To avert war, US must stop viewing Taiwan island as a proxy battlefield: Pentagon whistle-blower
Published: Apr 28, 2022 05:57 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Editor's Note:

The hysteria toward China has risen to a new peak in the US. Political climate in Washington is increasingly weird in terms of China-related topics. Why is there so much irrationality on China in the US? How to view China-US relations from a constructive perspective? The Global Times (GT) interviewed several Chinese and American observers on these topics.

Franz Gayl (Gayl), a retired Marine Corps infantry officer, believes because of a China-averse groupthink, the US' unbridled approach to managing contemporary US-China relations is fraught with deadly risks. He said it's highly unlikely that a major US military or political class personality might speak out against dominant narratives, because it is equivalent to a career suicide. This is the second interview in the series.

GT: You warned the Biden administration that it is "at risk of entangling America in a major war with China over the status of the island of Taiwan" last June in an open letter after you were investigated for publishing two articles in the Global Times expressing a different position from that of the US government over the Taiwan issue. Compared with last year, do you think the possibility of a military conflict between China and the US over the Taiwan question has grown bigger or smaller? Why?

Gayl: The letter was probably never read by its intended audience. As for the Global Times articles, I was flagged as a PRC propaganda mouthpiece, or a biased Sinophile. Some began viewing me with suspicion in 2006 when I interviewed Counselor Jia Xuedong at the Chinese Embassy as part of my National Defense University research. Most of my articles on the topic of Taiwan island have been rejected, likely because I was the author.

Since last year the possibility of war has grown. With both of our countries anticipating contingencies the number of military assets in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits and the region have certainly increased in density. The possibility that war could be triggered by accident in congested seas and airspace has also increased.

Aggravating tensions is the US' increase in security assistance and advanced weapons sales to Taiwan island. The dangers are compounded by the flow of elected and unelected officials to-through Taiwan in their official capacities. Any neutral observer would conclude that America has unilaterally adopted a "One China, One Taiwan" policy that could culminate in Taiwan's recognition by the US as an independent nation.

It is unlikely that US decision makers are taking the time to deeply research the issue themselves for an unvarnished appreciation of the facts, especially the historical context. Instead, their professional staffs, all well-attuned to political winds and opportunities, summarize the issues in fashions that provide their principals political advantage. In the process the national security establishment and its Congressional overseers have been dumbed down to embrace a China-averse groupthink. This unbridled approach to managing contemporary US China relations is fraught with deadly risks. 

GT: It was exposed last September Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley placed two phone calls to his Chinese counterpart in the waning months of Donald Trump's presidency to secretly reassure Beijing that the United States would not attack the country. Compared with Trump's period, how is the atmosphere in the US military toward China now?

Gayl: Independent of divergent perspectives of our two nations, frequent, candid, and informal communications between senior military leaders should be welcomed. Such spontaneous dialogues between superpower are critical to diffusing misunderstandings and managing accidents. It was this sort of military exchange and professional and personal familiarity that helped the US and Soviet Union to avoid conflict throughout the Cold War.

All presidents should, and I believe have, encouraged their most senior subordinates to exercise informed initiative, especially when operational pictures are foggy, and time is short.

Franz Gayl Photo: Courtesy of Gayl

Franz Gayl Photo: Courtesy of Gayl

GT: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin just held a rare call with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe. What's the significance of such communication? How do you comment on the ability of the two militaries in controlling the situation and preventing a war in the Taiwan Straits? 

Gayl: Continuous communication is critical, especially when there are such stark differences. It is always good for the Chinese to share the fundamental importance of One China unification with US contemporaries at all levels of government and in various ministries.  

The greatest misunderstanding to date has been the divergent understanding of a "non-negotiable core priority" to both of our nations. I believe for the Chinese these words carry unambiguous meaning, and once uttered reliably portend consequences, whether they are positive or negative. China's territorial integrity and sovereignty are core priorities at the heart of China's civilizational identity.  

However, whenever China asserts that Taiwan is a part of China, US decision makers are dumbfounded, and at great risk reject that reality. Bounded between two oceans the American world view is fundamentally different. Historically, as an imperialism-inclined nation, we have viewed foreign territorial sovereignty as a material attribute that is open to interpretation and subject to negotiation.

For example, the Louisiana Purchase and our acquisition of Alaska were business transactions. Those territories were treated as material commodities. Any sentimentality relating to the organic relationship of resident indigenous peoples to ancestral lands carried no value in the transactions. Similarly, Hawaii had been settled for hundreds of years and was one of only 44 sovereign nations, enjoying formal diplomatic relations with many others. The US saw things differently. Hawaii was an ideal imperial outpost and had long-demonstrated economic potential. Sovereignty meant nothing to the US when it dispatched a naval expedition, landed a contingent of Marines and overthrew the monarchy under the threat of violence. Hawaii is good business, and remains a spoil of imperialism possessed by the US.  

Without continuous communication between Chinese and American military and civilian leaders that emphasizes the position on Taiwan, forgetful US elites could stumble on a sobering non-negotiable reality. To avert the outbreak of war, the US must be continually reminded that the wayward province of Taiwan is not an "unsinkable American aircraft carrier," a proxy battlefield, or an independent sovereign nation. We must understand that the island is part of China, and stand for a moment in China's shoes to comprehend the dire consequences of ignoring that reality. 

GT: Anti-China US lawmakers have increased the frequency and intensity of stepping on the red line of the Taiwan question. From the perspective of the US military, is this in the US interests?

Gayl: This would indicate that the only two branches of US Federal Government that concern themselves with foreign policy, i.e., the Executive and Congress, have abandoned the One China policy in practice. Popular messaging confirms that the US government perceives Taiwan as a sovereign nation independent from China, and that no further historical understanding is necessary. For incoming members of Congress and bureaucrats lacking Cold War context, China's unresolved civil war is dated and irrelevant history.  

With the probability of their reelection dependent on increasingly hawkish public opinion, they are easily persuaded to join the preexistent bipartisan, bicameral political groupthink regarding Taiwan. One China is a meaningless mantra used only to appease diplomatic consumption, while the mainstream media effectively dismisses the reality by fueling Taiwan's independence narrative. By all appearances China-averse politicians and their special interests desire that the public perceives the Taiwan Relations Act as a binding security treaty between US and sovereign Taiwan. 

GT: Who is pushing the risk of a China-US showdown in the Taiwan Straits bigger and bigger? Does the US' dangerous Taiwan policy have a brake system? 

Gayl: The war in Ukraine has been a gift to those in Congress, the Executive, industry and the public who desire war with China over Taiwan to resuscitate American influence in the Western Pacific and Asia. There is ghoulish celebration of every Russian setback, and every new Ukrainian martyr. A similar war over Taiwan would be deeply satisfying for political class members of both parties if it was perceived as a sure win that perpetuates US regional hegemony.  

Many US elites remain emotionally tied to the pseudo-religious belief in US exceptionalism. It is embraced as a global Manifest Destiny, not just restricted to the Western Hemisphere. Underlying their idealistic fervor is a less-mentioned regret that the temptation to profit from globalization clouded their judgement at a critical time. By permitting other willing nations to assume the hard intellectual and physical work of progress, these corporations and politicians traded away organic American productive capacity for their own leisure. A once vigorous American culture has been permitted to atrophy.  

Still, some stubbornly optimistic neoconservative political calculations project that a high intensity world war will reignite dormant US patriotism and a national work ethic. With WWII as an inspiration, a war with China could lead to a new "great generation" that ideologically, technologically and physically dominates global affairs through the 21st Century.  

Unfortunately, there is no effective brake system against these trends in the US. A single reality-grounded authority with emergency authorities could - perhaps temporarily - apply brakes on the opportunistic forces that propel our Byzantine construct towards war. Otherwise, the likelihood of war will continue to build.  Yet, the irony is that history has outpaced the American political class's ability to recapture lost imperial initiative, even by force. Peaceful multi-polar parity is the best we can hope for globally.  

War between the US, China and all the others who will inevitably be drawn in, will entail an unimaginable conflagration for which there is no historical precedent. Combining the strategic firebombing and nuclear devastation of Japan's cities with the long-term radiation impacts of the modern-day Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents provide a mere glimpse of the industrial-scale horror show in store for any and all participants. This inhuman and environmental catastrophe will recognize no borders. It would be the same case with any nuclear-armed superpower that dares to threaten the core national security priorities of any other nuclear-armed superpower today, whether it be the US, China or Russia.  

GT: Are those opposing a war with China over the Taiwan question the majority of the US? How are they being treated by the US political circle? Given your experiences and sufferings, do they still dare to speak up and express their concerns over the US Taiwan policy? 

Gayl: If polls are to be believed, the media-manipulated public appears to be leaning strongly towards the inevitability, if not the patriotic desirability of war with China. It is very difficult to reverse a groupthink that is building momentum at the national level.  

Many experts on China and the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) theater likely have competing views on the issue of Taiwan, some for and some against US interference and intervention. But the current groupthink is hawkish on China's positions and policies on all matters. When it comes to Taiwan, one must assume frank contrarian views are only expressed behind closed doors, and even then, at some professional risk. Except for planned journalist ambushes, the mainstream media does not invite experts who have views that, while qualified, do not reinforce the emotional patriotic groupthink narrative.  

Ever since I first studied and wrote on the Taiwan conundrum in 2005, I have naively attempted to do just that. Yet, why would anyone of elite status entertain that some stooge bureaucrat recognized something valid that the experts did not already know? 

As a civil servant with no China credentials, my views would never be taken seriously. In 2005 my views were tolerated, but ultimately seen as amateurish and naïve. 17 years later the dangers are more acute. So, now I am discredited as an attention hound desperately seeking the limelight. At a minimum I must be a paid, compromised tool used to spread Chinese propaganda and talking points. Some even consider me to be a traitor who belongs in prison; an unpatriotic narcissist unable to recognize the immorality of my actions. In the end, my contrarian views and I will be forgotten after my ignominious departure from the civil service.

But the credentialed political and intellectual elites have much more to lose if they get crossways with the patriotic US narrative that insists Taiwan is an independent, sovereign nation and militarily allied with the US. The celebrated academic careers and reputations of dissenters can be upended overnight by media voices promoting China-averse messaging on the topic.  

For example, the popular and heroic, yet artificial and utopian, narrative on Ukraine serves as evidence. For an American to acknowledge any of Russia's core national security interests or historical perspectives on the matter would be career suicide in the current climate. Likewise, to critique Ukraine's actions or highlight the eager willingness of major US defense contractors to fuel Ukraine's bloodshed-for-profit would be blasphemy.  

The same coercive message shaping forces are at work in the media to undercut China's position on Taiwan island. Admittedly, it's not impossible that a major military or political class personality might speak out against dominant narratives, but it is highly unlikely.