Could Beijing ‘borrow’ America’s Cold War Cuba strategy to lock down Taiwan?

By Stephen Kuper

While attitudes changed over time, America’s Cold War quarantine of Cuba is widely recognised as a legitimate response to a direct threat to the US mainland. Could the core approach of the quarantine provide Beijing with a “legitimate” means of isolating Taiwan and breaking the island democracy before a “peaceful reunification”?

It is widely recognised as one of, if not the closest, the world has come to a full-blown nuclear Armageddon, the fallout of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the diplomatic games of brinkmanship between the nuclear-armed superpowers continue to resonate well into the 21st century.

The game of brinkmanship between President John F Kennedy and Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had its roots in earlier meetings between the two leaders over the status of strategic nuclear weapons systems in Europe and Turkey, culminating in the Berlin Crisis of 1961.

Indeed, the perception among Soviet advisers at the time was that President Kennedy was “too young, intellectual, not prepared well for decision making in crisis situations … too intelligent and too weak”. This was further reinforced by Khrushchev in the aftermath of the Berlin Crisis when he was quoted as saying, “I know for certain that Kennedy doesn’t have a strong background, nor, generally speaking, does he have the courage to stand up to a serious challenge.”

This formed the basis for the Soviet’s bold ambitions to balance the strategic scales by placing nuclear weapons close to the US mainland, effectively countering the US Titan missile systems based in Turkey, further undermining President Kennedy in the aftermath of the disastrous Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Under the guise of humanitarian aid and development assistance, the Soviets responded to the calls for aid from Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, playing perfectly into the hands of the Soviets who were eager to increase their first-strike capabilities against the mainland United States and counter the vast edge in nuclear and conventional forces enjoyed by the Americans.

The Soviet deployment of some 40,000 Soviet troops disguised as “machine operators”, “agricultural specialists”, and “irrigation specialists” laid the groundwork for what would ultimately become an immense Soviet military build-up, including conventional platforms like MiG-21 fighters and Il-28 bombers, ultimately paving the way for the fielding of SA-2 surface-to-air missile systems and R-12 theatre ballistic missiles and the R-14 intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

This conventional and nuclear-build up would embolden the Cuban regime to warn the United States against any repeat of the Bay of Pigs, with Cuban President Osvaldo Torrado telling the United Nations General Assembly in 1962, “If … we are attacked, we will defend ourselves. I repeat, we have sufficient means with which to defend ourselves; we have indeed our inevitable weapons, the weapons, which we would have preferred not to acquire, and which we do not wish to employ.”

But what does all of this have to do with Taiwan?

Broadly speaking, the two nations, Cuba and Taiwan, are island nations geographically close to a global superpower embroiled in a broader geopolitical and global strategic competition with another global superpower and are home to political systems considered anathema to the neighbouring superpower.

Both island nations also represent the remnants of the Cold War competition between the liberal democratic, capitalist world and the communist autocratic systems, which is gaining new life as the United States and China square off against one another in the 21st century’s great game of the geopolitical and strategic competition.

This has been reinforced by China’s President Xi Jinping who has frequently reiterated that the reunification of Taiwan with mainland China is one of the key priorities for the Chinese Communist Party, with President Xi stating at the Party’s 20th Congress recently, “Resolving the Taiwan issue is the Chinese people’s own business, and it [is] up to the Chinese people to decide.

“We insist on striving for the prospect of peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and best efforts, but we will never promise to give up the use of force and reserve the option to take all necessary measures … The historical wheels of national reunification and national rejuvenation are rolling forward, and the complete reunification of the motherland must be achieved, and it must be achieved!” President Xi said.

Standing opposite is Washington’s longstanding support for the Taiwanese people and insistence that Beijing must continue to honour the right to self-determination of the Taiwanese people and subsequent defence support for the island democracy, enabling Taiwan to resist any forceable reunification attempts.

Blockade or quarantine? The line is pretty thin

Since the end of the Chinese Civil War and the successful rise of Mao’s Chinese Communist Party in 1949, the United States has moved to provide the Taiwanese military with sufficient capabilities to defend itself from any open hostilities or forcible attempts at reunification with mainland China.

As Beijing has increasingly stepped up its regional ambitions and embarked on the largest peacetime military modernisation and expansion in history, Taipei has increasingly looked to the US to provide increasing guarantees beyond the concept of strategic ambiguity to guarantee its security.

This has only ramped up Chinese military exercises and antagonism towards the island democracy, with a series of exercises over the past few months demonstrating the increasing multi-domain capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army and in particular, its capacity to effectively isolate the island enacting immense cost on the United States and allies who might seek to intervene and sway the balance of power in favour of Taiwan.

While Chinese fighter aircraft, bombers, and tanker aircraft dominated the skies over the Taiwan Strait conducting a series of precision strikes and combat air patrols, destroyers, frigates, swarms of submarines, and at least one Chinese aircraft carrier prowled the waters demonstrating the full spectrum dominance of the Chinese military and its capacity to mass force in a cohesive manner toward a single target.

In response, the United States and Western allies, often considered distracted by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, have stepped up support for the besieged island democracy, ramping up rhetoric and, in the case of the United States, stepping up the modernisation of the Taiwanese military, seeking to reinforce the key regional partner.

In March of this year, the United States approved US$619 million (AU$929.7 million) in military equipment including some 200 AMRAAM missiles, 100 HARM missiles to equip Taiwan’s F-16 fleet of fighter jets, combined with several suites of aircraft spare parts, modernisation and sustainment components in February, a US$180 million deal to provide the VOLCANO vehicle-launched anti-tank weapons system and a number of other weapons systems deals that would, as the US State Department explained: “The proposed sale will contribute to the recipient’s capability to provide for the defence of its airspace, regional security, and interoperability with the United States. The recipient will have no difficulty absorbing this equipment into its armed forces.”

Importantly, as with all of the recent sales to Taiwan, the US State Department has moved to reassure China, “The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”

However, how long will Beijing take that line as gospel? And what are its options?

Well, looking at the similarities in the scenario, Beijing could seek to pursue a “quarantine” of Taiwan, effectively prohibiting the US supply of weapons systems, munitions, and other key technologies and industrial inputs to the island.

Sounds far-fetched? Well in some ways, Beijing has already recently implemented such an operation, with the Fujian Maritime Safety Administration conducting a three-day special joint patrol and inspection operation in the waters of the Taiwan Strait, including moves to board and inspect ships traversing the waters beginning on 6 April.

How is this similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the ensuing quarantine of Cuba?

US concerns about the legality of any naval “blockade”, which under international law is considered an act of war, were reflected in the options presented to President Kennedy by the Executive Committee of the National Security Committee (EXCOMM), namely:

  1. Do nothing: American vulnerability to Soviet missiles was not new.
  2. Diplomacy: use diplomatic pressure to get the Soviet Union to remove the missiles.
  3. Secret approach: offer Castro the choice of splitting with the Soviets or being invaded.
  4. Invasion: full-force invasion of Cuba and the overthrow of Castro.
  5. Airstrike: use the US Air Force to attack all known missile sites.
  6. Blockade: use the US Navy to block any missiles from arriving in Cuba.

Playing devil’s advocate, Taiwan, like Cuba, insists that all of its weapons systems are “defensive” in nature, nevertheless, President Kennedy in his address to the nation, explained, “To halt this offensive build-up, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, from whatever nation or port, will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back. This quarantine will be extended, if needed, to other types of cargo and carriers. We are not at this time, however, denying the necessities of life as the Soviets attempted to do in their Berlin blockade of 1948.”

Note here, that it is the United States that defined what it believed to be “offensive weapons”, despite the protestations from the Cuban government and the refutations and reassurances by the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin who “was instructed by Soviet Chairman Nikita S Khrushchev to assure President Kennedy that there would be no ground-to-ground missiles or offensive weapons placed in Cuba”.

Again, playing devil’s advocate, there is no doubt, ballistic missiles whether nuclear armed or not are indeed an offensive weapons system, they are however, equally a defensive weapons system afforded this capacity through the level of tactical and strategic deterrence they confer. So could both parties actually be right?

In light of these points, could Beijing actually leverage loss definitions to enforce its own “quarantine” on Taiwan?

Building international consensus is critical

One of the core pillars of President Kennedy’s strategy for implementing the quarantine on Cuba was the support of the international community and coalition building that was essential to success in the United Nations.

As part of this push, President Kennedy rallied the Organisation of American States (OAS) to support the US push for a quarantine on Cuba, while effectively bluffing the Soviets through the implementation of a quarantine, rather than a formal blockade.

The Kennedy administration built further legal consensus via support from the OAS and the supporting Rio Treaty of collective defence for the Western Hemisphere, bringing together the collective security concerns of nations in the hemisphere and directly engaging their buy in.

This approach is explained by the then US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral George Anderson, in a position paper presented to President Kennedy, whereby he explains, “This initially was to involve a naval blockade against offensive weapons within the framework of the Organization of American States and the Rio Treaty. Such a blockade might be expanded to cover all types of goods and air transport. The action was to be backed up by surveillance of Cuba.”

This was further reinforced by support from the United Kingdom, France, West Germany, Italy, Canada, and Australia, along with other global US allies who sought a peaceful resolution to the threats posed and enabled the United States to leverage its good will at a time of critical importance.

Following a similar approach could work for Beijing, should it seek to implement a quarantine on Taiwan. While the nature of Beijing’s international relationships vary, the growing interconnectedness, debt-trap diplomacy, and efforts to build parallel international structures or outright subverting them positions the superpower extremely well in any future claim.

Organisations like the BRICS economic, political, and strategic bloc of nations including Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa, coupled with increasing Chinese influence in Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and parts of the South Pacific all represent a major challenge to the status quo, while equally undermining the efficacy of the United Nations and other multilateral organisations, thus improving Beijing’s chances of successfully advocating for a quarantine.

Further compounding any push is the declining goodwill toward the United States, particularly following recent decades of foreign adventurism, failed expeditionary operations in the Middle East, declining political cohesion, and mounting economic weakness.

Either way, it is possible for Beijing to take such an approach, and perhaps unwittingly, Washington has provided the road map and both abdicated and surrendered the global stage at an equally troubling period in history.

Lessons for Australia’s future strategic planning

There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition.

Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia, this is particularly well explained by Peter Zeihan, who explains:

“A deglobalised world doesn’t simply have a different economic geography, it has thousands of different and separate geographies. Economically speaking, the whole was stronger for the inclusion of all its parts. It is where we have gotten our wealth and pace of improvement and speed. Now the parts will be weaker for their separation.”

Accordingly, shifting the public discussion and debate away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?


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