Politics

Taiwan Becomes a Point of Geopolitical Equivocation

In early September, with the war in Afghanistan officially over and the Middle East retreating from the media’s landscape, The New York Times began preparing the American public for the next theater of war. This time it will be just off the coast of mainland China, in Taiwan. There will be no boots on the ground or even drones in the air. The media is now busy putting in place the initial elements of a new Cold War, in which intense military build-up will be designed to serve the stated purpose of avoiding a hot war.

Nature hates a vacuum and, when it comes to war, so does US media that has always viewed peace as a vacuum. Publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post must keep the public focused on the global military mission of the United States. Middle East terrorism is still hanging around, but the idea of deploying a massive military effort to oppose it has been definitively discredited.

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are the kind of formless enemies that justify an infinitely prolonged hot war, keeping military activity going. But cold wars are all about an arms race, and terrorist groups simply can’t compete.


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With the disengagement from the Middle East, some may have the impression that we have entered a period of peace. But Washington’s strategists would panic if they believed there was a real possibility of peace. Like the media, they know that the American public needs to believe in an ongoing noble military mission whose purpose is to vanquish the next formidable enemy of the American way of life.

In the past, it has depended on having a clearly defined ideological rival: first communism, then terrorism. What comes next isn’t yet clear, but the media and the security state know it needs to be put in place, if only to justify the massive and continually bloated military budget.

For the past five years, politicians and media fearful of Donald Trump have spent their energy playing on the Cold War reflex of suspecting Russia. They remember how effective it was in the 1950s and ‘60s. The marketers of the security state understood that the idea of an evil Russia was so deeply implanted in the American mindset that it can still inspire a reflex of both hatred and fear. The Soviet Union disappeared three decades ago, but Russia itself is associated with the idea of something existentially evil. 

Through clever management of the news, the intelligence community, echoed by the media, successfully instilled the idea that Donald Trump was Vladimir Putin’s best friend forever. Now, with Trump out of the picture, at least temporarily, Russia’s feeble and failing economy clearly poses no credible threat to the US. China has thus become the logical and far more credible adversary for anyone imagining an impending war scenario.

The New York Times is accordingly directing the public’s attention to the effort now being made in Washington with a focus on Taiwan: “At the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, officials are trying to figure out if the longtime American policy of “strategic ambiguity” — providing political and military support to Taiwan, while not explicitly promising to defend it from a Chinese attack — has run its course.”

This week, Daniel L. Davis, a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army, made the case in The Guardian that war over the defense of Taiwan should be avoided at all costs. “Publicly, Washington should continue to embrace strategic ambiguity,” he recommends, “but privately convey to Taiwanese leaders that we will not fight a war with China.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Strategic Ambiguity:

The normal content of all diplomatic discourse

Contextual Note

President Joe Biden appears to be respecting at least half of Davis’s recommendation. He told the media that he has spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping about Taiwan, and that the two agree they will “abide by the Taiwan agreement.” It consists of having relations with Taiwan but not recognizing it as an independent nation. Strategic ambiguity will remain intact. But is Biden ready to explain to Taiwan that the US has no intention of going to war with China?

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen is clearly aware of the ambiguity. She warned that the “Taiwanese people would ‘rise up’ should Taiwan‘s existence be threatened.” This is certainly true, but without US backup, rising up may not be an effective response to the world’s second most powerful army. At the same time, she “reiterated a call for talks with China” and admitted that Taiwan is “influenced by Chinese civilization and shaped by Asian traditions.”

Clearly, the US cannot go to war with China over Taiwan. At the same time, the US needs to maintain the idea that a war with China is possible. In the 1950s and 1960s, a militarized economy thrived thanks to the belief instilled in Americans that a nuclear war with Russia was possible, if not inevitable. It was just a question of what minor spark might set it off. This literally was the era of Dr. Strangelove.

In response to China’s breaching Taiwan’s defense zone with 56 Chinese military aircraft, Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang last week accused China of being “more and more over the top.” Could this be an allusion to Washington’s vaunted policy of its “over the horizon” capacity to intervene in Afghanistan? Or does the expression simply mean “exaggerated” and “beyond the ordinary”? Dr. Strangelove was an over-the-top satire about military decisions that literally went over the brink.

As with everything concerning Taiwan’s situation in the coming months and years, the ambiguity will be more evident than the strategy.

Historical Note

The 1975, Church Committee hearings in the US Senate forced American media to reveal the longstanding complicity between the CIA and the media concretized in Operation Mockingbird. Congressional testimony revealed a carefully structured propaganda campaign run through privately-owned commercial media. Its purpose was to instill the Cold War mentality required to justify an aggressive foreign policy and the unrelenting expansion of the all-powerful military-industrial complex.

It specifically sought to exaggerate the USSR’s destructive capacity while maintaining the public’s belief that the Soviet regime’s unique goal was to undermine, if not physically destroy, the American way of life. A cartoon Superman appeared on TV every day to convince children that the superhero was fighting for “truth, justice and the American way.”

Fast forward to 2016. Following the rock-solid marketing logic of never calling into question a formula that has paid off in the past, much of the Democratic-leaning legacy media, more worried about Donald Trump than Russia itself, began promoting the multiple threads of what developed into the Russiagate narrative.

It appeared to be the easiest means of developing the propaganda required to protect and reinforce the military-industrial complex that some feared that Trump was threatening when he began challenging the “deep state.” Though Trump had no such intention, inciting Americans to think so could only work to the advantage of the Democrats.

This tactic nevertheless encountered a problem of credibility. Not enough people were convinced that Russia was still the evil Soviet Union. Once Trump was gone, the Russia threat definitively lost its sting. Post-Soviet Russia has only negligible influence on the world economy, unlike the Middle East with its historically established virtual monopoly on fossil fuel and its utility for the US as the vector of petrodollars. 

With Russia reduced to insignificance and the Middle East written off the agenda, China has become the only credible candidate to play the role of America’s fright-inducing enemy. China is conveniently run by the Communist Party, like the Soviet Union was. Its features and behavior identify it as an alien economy. It possesses a political system that is clearly autocratic and therefore the enemy of capitalist democracy.

Everything is falling into place for a new Cold War that will take center stage following the shame-faced exit of the global war on terror. All eyes (including the Five Eyes) are trained on China. In Act I, Taiwan will be the focus of attention, as it was 70 years ago when it was known as Formosa. But China is not the Soviet Union, and the US is no longer an empire sweeping up the spoils of European colonialism. What happens next will be difficult to forecast. We are truly entering an age of strategic ambiguity.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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