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Strategic clarity on Taiwan will not trigger spiral of escalation: ANU scholar

Scholar says East Asia today is nothing like Europe before WWI

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Soldiers marching in formation. 

Soldiers marching in formation.  (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A lecturer at Australian National University (ANU) has published an article arguing for the U.S. to pursue strategic clarity on Taiwan, saying a change in policy will not lead to a “spiral model” that would escalate toward a war with China.

In an article for “The Strategist," published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Simon Cotton questioned those who dismissed U.S. President Biden’s recent statement that his country would defend Taiwan as a dangerous gaffe, such as Bonnie Glaser. Instead, he argued that when put into proper perspective, strategic clarity is not dangerous in the Taiwan context.

Cotton then compared deterrence theory — the idea an adversary will not act if it understands your threat to counteract as sincere and formidable — with the "spiral model," which is the idea that matching a threat with a threat pushes both sides toward making a “preventative attack.”

Cotton said the spiral model occurs when each side is not clear on what the other side's intentions are and so perceives each threat as a potential veil for an aggressive attack, typically aimed at territorial conquest. He adds the best example of the spiral model is the outbreak of World War I.

He concluded this spiral model does not apply to Taiwan’s case for two key reasons.

The first is that China could not misread the U.S. intentions in pursuing strategic clarity since China itself is explicit about its intention to “reunite” Taiwan and also clear that the U.S. is concerned about that.

“So were the U.S. to commit to help Taiwan, it’s hard to see how China could interpret that as anything more sinister than what it is: an attempt to deter China from attacking Taiwan,” he said.

The second is that Beijing knows the U.S. does not have any designs on China itself, or else it would have attacked China when it was weaker and would not have aided its unprecedented economic growth in recent decades.

“In short, East Asia today is in no way like early 20th century Europe, and the idea that the U.S. harbors ambitions against China is pure fantasy,” he said.

Cotton did acknowledge the risk that strategic clarity from the U.S. may increase the chance Taiwan itself would feel emboldened to formally claim independence, but this risk could be mitigated if an American guarantee of support came with the condition the country not make that move, he said.