The real lesson of Ukraine for Taiwan
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This week, as the next big round of US military aid to Ukraine was jeopardized by congressional politics, anxiety levels rose not just in Kyiv but in Taipei. Politico reports: “Taiwan is already worried about the durability of US support to fortify the self-governing island from Chinese aggression. And the congressional retreat from funding Kyiv is a boon for Beijing’s efforts to sow doubt among Taiwan’s electorate about US reliability ahead of the January presidential election.”
Taiwan’s anxiety may be misplaced—by, like, 180 degrees. At least, that’s my takeaway from a Nonzero podcast conversation I had this week with Lyle Goldstein, an expert on China’s military capabilities and its national security strategy. Goldstein, who taught for 20 years at the US Naval War College and is now at Brown University, thinks the Ukraine conflict offers an underappreciated lesson: Sometimes things you do to deter an invasion can make invasion more likely. And he thinks America’s ongoing “fortification” of Taiwan is one such thing. He says the US is now repeating, in the Pacific, mistakes that made the current conflagration in Europe more likely.
Below is a transcript of the part of the conversation where Goldstein makes that point, but before we get to that I want to mention another part of our conversation: the part where he explains why war with China over Taiwan would likely end in disastrous defeat for the US and Taiwan. If you want to jump right to that part, a transcript of it can be found here.
Now back to the part of the conversation where Goldstein argues that current US policy is making war with China more, not less, likely:
Me: Let me ask you about one possible parallel to Ukraine that struck me. Even though Ukraine was nowhere near being admitted into NATO, there was an ongoing kind of de facto NATOization of Ukraine, in the sense that we were starting to send in some meaningful weapons, we were having joint training exercises, they're being trained by NATO people, there was some degree of standardization of operations.
Anyway, Putin mentioned this very explicitly in his big pre-invasion speech. And I think that was a case where the idea of the de facto NATOization was to create a deterrent to invasion, but my reading is that Putin said, “Well, look, if they're just going to keep doing this, better now than never. It's only going to get harder, and I can't put up with either a de facto NATO or a real NATO on my doorstep.”
There’s of course controversy over his motivation. And there were other motivations—I don't doubt it. But the general idea that what is seen by us as a deterrent can be seen by the other side as a provocation. Does that apply in any sense in this [the Taiwanese] case?
Goldstein: Absolutely… I watched the Ukraine situation extremely closely. I have an article in the National Interest, published in January 2020, advocating that we take the Minsk accord seriously and prevent a catastrophe in Ukraine. And of course, we didn't. We encouraged the Minsk accord essentially to fall apart and put all our eggs in deterrence, started flying in plane loads full of Javelins [anti-tank weapons], which were amply covered on Russian TV.
And by the way, while I was at the Naval War College, I watched how we kept getting more and more involved with what was kind of a nascent Ukrainian navy. And if you can believe it, your taxpayer money, that is, American taxpayer money, funded the total upgrade of the piers in Odessa, which were, of course, getting ready to service American destroyers, NATO warships on a regular basis, right next to Russia's Black Sea fleet.
Me: The upgrading of the ports was specifically designed to accommodate NATO ships?
Goldstein: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I think they set up a command center right near Odessa, a NATO-style command center… I don't know how we conceivably thought these measures would deter rather than invite aggression, but that's exactly what it did.
And yes, here the analogy is precisely correct, because one reason that China is so obsessed with Taiwan is not that they dream of conquering the island. Honestly, it's more that it makes them horribly uncomfortable—the idea that this island is swarming with Americans and foreigners. That is truly offensive to them.
Me: And American weapons increasingly.
Goldstein: Yeah. And American listening posts. And American sensors. And as we learned from reports of the last two years, actual American advisers [from the military—that is, US soldiers]. So, it's very similar to what went on with Ukraine, this kind of creeping assistance, more and more, of various kinds.
My view is that if we said, “Okay, we’re going to take the one China policy seriously, that is, we regard Taiwan, in fact, as part of China, we're going to stop giving them endless support,” I actually think the temperature would drop in the Taiwan Strait a lot. I think China would sort of relax about it. In other words, I don't think the idea of autonomous Taiwan is so offensive to them. It's the idea of Taiwan as a foreign base.
And by the way, they have said that foreign soldiers, foreign bases, on Taiwan is a red line. So, I'm quite concerned.
(Paid NZN subscribers can listen to the entire two-hour conversation with Lyle here—or find it in their NZN Member podcast feed—and the first hour is available to everyone on the regular Nonzero podcast feed. If you watch the YouTube version and click the like button, that will help spread the word about Lyle’s message and about the Nonzero podcast.)
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The US government just handed out its first-ever citation for littering in outer space.
The Federal Communications Commission fined satellite television company Dish Network $150,000 for improperly disposing of a satellite. An FCC investigation found that the company parked the defunct satellite in an orbit “well below the elevation required by the terms of its license.” As a rule, lower orbits are more densely packed with satellites and so harbor a greater risk of collision with any disabled satellites, discarded rocket parts, or other space junk.
Three AI updates:
No. 1: When Suumit Shah, the young and handsome CEO of Indian e-commerce company Dukaan, noticed that ChatGPT could respond to clients’ queries at least as well as his customer support staff, he was seized by a visionary idea: Fire the humans! “It was a no-brainer for me to replace the entire team with a bot, which is like 100 times smarter, who is instant, and who cost me like 100th of what I used to pay to the support team,” he told the Washington Post.
Post reporter Pranshu Verma notes that this could bode ill for countries like India and the Philippines, where call centers employ millions of workers. “The change is sparking a debate in the Global South about what, if anything, they can do to prevent a mass workforce disruption.”