Is Time on Xi Jinping’s Side over Taiwan? An Interview with Dave Stilwell

Simone Gao: (00:02)

Secretary Stilwell, thank you so much for joining Zooming In today. Okay. President Biden has repeatedly said the U.S. will protect Taiwan if China invades Taiwan, but, uh, each time either the White House or Secretary of Defense would then came out and, uh, declare that the U.S./China policy hasn’t changed. U.S. One China policy hasn’t changed. And that leaves people the impression that there’s still strategic ambiguity on the Taiwan Strait. So, is that the case? Still strategic ambiguity on Taiwan?

David Stilwell: (00:43)

Well, I think the president is reflecting, um, the just general sentiment about Americans’ values and trying to protect a democratic and free market system against hostility and, and, uh, you know, uh, aggression. Like a lot of us, you know, we all come to the Taiwan question, um, neophytes, you know, babes in arms, and it takes a while to understand all the ins and outs of the Taiwan Relations Act, the Six Assurances and all those things. And that’s something a president has a hard time, I mean any president has a hard time, uh, you know, taking on and memorizing. So, I think what you’re seeing is from the highest level of American leadership, a commitment to respond to aggression, uh, and to defend those things that share values like democratic and, and a free market system. Uh, and what you’re doing here, um, and what you’ve been doing, I think in, in showing the contrast between what the mainland provides and what, uh, Taiwan stands for, uh, is enormously important.

David Stilwell: (01:46)

And so, I would take the president’s words, uh, you know–and here’s a chance to maybe add some clarity here–take the president’s words as a general statement of sentiment by the, uh, by the U.S. on the Taiwan question. And then, and then the walk backs, I think, are more, you know, again, they do contribute to the ambiguity, which in my mind is helpful. Some people don’t agree. Uh, but you saw Secretary Blinken. He also made a fairly strong statement today about the U.S. commitment, uh, to like-minded and, and commitment to peaceful resolution. I mean, that’s the basis of all this, uh, the agreement with PRC, is this, this, uh, question of Taiwan would be resolved peacefully through dialogue, without coercion or use of force. That we stand very strong on. Does that help? Does that make sense?

Simone Gao: (02:33)

Yeah, I understand, uh, where you come from. But, you know, people have been talking about different scenarios in the cross-strait relations. And one scenario they’ve been talking about is not like just like a whole invasion on Taiwan, but, for example, a takeover or invasion on the proudest island. If that happens, how, how do you think the U.S. will react?

David Stilwell: (03:00)

Well, you make a very good point, and this is the problem with red lines, by the way. If you, if you get away from, uh, a policy of, uh, ambiguity, uh, you then put yourself into a corner. And know, the PRC has proven itself time and again willing to use that tactic. I mean, again, the South China Sea island building campaign, uh, and the 2015 commitment not to militarize the islands, while at the same time militarizing the islands, shows you one, PRC does not keep its word, doesn’t believe in contracts. It believes, uh, treaties and other things are scraps of paper. And two, it shows you that they would prefer this incremental approach that avoids any direct conflict that could lead to a much greater escalation. You know, they’re, they’re, they’re not very confident in how that might go. So, a direct attack on Taiwan, uh, or any other, uh, area of, uh, uh, significant American interest.

David Stilwell: (03:56)

I mean, look what they’re doing on the border with India. Uh, any attacks like this, um, uh, I think, uh, carry too much risk. Where they believe, in what we’ve seen historically, is this just gradual, you know, put a toe over a line, this gradualism, incrementalism. Uh, it’s very difficult to make a decision. Which grain of sand that they put down on the South China Sea reach, which grain of sand was going to be reason enough for the Americans go to war? And the answer is when you’re very slow and incremental like that, it makes a decision to respond very difficult. That’s the approach they take. Uh, and then your question about, you know, outer islands or other things, you know, uh, that, you know, would, uh, damage the economy. Uh, I mean, any number of things, not necessarily directly related, related to combat conflict, uh, are all very much in, uh, the PRC’s, um, you know, you know, M.O., their, their modus operandi.

Simone Gao: (04:55)

Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, in the end, how would the U.S. respond to a situation like that? If they take the proudest island, will the U.S. act or just let it take it because that’s not the mainland of Taiwan?

David Stilwell: (05:12)

I think you saw I’m a big fan of ambiguity. And, uh, again, I’m just a citizen now. I don’t carry any authority here, but I do think that, uh, showing your hand, exposing what you might do early on–some say, that’s a good way of deterring them saying, “Hey, if, if you, if you do that, we’re gonna, you know, respond overwhelmingly.” I think there’s probably merit to that. Uh, but how many of those…uh, Xiamen, right? I mean, um, Jinmen. Any one of these, um, small islands. The Penghus. You can think of endless what-ifs here. And, as I learned in diplomacy, never answer a hypothetical. Uh, you know, so you don’t want to get into this what-if. You want to talk in bigger terms, in terms of principle, uh, and then, uh, another great conversation to have is deterrence. And what you’re describing here is a bilateral, U.S. versus China, um, problem.

David Stilwell: (06:05)

And that was the case for quite a while, but when the deputy, uh, defense minister of Japan, uh, uh, Tarō Asō came on and he says, “Nope, we too find this would be a, uh, important or critical national interest,” uh, because now the, uh, Senkakus are involved, or other issues related to Taiwan that create access problems for Japan. So, now it’s not just the U.S. versus the PRC, it’s the U.S. and Japan versus the PRC. You’ve also seen Europe, the UK, the French, increasingly the Germans, NATO, uh, more and more, Australia, others are also coming in and saying, uh, you know, “we hear the language coming out of Beijing. We, we notice there’s the saber-rattling and threats of aggression. And, uh, we are not going to put up with this.” I think that’s a great outcome. I do think that is enough to make Beijing think twice. So long as that, that threat remains credible.

Simone Gao: (07:00)

Okay. Yeah. I mean, uh, what do they mean exactly? We’re not going to put up with this. I mean, would they, would they, you know, protect Taiwan without the U.S. if U.S. is being slow? Would they take the initiative like Japan and Australia?

David Stilwell: (07:17)

I think Japan has demonstrated…now, they still are under Article Nine of their own constitution that says that they, uh, you know, war is, uh, uh, they, they renounce the use of war as a policy decision. And that’s, that’s okay, but, uh, it’s a self-defense force. And if they determined that any of these issues affect their own national defense, then you could see how that might trigger their ability to employ the, uh, self-defense force, uh, to defend itself. Uh, I’ll let you talk to Japanese experts about what their calculus is. The fact that the U.S. and Japan have a very strong alliance, in my mind the strongest alliance in the region. 50,000 American, uh, folks posted there. And you can see some of the art here, uh, you know, six years, uh, the Stilwell family being posted in Japan, very, uh, productively and happily.

David Stilwell: (08:09)

Uh, I think, uh, that the language coming out of both Washington and Tokyo is, uh, significant in deterring military adventurism. Now, here’s where the conversation really needs to go. The Chinese government, Beijing, wants us to narrow this conversation down to invasion scenarios on Taiwan. Very specific and, I think in their mind, an area where they carry at least some advantage. Uh, you know, that question, the calculus advantage, uh, might be possible if you’re talking about only the PRC and the U.S. But when you add allies and partners, then there’s no real conversation there. But they want us to speak on that. On invasion scenarios and all that stuff. Uh, where we have greater advantage, uh, is not in the East China Sea or the South China Sea but in other allies and partners, uh, in the region. Again, uh, again, India is its own being.

David Stilwell: (09:05)

They still are very much in their non-aligned world. But what’s going on on the shared border there, uh, has empowered things like the quad–India, Australia, Japan, and the U.S.–and made that a very viable, uh, um, organization, uh, orchestrate, whatever you want to call it. So, the quad is useful. The quad is another area where it’s multilateralized. My, my point here is, now I’m focused on the military. Let’s look at the economy. There are so many things that we could do that we’re not doing to, uh, get the Chinese companies who operate basically without any audit, um, requirements in our own economic system. And just to say that that’s not useful anymore. Now we’re moving in that direction, and we’re moving at deliberate pace. We could move a lot faster and just say, those companies are no longer allowed to list. Uh, there’s economic. There’s political things we could do.

David Stilwell: (09:56)

And there’s some really important information things we can do where, like the president, our messaging becomes more clear, uh, and, um, and combined with our allies and partners. Uh, again, as a strong message, not just to Beijing but to the Chinese people as well, that this is not something you want to pursue. Leveraging nationalism is a terrible idea. We know that from history. We see them trying to do that here. Uh, we need to tell them it’s not, that’s the direction they don’t want to go. Let me tell you a quick story on nationalism. In 1999, uh, an American bomber, uh, incorrectly, um, without intent but just made a mistake, ended up hitting the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. You can understand that the PRC could interpret that in one of many ways, but one thing they did was they encouraged Chinese people to attack American diplomatic, uh, functions in Beijing.

David Stilwell: (10:45)

And you remember the picture of the ambassador peering out through a broken window, uh, in the embassy compound in ’99. What’s interesting is they, they did stroke nationalism and got the Chinese people all riled up about this thing. It didn’t take very long–a day, maybe two–where those people, very angry, turned toward Tiananmen, which was just down the street, turn toward the Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound, and then begin to vent their anger toward the government and not necessarily toward the Americans any longer. This happens time and time again. So, uh, that’s something, um, we should consider is if they do start using that nationalism, nationalist tool, it has a history in China of backfiring.

Simone Gao: (11:28)

Right, right. Talking about that. There’s another example, you know, uh, the nationalism thing doesn’t work in Taiwan. Um, now the popular opinion has changed the drastically in Taiwan, uh, because, um, you know, towards the, the popular opinion has changed drastically in Taiwan towards the CCP. Uh, I mean, a majority of the Taiwanese people would not the one country, two system solution. And so if that’s the case, then the peaceful unification seems to be out of the question right now. So if shooting being really determined, it has determined to solve the Taiwan problem during his tenure. How do you think he will do it?

David Stilwell: (12:13)

Um, I think the, in history supports this, sorry about that. So I think history, sports, this, the, um, tendency, and I think it’s a good one, uh, is to wait, uh, unless there’s a problem that absolutely has to be solved right now. It’s always better to wait. And the example I use is, um, in North Korea is one I’m trying to

Simone Gao: (12:41)

Pink’s point of

David Stilwell: (12:42)

View. Yes. But I’m talking to interested in generic terms as well for any, uh, national strategy, any system, strategic level, decision-making, uh, it doesn’t help to just jump into things. Sometimes you have to write a world trade centers attack. You can’t stand for that. You need to act right now, pre-harvest deck, you have to act, but most things of this nature you don’t have to, you can, you know, as we say in the flying world, you can just sit back, wind your watch, take a breath, assess, and then think of the best response. And I’ll think of the example here in a second, but, you know, I, I use it as two points. You know, this is like the American position, and this is the position of some other country. And as you look at it from this distance, you’re going, it is impossible that we could ever get to a point where we agree on something.

David Stilwell: (13:28)

Well, let’s use France as an example, um, for the longest time, the French for it. Um, it worked almost against us interests, you know, in the sixties and seventies as nationalism and a bunch of other issues. But I remember seeing a video of a French ref foul launching off of a U S aircraft carrier, uh, during the Libya campaign. And the difference in those two things was time, you know, in the sixties and seventies, we were here and here and that bridging that gap between the us and New Zealand and France was very difficult, you know, but with time you, you, your perspective backs off and, and you move away and those points get closer and closer together. And then bridging that problem is a much easier thing to do. So time is a, uh, uh, is a really wonderful tool and you have to be patient enough to use it.

David Stilwell: (14:17)

And I think that’s what the PRC has done quite well. Frankly, over time is to take advantage of this time factor to wait until conditions get better, where they can, uh, as they say, win without fighting, uh, this book here, if, uh, your readers are interested, I find very useful. It talks a lot about the Taiwan situation scenario. Um, and again, it’s, it’s all available online. You can just read it on a PDF online. So the title is that is winning without fighting. So let me quote you a, uh, something from Andrew Erickson that just came out today, uh, responding to the Chinese military power report that came out of DOD. And he says, she thinks preference is almost certainly to use a mounting impression of overwhelming mite, uh, to intimidate the U S and its allies into faltering policies that enable their intervention and cross straight, you know, friction, uh, to a degree that ultimately erodes the resolving credibility. Uh, and cowing, Taiwan’s populous leadership into Equis and acquiescing to its demand. Um,

David Stilwell: (15:24)

They wanna basically message us and say, this is how powerful we are, and, and we’re going to do this. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Well, we haven’t reached that point yet, and they know that so time is working on their behalf. I mean, sighing one contrary to what they say has been very careful in, in her statements, in her words, she has made it very clear that she’s not going to give them the excuse to attack. And all of these things say both sides are doing what they can to manage this problem, to prevent an immediate attack. Now, some people are more, um, pessimistic about it. Some people think it’s going to happen sooner than later. Again, if I’m sitting in Beijing right now with all the economic issues, with a massive real estate debt, uh, with Enos canter and the, uh, Boston Celtics, no longer being deterred about saying what everybody actually knows and believes about how the conditions, human rights conditions in China, you know, with the Trump administration did with the, uh, uh, declaration of genocide in St. John, all these things work in our advantage. Can we hold for one second while these guys finish up this nice.

Simone Gao: (16:28)

Yeah. This is a crazy thing.

Speaker 3: (16:48)


David Stilwell: (16:57)

Three to either ask that question again. Cause my next response will go more toward Hong Kong.

Simone Gao: (17:03)

Yes. If

David Stilwell: (17:04)

You ask that question again, I can. So we’re talking about other, other, you know, people finding their voice and all that stuff, but I grew up, we’d really like to talk about the Hong Kong.

Simone Gao: (17:15)

Uh, yeah, let me just ask this question one more time. Okay. You know, the popular opinion in Taiwan and towards CCP has changed the dramatically. The vast majority of the Taiwan needs people would not accept one country, two system solution. So it seems like the, you know, the one country, two system, uh, solution. I mean, so it seems like the peaceful unification was Taiwan is out of the question right now in that case. Uh, how do you think, uh, shooting ping will solve this problem if he really wants to do it during his tenure?

David Stilwell: (18:00)

I don’t think the Beijing believes it’s necessarily out of the question. Uh, anybody who’s been to Taiwan, I think, uh, has, and, and the key factor here is of course, Hong Kong, you know, both fell under the one country, two systems rubric. In fact, I believe that the initial use of that, that term was related not to Hong Kong, but to Taiwan, if you remember 2018 elections. So on the KMT woman dong one big, uh, and there was large concern that in 2020 it would, uh, sign one would be gone. And the, uh, the game T candidate would win. And something big happened between those two events now as Hong Kong and the PRC said it was no longer going to live up to its commitment and the joint declaration with the UK and other things. And so I don’t, I can’t think of anything that could skew an entire populous. So strongly go ahead.

Simone Gao: (19:01)

Okay. You know, the popular opinion in Taiwan towards the CCP has changed drastically. Uh, you know, uh, a vast majority of the Taiwanese people do not approve the one country, two system solution anymore. So, if that’s the case, uh, the peaceful unification seems to be out of the question right now. If Xi Jinping really wanted to do this, accomplish this unification, uh, task, how do you think he will do it?

David Stilwell: (19:37)

Well, he has only himself to blame for, uh, the sentiment in Taiwan. The 2018 elections, as you remember, uh, went very strong in the direction of the Kuomintang who take, uh, an approach, uh, like the, um, uh, the pro-establishment folks in, uh, Hong Kong, Regina Ip and the like. They take a position that it’s better to work a deal with the PRC and come to some sort of accommodation. We all know that the Chinese will not uphold, the PRC won’t uphold, its side of that bargain, but that’s their approach is rather than risk something like war, I think the KMT side believes that working a deal might be the best outcome. And that made sense, in a way, in 2018, uh, but in 2019, the PRC’s really heavy handling, heavy-handed handling, of Hong Kong and legitimate protests about the eroding autonomy, uh, made the elections in January 2020 a no-brainer.

David Stilwell: (20:31)

And so, uh, you saw Tsai won and DPP won that, uh, second term quite easily. So, Beijing has no one to blame but itself for a very tactical victory in Hong Kong, by shutting down the protests that were embarrassing Beijing. You know, the narrative was that Hong Kong is going great and they love China and on, and being associated. The reality was we really don’t want any more, you know, communism here. We’d like to, you know, be, uh, autonomous as we agreed to for 50 years. And, and so they handled that problem, a short-term problem, but they created a much larger problem for themselves with Taiwan, because now that, like you say, nobody in Taiwan, with any sense, believes that, uh, this one country, two systems agreement is ever going to work in their favor. They see their future looking a lot like Taiwan with the national security law, uh, the basically dismissal of any, uh, Democrats, pan-Dems, in the LegCo, et cetera. So, um, this is a lesson for Beijing is, you know, uh, actions have consequences. You know, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction, and in politics that works as well. That, that was not a smart move. They could have handled Hong Kong a lot better.

Simone Gao: (21:41)

Yeah. So, if that’s the case, what options are left for Xi Jinping if he wants to solve this problem?

David Stilwell: (21:48)

Well, I’ll go back to that time statement, um, time. And what’s the, what’s the, um, penalty, what’s the cost of waiting? Um, if you believe that the status quo is, you know, basically stable, then time is your friend. You can wait until conditions get better, uh, to address this problem. Again, maybe, maybe something happens in Taiwan, maybe the narrative on, on the PRC improves. There’s no…dealing with my, uh, PLA counterparts, a couple of things really stood out. In, in, in, in my growing up, uh, you know, my world was very black and white. You either made a decision or you didn’t make a decision. And if you didn’t make a decision, as a military leader, you were declared indecisive and, and of little use. You know, in our system, we need decisive leaders who can, uh, react and advance, take the initiative and all that stuff.

David Stilwell: (22:41)

Well, in their system, there’s a third option. That third option is just choose not to decide. Um, and you’re not considered, you’re not being criticized for not making a decision. In fact, everybody sees that as the safest outcome is delaying a decision until the time is better to make a decision. Because if you’re wrong, if you make a bad decision, then you can be criticized and removed from power. I think this deters, um, the thing that most of us fear might happen in, in with, with respect to Taiwan is that, you know, all those other aspects of messing with the economy and injecting itself into politics, political warfare, the book I just showed you, and to stirring up, uh, problems in dissent inside democracies, messing with the media. These things are all relatively cost-free because we are not fighting on those battlegrounds.

David Stilwell: (23:30)

We’re not responding in kind to their economic warfare at us. We should, and I think we’re starting to do so. Um, but they know that we could respond, and we probably would respond, respond in kind in any sort of military, uh, aggression or an attack. So, what’s wrong with continuing to work in the economic, information, political, diplomatic sphere, and letting that do its work and keeping that military option for the very, very end when you have no other choice. Our job is to keep them from concluding that they have no other choice and can’t delay that decision, because that decision, as we used to say in flying fighters, it’s a life-changing decision. Once you make that one, there’s an outcome and there’s no middle ground. You’re going to win, or you’re going to lose. And I don’t think Beijing wants to make that, that roll the dice on that.

Simone Gao: (24:17)

Hmm. Okay. Uh, am I understanding this right? You think the time is on Beijing’s side?

David Stilwell: (24:24)

Oh, I didn’t say that. No, I, I, what I’m saying, though, is that it’s not, it’s not against them. It’s neither for them or against them. Um, and I, I mentioned status quo earlier. Some people would say that the situation with Taiwan has hit stasis, right? It’s pretty much stable. Others would say that the longer that Taiwan remains removed and independent–not independent, distant–from Beijing, so long as it remains democratic, and as long as it remains a free market and not being run and just dictated to by Beijing, the longer that happens, the further, uh, the two drift apart. Uh, I’m not going to, you know, pitch in on one side or the other. Um, but I do believe that Beijing sees the stasis, the fact that things are relatively stable, as to its advantage. And I think Taipei sees it to its advantage. Nothing wrong with that. Both sides feel like they’re winning. There’s no need to take, uh, unfortunate steps.

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