During the Cold War, Soviet aggression against Berlin and West Germany was discouraged by the stationing of hundreds of thousands of allied military personnel on the border of the Iron Curtain and inside the enclave of West Berlin. In this age of revived geopolitical tensions between an increasingly assertive PRC and the US lead order in Asia, the question of if a new deterrent force in Asia is required has become prescient.
As I write this article, China is engaged in territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, India, and most especially, Taiwan. The Chinese government is not shy in using economic coercion or the threat of military force to push its neighbours to acquiesce to its aims. At the time of writing, the Quad (USA, Japan, India and Australia) and other nations such as the UK, France and Germany are increasingly challenging China’s claims and signalling support to the beleaguered nations of the Indo-Pacific. Yet, except for USA assertations that it will honour its defensive pacts and “freedom of navigation exercises”, there are few concrete signs that the USA, let alone the other named powers in the region, are willing or ready to fight a war against China. Instead, each nation has adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity, refusing from fear of the Chinese reaction to clearly set out their red lines.
With some nations, this strategic ambiguity could be productive of stability. Unfortunately, China in the 21st century is no such creature. Modern China respects nothing except raw power. We hope that the uncertainty around if we will respond to Chinese aggression will dissuade them from taking the risk. Yet this ignores the fact that the balance of power in Asia has shifted significantly since the 1980s when the policy was formulated. China is no longer a weak peripheral power — it is a significant regional power with global aspirations. Strategic ambiguity is only increasing the chance that China will make a fatal misjudgement that will throw the world into war.
If we want to avoid this disaster, then we would be well served to make our determination to defend our neighbours crystal clear and move to a policy of strategic clarity. The best way to signal our resolve is not to use words but to indicate it with deeds. Consider the impact on our wavering allies and China if, instead of conducting another “freedom of navigation exercise” in the South China Sea, the Quad instead inserted a couple of Brigades worth of soldiers into Taiwan supported by missile defences, a few squadrons of F35s and other air assets.
Firstly, this would bolster Taiwan’s morale and make it clear that an attack on Taiwan would necessarily involve war with the Quad. Secondly, by signalling our firm commitment to defend our friends, it would encourage the other nations in the region to stand up to China. Taiwan is the canary in the coal mine for Asia; if it stands, Asia stands. This steadfastness of purpose is likely to encourage other nations concerned about Chinese aggression to consider joining the nascent alliance. Because, in the end, cooperation is our greatest tool for the preservation of freedom.
The West and its Allies did not prevail against the Soviets because we were individually militarily stronger. Instead, we triumphed because the great and small nations alike stood together as one against the power in the east, pooling their resources and making it clear that an attack against one is an attack against all. If we are to preserve peace and freedom in Asia in this century, then once again, the threatened peoples of the world must stand together against the rising tide of tyranny. As an American band once sang, “It has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime — what better place than here, what better time than now?”
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