SEOUL – With US credibility hammered by the fall of Kabul, President Joe Biden said the situations of South Korea and Taiwan were “fundamentally different” from that of Afghanistan.
“There’s a fundamental difference between Taiwan, South Korea, NATO,” Biden said in an interview with broadcaster ABC News on Thursday.
The US president is on the back foot over the faster-than-expected fall of Kabul to the Taliban, with political opponents, the veteran’s community and domestic and global media lambasting his handling of the withdrawal.
Critics have had a field day, comparing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to previous American abandonment of allies in South Vietnam, Somalia and Kurdish areas of Syria.
Biden made clear – albeit with the slightly tangled diction that is common to some recent US presidents – that US commitments to first-world, democratic allies will be honored.
“We are in a situation where they are entities we’ve made agreements with, based on not a civil war they’re having on that island or in South Korea, but on an agreement where they have a unity government that, in fact, is trying to keep bad guys from doing bad things to them,” Biden said.
His reference was apparently to the stable governments in place in Seoul and Taipei, which face external rather than internal security threats.
Both Taiwan and South Korea face similar political issues – national division – and both face off against communist counterparties – respectively, China and North Korea. Both are democratic polities running powerhouse economies with significantly homogenous populations.
These factors make them very different from Afghanistan, home to a tribal society, a fractured and deeply corrupt polity and a decrepit economy that fell to the forces of a domestic insurgency.
“We have made – kept every commitment,” to the stated allies, Biden said. “We made a sacred commitment to Article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with – Taiwan. It’s not even comparable to talk about that.”
As divided nations, democratic South Korea and Taiwan face similar threats from, respectively, communist North Korea and China.
North Korea’s ability to launch a conventional invasion has eroded over time due to the country’s parlous economic condition. In the last two decades, Pyongyang has focused on building weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent against external threats, while its offensive maneuver forces decay.
China, on the other hand, has built up its military power massively in recent years in parallel with its surging economy, the world’s second-largest. Armed with upgraded marine and naval capabilities, fears have been rising in the Washington Beltway that an increasingly assertive Beijing might invade what it considers a renegade province.
Now, with semiconductors becoming perhaps the most important component in the trade battle between Beijing and Washington, the siting of the world’s largest chip foundry company, TSMC, in Taiwan, makes the self-governing island a particularly juicy target for China, which lacks top-tier chip technologies.
Japan, protected both by its insular position off Asia and a significant US troop presence, is arguably less at risk than either Taiwan, which has no US defenders, or South Korea, which is attached to the Asian continent and separated from North Korea only by the DMZ.
In Tokyo, mirroring the increasingly anti-China stance in Washington, hawks within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have in recent months been agitating for a more robust Japanese stance toward the island’s defense. But while many Japanese see Taiwanese as their closest friends in Asia, these statements appear to have won zero traction in policy terms.
Formally, the United States has separate mutual defense agreements with NATO, South Korea and Japan. Taiwan’s status is more opaque, and there are no GIs holding a defensive posture on the island.
While the US has no formal alliance with Taiwan the way it does with South Korea and Japan, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 calls for the US to maintain the capacity “… to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”
Noting that the Biden administration has maintained or even increased the anti-China tone of the Donald Trump administration, the US president’s mention of Taiwan was most certainly deliberate, said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based strategy consultant and specialist on the China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“I think this is pushback about some of the hubris coming from Beijing,” said Neill, referring to a stream of official messaging about American untrustworthiness. “As the evacuation of Kabul unravels, China is exploiting the opportunity to try to demonstrate chinks in American armor in the Indo-Pacific.”
Indeed, some Chinese media have milked the Afghan situation without mercy and with glee.
“Once a cross-Straits war breaks out while the mainland [China] seizes the island [Taiwan] with forces, the US would have to have a much greater determination than it had for Afghanistan, Syria and Vietnam if it wants to interfere,” editorialized Beijing-based Global Times on August 16.
In South Korea, distressing scenes from Kabul have played out across the TV news. That has sparked some unease, even among usually stout hearts.
“My initial reaction was, I was scared,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general who led his country’s Special Warfare Command. “My generation vividly remembers the US helicopters flying from the rooftops in Saigon.”
During the Vietnam conflict, South Korea provided the largest contingent of overseas combat troops defending the Saigon regime, after the US.
Chun noted that in the current “politically charged” situation – a South Korean presidential election is set for March next year – people on both sides of the spectrum are drawing parallels.
“People on the right are trying to use Afghanistan as a scare tactic, saying, ‘This is what is going to happen to us if we don’t check the progressives and pacifists,’” he said. “On the other side, they are saying, ‘Well you can’t trust those Americans, the only answer is we Koreans must solve our problems on our own, and maybe the Chinese are more reliable.”
But Chun cited a recent public opinion poll, partly conducted by left-wing magazine SisaIN, that found the South Korean public now sees China less favorably than the traditionally despised Japan. Some 58% of respondents saw Chinese negatively, while only 4.5% were in favor. Impressions of the US were overwhelmingly more positive, the poll showed.
That sentiment looks set to complicate any candidates’ lean toward China once the campaigning season gets fully underway late this year.
And in terms of any wavering in the US security commitment to South Korea, Chun admitted he saw no shift. In fact, joint South Korea-US military drills have been underway since Monday.
But elsewhere, in parts of the region where it is already extending its economic influence, Beijing may be pushing on an open door.
“China’s argument is gaining traction across the region, with counties in Southeast Asia looking at the chaos of the withdrawal and the humanitarian disaster with great alarm,” Neill said. “There will be many who may be persuaded by the Chinese argument that not only that this is evidence of an unreliable hegemon, but a sign of waning US power across the Indo-Pacific.”