By Iain Henry*
During the Trump presidency, it was unsurprising that several US allies in Asia were concerned about the risk of abandonment — the possibility that Washington might not fulfil its alliance commitments. But allies can also fear entrapment — the risk that US actions might raise tensions, or even start a conflict, that allies would rather avoid.
These fears were common during the Cold War, when crises on the Korean Peninsula, across the Taiwan Strait and in Indochina, all increased the risk of global war.
Policymakers — especially those in Washington — instinctively worry that such crises are tests of national reputation. Strategic ‘common sense’, informed mainly by the theory of deterrence, suggests that any display of weakness will encourage adversaries to initiate new conflicts, and will lead US allies to shift toward neutralism or abandon their alliance with Washington.
In 1954, the United States decided against intervening to defeat a communist insurgency in Indochina. Several prominent US officials perceived the subsequent negotiated settlement to be a defeat that damaged Washington’s reputation. Then US Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, thought that to prevent the loss of ‘any more prestige in this area’, the United States should adopt a position of ‘de facto belligerency for a certain period’.
When the First Taiwan Strait Crisis erupted later in 1954, this desire to demonstrate strength merged with an imagined need to display loyalty to allies. It seemed likely that Communist China would invade several small islands then occupied by Chinese Nationalist troops. The islands were not important from a military standpoint, but Dulles claimed that because ‘it was in many quarters assumed that we would defend the islands … our failure to do so indicated that we were running away’.
His instinct was that those states observing the crisis wanted to see Washington stand firm and confront China. He thought that ‘running away’ would carry reputational consequences and imperil the United States’ alliances in Asia.
But the reality was different. Most US allies in Asia thought de-escalation and negotiation were the most prudent policies. They didn’t think the islands were worth substantial risks of war. Though these allied views were accurately reported to Washington by its overseas embassies, it took months for these arguments to break through and challenge the prevailing conviction that the United States’ national reputation was at stake.
This incorrect belief both aggravated and prolonged the crisis. China fired the first shot, but Washington’s belief that its reputation was at stake risked escalating the crisis, possibly into a general war. Tensions eventually subsided, but US allies learned valuable lessons about how to best manage the risk of entrapment.
Beliefs about reputation are still extremely important today. Because US allies are undeniably concerned about China’s growing power, traditional ideas of international reputation would expect these allies to be pleased by a demonstration that Washington is willing to confront Beijing. Some have argued that if the United States did not defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, allies in Asia would ‘conclude that the United States cannot be relied upon and that it is pulling back from the region’.
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in August serves as a case study through which to think more carefully about this argument. US President Joe Biden was reportedly opposed to the visit, but some suggested that cancelling it would damage US credibility.
If the ‘common sense’ ideas about national reputation and credibility are correct, then US allies — worried about Chinese power and assertiveness — should have welcomed any sign that Washington is willing to confront Beijing. But neighbouring countries predominantly perceived the visit as an unnecessary escalation that did nothing to enhance Taiwan’s security or regional stability. One Japanese expert described it as having no ‘strategic benefit for us’, while an Australian commentator condemned it as ‘an unnecessary crisis’.
Such expressions of concern should ring alarm bells in Washington. Though some have argued that Japan and Australia are determined to help the United States defend Taiwan, this is far from certain. Less reflexive, assumption-laden analysis is sorely needed.
No US ally wants to see China invade and conquer Taiwan, but it is equally true that no ally wants US recklessness or ineptitude to contribute to heightened tensions. It is not just Chinese actions — but also Biden’s ‘gaffes’ and Washington’s policy evolutions — that are eroding the delicate bargain that underpins the modern US–China relationship.
Nobody in the region will applaud a display of US strength if the result is an avoidable security crisis. For US allies, both history and recent developments show that traditional ideas about reputation are extremely resilient, especially in Washington, even in the face of clearly contradictory evidence.
Allied leaders will need to think carefully and work hard — speaking bluntly and often to counterparts in Washington — to ensure their fears are accurately understood in the corridors of American power.
*About the author: Iain Henry is Senior Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and author of Reliability and Alliance Interdependence published by Cornell University Press.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum