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Bush School Professors on National Security and the Indo-Pacific

Updated: Mar 7, 2023

Ambassador Hennessey-Niland,

Professor of Practice:

The newly released U.S. National Security Strategy states that “the most pressing strategic challenge we face as we pursue a free, open, prosperous, and secure world are from powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy.”

The PRC’s refusal to rule out the use of force to “reunify” Taiwan, as expressed most recently by Xi Jinping at the 20th national Congress of the Communist Party, is antithetical to U.S. interests and those of our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Our Allies and like-minded partners in the region greatest concern about the U.S. is whether we will live up to our commitments. They have watched what has transpired in the South China Sea, in Hong Kong, and the PRC actions elsewhere with growing unease – leading some to hedge. Ambiguity about U.S. policy may have kept the PRC guessing about the U.S. response to an invasion of Taiwan. The recent back and forth about what President Biden’s comments meant regarding America “defending” Taiwan, may actually prove helpful if it raises questions in Beijing about the U.S. response. America’s friends in the region, however, should have no doubt about U.S. policy.

Some argue that “shifting U.S. policy toward support for Taiwan’s permanent separation from the mainland is more likely to provoke than to deter an attack on Taiwan.” That is, to be frank, a red herring. Greater clarity about U.S. commitment to help defend Taiwan is what it is, a commitment to come to its assistance if it is attacked, and not a statement about its status. Effective deterrence must be backed up by a credible threat. Both military capability and political commitment are required. Strategic ambiguity worked during a period of relative status quo across the Taiwan Straits. However, the likelihood of an invasion of Taiwan is in most estimates higher now than ever before and may take place within a matter of years not decades. U.S. credibility in the region and globally is not based on ambiguity but on the strength and clarity of our commitment as well as the scope and scale of our capability to deter aggression. More certainty about the U.S. position is needed. The Administration’s support to Ukraine is a timely example of a positive approach: it is in our strategic interest and that of like-minded around the globe to help defend democracies from aggression. As with Ukraine, the U.S. should be very clear and make sure there is no doubt on the part of the PRC that the U.S. (and its allies and partners) will help “defend” Taiwan.

Dr. Ren Mu,

Robert H. and Judy L. Allen Professor:

When China launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, its GDP growth rate was 7.8%. 2013 was the second consecutive year in which the economy grew below 9% since 1999. The BRI, now often viewed as a manifestation of the country's geopolitical ambition, was then China's major attempt to explore new overseas opportunities and boost its slowing economic growth. In recent years, according to the CCP’s rhetoric, national security considerations have become increasingly important for China's domestic and international policymaking. However, it is essential to recognize that the focus on security is unfolding against the backdrop of China’s grave growth challenges.

In the past couple of years, the abrupt and heavy-handed way the government dealt with the real estate, private tutoring, and IT sectors, sometimes under the banner of “common prosperity,” rattled the economy. China's economic growth now stands at the lowest level in decades, shaken by policy-induced uncertainties, exacerbated by the zero-COVID policy, and dictated by long-term factors (e.g., structural change, population aging). The recent protests are not only an open display of the public’s anger toward the restrictive COVID policies but also a clear demonstration of people’s economic frustrations. The economy will undoubtedly rebound after the eventual abolition of choking pandemic measures, but high growth will not return. Economic challenges will only become more daunting as the state is posed to play a bigger role in running the economy.

Economic development, though no longer emphasized by the CCP as a “theme of our time,” is still at the core of the Party’s long-standing social contract with the people. Consequently, economic motivation will remain a key driving force for China's engagement with the outside world, and will only grow more important when the country urgently needs to revamp its growth.

Dr. John Schuessler,

Associate Professor, Co-director of the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy:

Going forward, I think the United States will have great difficulty distinguishing core from peripheral interests in the Asia-Pacific region, which in turn will complicate the debate over what is worth fighting for in the region. For example, it might be tempting to distinguish between core allies, most importantly Japan, and other security dependencies like Taiwan. The United States would then fight for Japan but not for Taiwan. However, what if the Japanese consider Taiwan vital to their defense? Or signal that a US decision not to defend Taiwan would threaten the US-Japan alliance itself? How would the United States maintain the distinction between core and peripheral interests in the face of such political pressures? One could envision a similar dynamic unfolding in the South China Sea. This is all very problematic because the implication is that the United States can give little ground to a rising China so as to avert war. If the United States cannot make concessions on Taiwan, which China considers a domestic issue, what can it make concessions on? And if substantive concessions are ruled out, how will war ultimately be averted? In sum, I see the (perceived) interdependence of commitments as the major challenge to security in the Asia-Pacific region. The more interdependent U.S. commitments are perceived to be, the more pressure decision-makers will face to adopt a tough line across the board.

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