance relationship [with Manila]. To show weakness at this moment would be disastrous. And to show strength is not enough, we probably have to do more to support what the Philippines is trying to do in terms of maintaining the integrity of its management of the exclusive economic zone surrounding the Philippine Islands.

On risk management, do you see Manila and Beijing working together on this issue that you say doesn’t have a very identifiable meeting point yet, given that President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr is considering a law to outline the Philippines’ South China Sea claims, and the rising tensions with the Chinese coastguard?

Well, the Philippines is a threat to absolutely nobody. Their military capabilities are extremely limited. But they are trying to protect their own territory as they see it, as international law sees it, and as the US sees it.

The US probably needs to do more to give military capabilities to Manila, so that Manila can stand stronger in defending its claims in the region.

So we hope that China will exercise restraint, and recognise that pushing China’s claims, as far as China has been pushing them for at least the last decade, could take us into an unwanted conflict in a very – certainly – trade-sensitive part of the world. I would argue that it is not in China’s long-term interests to let this drift toward conflict the way it has been.

Again, I’m looking for off-ramps, the existing declaration on a code of conduct or negotiations with Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] countries on a code of conduct probably should be reinforced. The US probably needs to do more to give military capabilities to Manila, so that Manila can stand stronger in defending its claims in the region.

So, on both sides, the tensions are building and the relaxation of those tensions is not apparent to me. So I rate the potential for unintended but damaging conflict in the South China Sea, [as] considerably higher than one over the Taiwan Strait at this point.

What do you think would be the worst-case scenario?

It’s hypothetical. I don’t think the Chinese people want to end up in a war with America over some piece of sand that rises and falls below the ocean level with the tides. And the American people don’t want to do that either. So, leadership on both sides should exercise wisdom and restraint to prevent that from becoming the case.

So would you say restraint from both sides would be the more realistic approach?

I’m not optimistic that we will find restraint. Right now I see an irresistible force and an immovable object going at each other. I don’t see the two sides finding a path to management of this issue. I don’t mean to resolve the issue, because that may be too hard, but certainly to manage it.

This is a good time for creative diplomacy to give both sides some room to back down and my reading is that China believes that this Philippine ship that’s sitting on the shoal in the South China Sea will just disintegrate and go away, and then China will win.

But the Philippines is determined not to let that happen. And so you’ve got determination on both sides, opposite to the determination of the other. And that’s not a good formula. We need to find a track that goes to successful containment management of this particular problem before it explodes.

I could explore multiple paths. Some would be confrontational, some would be pacific. But at the same time, I think they probably all need to go together. Backchannel, diplomacy, plus upfront alliance support.

The US and China have resumed some high-level, including military-to-military dialogue. How effective do you think the dialogues could be in managing the risks, especially on the Taiwan issue?

Let me start by saying I don’t think there’s much for us to talk about on the Taiwan issue. We each have our own policies, and we try to stick within the guidelines that we’ve established for ourselves, and hope that they don’t cross the red line for the other side.

On military-to-military dialogue, we’re trying to resume the barely adequate forms of dialogue we had before our speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and China’s suspension after that visit of the military-to-military dialogue.

Will US and China shift course in South China Sea after defence chiefs’ call?

There’s a lot of awareness, a lot of caution on the part of both militaries, but we’ve had the first few steps taken. And I think it’s kind of in the logic of our relationship as two large countries that we have to have more face-to-face dialogue about what our military concerns are, we need to talk to each other.

What are the US-China military-to-military communication channels that are lacking?

Now one thing we have not done yet that is out there and must be addressed in the course of the next few years, is a kind of nuclear dialogue, where we explain what our motivations are, China explains what its motivations are, and we try to see if we can find some common language, some ways of understanding what is too dangerous to do and what is understandable to do even if not acceptable by the two sides. I think that’s the real holy grail on military-to-military dialogue, which is still out of reach.

And do you see a nuclear dialogue happening any time soon?

A few years out, at least. China is in the process of building up its nuclear military capabilities, and will probably want to see those settled into an established pattern before they are willing to talk about this subject.

We can begin anytime, I think. Both sides need to be more honest with each other about what we think constitutes indications and warnings. China has talked in public forums in the UN and the Conference on Disarmament about no first use as a good place to start a conversation on big principles. But we need much more details.

I’m not talking about arms control, I’m talking about straightforward dialogue about the military-and-military concerns about what could trigger an undesired, accidental, a mistaken nuclear exchange – and how to prevent that.

While the Taiwan issue might not be central to the military-to-military dialogue, there are still real risks in the Taiwan Strait region that Beijing and Washington are navigating through. Do you think the US “strategic ambiguity” over China has changed over the years?

President [Joe] Biden, I think at least three times he said he would come to the defence of Taiwan, if it’s attacked. And that has not traditionally been part of our strategic ambiguity formulations. But the administration since [the middle of last year], has returned to the more traditional formulations. And I think China has, as to a significant degree, accepted that that’s now the US position and so we’ve kind of restored what had been a wobbling strategic ambiguity.



US President Biden says US troops would defend Taiwan from attack by Beijing

US President Biden says US troops would defend Taiwan from attack by Beijing

There’s a lot of debate in the US among very serious people about whether clarity was better than ambiguity. I think we’ve drifted back towards ambiguity, but we’re a democracy and things change all the time. That debate could re-emerge at any time. Well, I don’t see it coming up any time soon. But at least since last year, it has become more consistent. That’s my impression.

Another useful way to describe strategic ambiguity is dual deterrence, deterring China from invading and Taiwan from seeking de jure independence.

Taiwan’s new president, William Lai Ching-te, will be inaugurated this month. In view of Lai’s tone on cross-strait relations and former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s recent mainland trip, how possible do you think it is for Beijing and Taipei to resume dialogue after Lai takes office.

Well, I think it’s entirely possible for the two sides to talk and they really have a need to talk because there’s so many areas of practical interaction between the two economies, the two peoples. They are not very far apart between the mainland and Taiwan and things happen. Kinmen (Quemoy) has been a recent example of that, where fishermen in waters around Kinmen got in trouble and issues arose.

Taiwan postpones Quemoy live-fire drills after Beijing warns against ‘rash’ act

And it’s important that we have some kind of functional dialogue among the local authorities to help manage human crises and natural disasters and things as they arise. I think that’s possible. It should be possible.

But the inauguration is coming. My expectation is that, given the outcome of the recent Taiwan elections in January and the general direction of politics in Taiwan, there is a desire to continue to maintain the status quo, not to move towards de jure independence, nor to move toward reunification. And I think the PRC [People’s Republic of China] would like that not to be the case, but it’s prepared to live with it for a while longer as it has for the last 50-plus years.

People have been talking about increasing pressure from Beijing to reunify with Taiwan. How do you perceive this? And how likely do you think this will happen during Xi’s current term? Also, if it does happen, what would Beijing’s approach be?

Whatever people desire, the likelihood of whether China tries something dramatic to take Taiwan back, I think, is low because the circumstances do not favour an easy seizure of Taiwan or a low-cost management of efforts to reunify with Taiwan by force or other means, coercion or the like.

China has greater capacity to coerce Taiwan, whether it’s directly militarily or indirectly, through things like cyberattacks and others. And we’ve seen that continue and grow as China’s capabilities have grown. And the US and Taiwan have a common purpose in deterring them from having an effect on the cross-strait situation. So the US and Taiwan have been working to try to firm up the deterrence that Taiwan can maintain, so that it doesn’t become an easy thing for China to think you can grab Taiwan at no cost.

Competitive deterrence measures will be under way for a long time to come. And here’s where you get back to the military-to-military dialogue and leadership-to-leadership dialogue. There, they can manage these sources of tension. It’s kind of like below the Earth you have powerful forces building up towards an earthquake. But in this case, it’s humans that are involved, not just underground forces. And humans can prevent this from becoming an earthquake, through careful measured choices of policies and language and dealing with each other.



China slams latest US congressional delegation visit to Taiwan amid heightened cross-strait tensions

China slams latest US congressional delegation visit to Taiwan amid heightened cross-strait tensions

The US needs to do two things to maintain a stable cross-strait relationship. One is diplomatic discipline. And the second is effective deterrence. And you have to have both.

Discipline provides the red lines across the assurance that we still have a one-China policy, but the deterrence also means supporting Taiwan, and its needs and encouraging it to be more effective at creating the kinds of capabilities that will make it difficult to conclude that Taiwan would be an easy target for the mainland to seize.

Do you think Taipei should further adjust its defence policy to prevent a unilateral change of the status quo, given the changes already made by President Tsai Ing-wen?

Well, I served in Taipei in the early 2000s, from 2002 to 2006. And today, multiple governments have come and gone in Taiwan and in the US in the meantime. The kind of military preparation and deterrence that was taking place when I was in Taiwan, and what’s taking place today are radically different.

There are still some legacy problems in Taiwan that need to be updated and corrected. But a lot has already been done to try to make Taiwan more resilient. Some people use the image of a porcupine or poisoned shrimp to protect itself against Chinese consumption of Taiwan.

But I do think that there’s been changes and it’s been gradual, probably even, from my taste of it, too slow. I want it to do more to protect itself from coercion. But to say nothing has happened would be incorrect.

If Taipei were to be a little more ambitious, what should it do more of?

Taiwan anticipates getting its defence budget up to 3 per cent of its GDP, not this year, but in the first couple of years under William Lai. And he’s going to have to judge whether that’s been achieved and whether the achievement was worth it while offering better deterrent capability to Taiwan.

On this, Taiwan has, for example, recently announced the production of a new coastal defence unit within its armed forces, [which is] different from the navy, different from the coastguard, different from the army. I assume that’s a kind of experimental effort to see whether that helps to make Taiwan more resilient. And if it does, that will be a good thing for maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. If it fails, then Taiwan is going to have to keep working [at it].

Taiwan has a lot of legacy problems to overcome because it was originally conceived to defend itself against the Communist Party’s army in the 1940s. And change came very slowly because it was protected by the 90 miles [about 145km] of ocean between Taiwan and the mainland. But because China’s capabilities have grown dramatically in distance and speed, and force capability, Taiwan needs to make suitable adjustments and some of it remains to be undertaken.

As for US military deterrence, especially as Washington expands multilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, how do you evaluate their current level of deterrence as China sees it as a threat and often uses it as a reason to counteract?

Well, you haven’t said this, but many Chinese will say this is part of the US effort to back containment [of China] or to contain China.

You and I don’t want to get into the debate about the meaning of the word containment, but I’ll just assert for the purposes of our discussion that what the US is doing does not contain China. The US has been trying to modernise and strengthen its alliances and partnerships or relationships in the Western Pacific, to provide a buffer against the new capabilities that China presents in territorial disputes and military confrontations with its neighbours, and potentially with the US.

This is going to be a long-term process. The US has made a lot of progress in the last two years, in terms of healing the divisions that were beginning to appear under [former] president [Donald] Trump who seemed to place significantly less emphasis on the need for alliance relationships and tried to make them more transactional than has been traditionally the case. We did have Trump and he did make a difference. And people in Tokyo and Seoul and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific recognise he could come back. And so they are starting to do more on their own.

Japan has made this amazing decision to double its defence spending under Prime Minister [Fumio] Kishida. What started with [former] prime minister Shinzo Abe I think will continue under any conceivable successive Japanese government, and we will see much the same in [South] Korea and elsewhere.

So this is the kind of the response to China’s rapid development of its own military capabilities, that is naturally going to be an equal and opposite reaction in the environment in which China finds itself.

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And the alliance structure, in my mind, really helps provide us with structure and an ability to, one, bring force to bear if necessary, and also to manage relations with the mainland so that China understands that that force is not a containment threat or a direct threat against the Chinese system.

[Instead,] as President Biden reportedly has said many times in conversations with President Xi [Jinping, the alliance structure] is designed to maintain the order that has prevailed in the Asia-Pacific region since end of World War II, and which has allowed many small formerly colonised countries to rapidly develop without spending themselves crazy on military expenses to defend against each other or against China or some third force.

They have been able to concentrate on education, urbanisation, industrialisation, all of which have raised the standard of living throughout the Asia-Pacific region, including in China over the last 75 years.

If Donald Trump gets re-elected and he’s not as favourable to alliance structures as you said, what do you think would happen to the alliances?

The fact that Japan, for example, has doubled its own defence budget projections, shows that it cannot rely on the US alone, it knows that it has to do more for itself.

And we’re seeing that in Europe too. Europeans had been shaken by Donald Trump’s flirtation with reducing the importance of the Nato alliance. And the Europeans themselves have recently been committing greater amounts of assistance to Ukraine, and committed to higher defence budgets of their own.

[This is] because they realise the US cannot just be expected to remain as it has been under multiple administrations and there could be a new leadership in Washington that is less forthcoming with assistance and alliance cooperation, and therefore they have to do more on their own.

So increasingly, we’re seeing not so much an alliance pulling together but a spreading of decisions through capitals around the world to do more on their own because just relying on the US post-Cold War, post-World War II system is not going to be good enough when we have much more multipolarity and we’re seeing these, as you mentioned earlier, trilateral, these “minilateral” [alliances].

Asia does not have a uniform political environment, countries will get together on different topics for different reasons and they will form what can be called minilateral associations for specific purposes. I think we’re going to see a proliferation of that over the next decade, on their own in small groupings, rather than as a Nato-like bloc.

In the broader picture, with the war continuing in Ukraine and also the Middle East, and of course, the latest attack by Iran on Israel, do you see the US readjusting its strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific?

I think the Indo-Pacific remains the senior-most highest-ranking international security strategy, [and] diplomatic priority in the US. We keep getting diverted by other events like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s vicious attack on Ukraine, or Hamas’ vicious attack on civilians in Israel, but we have to keep our eye on the major source of potential conflict in the world. And that’s between the US and China in the East Asia-Pacific.

Coming to the final question, what would be your conclusive take on US policy towards China and how the two countries should continue to manage the risk of conflicts over Taiwan?

So much has changed in China and so much has changed in Taiwan since Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek died. We’ve had to adjust all along and we have to continue to adjust. But the status quo that was established after those two leaders died has persisted and has permitted both China and Taiwan to prosper, each in their own way with their own system.

We should be very careful not to put that at risk by surprising each other with new behaviours and new statements of our policy that will disrupt that status quo. I don’t expect William Lai to issue any kind of statement like that and I’m certainly hoping China and the US will not do so either.



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