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Japan and Korea are more than spectators in the Biden-Xi contest of wills

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks as she introduces President Biden during the 2022 House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference March 11, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pa.
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President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a March 14, 2022, photo.

President Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping are playing a dangerous game of chicken over the island province of Taiwan, and one or the other will be able to declare a victory and claim ever greater power and prestige, at least over Asia.

That’s the sum total takeaway from more than two hours of palaver over the phone between Biden and Xi, during which neither resolved anything. At stake is the simple fact that Taiwan, 100 miles off China’s east coast, is an independent state governed by its own rules, and China refuses to accept Taiwan’s right to live by its laws free from the clutches of China’s growing military power all around its periphery.

Also at stake is Washington’s commitment to defend Taiwan, as reiterated by Biden during his visits to America’s Northeast Asian allies, Korea and Japan, in May. Reiterated, but not proven. Biden can talk the talk, but he’s loath to walk the walk, or at least to express frankly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) right to go to Taiwan any damn time she pleases.

Interestingly, while yakking in a phone call that anyone can imagine between frenemies in business or love, war or peace, neither Biden nor Xi mentioned the P word — P for Pelosi. She must be enjoying her own game of keeping everyone on edge, wondering if she’ll really follow through on her plan when Xi and everyone in Beijing are issuing threats about all the bad things that will happen if she does.

Let’s say Pelosi does make the trip. Then we’ll really learn whether Xi and his people are all bluff and bluster and whether Biden has the guts to stand up against them.

It’s hard to believe that Xi would order shots fired to deter Pelosi from making such a visit. He’s not going to waylay the plane that’s carrying her there, forcing it to land on Chinese soil and then holding her hostage until Biden makes a groveling apology and begs for her return, is he?

Nor, honestly, is China going to lob artillery fire into Taiwan while she’s there or blockade Taiwan ports or try to capture Taiwanese ships, holding them and their crews as spoils of war.

Oh, no? Then what will the Chinese think of to show they’re not just blowing smoke rings with all that rhetoric? This time, what might the Chinese have in mind? Actually, in the game of dare and double-dare, playing chicken like two hot-rodders crashing toward each other, challenging to see which one veers away first, Biden might just as well take the risk.

Go ahead, stop begging Pelosi not to go, as we believe he and his aides have been doing, privately, out of the glare of publicity. Go ahead, give her air cover and send a flotilla led by the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan into the Taiwan Straits that China has been claiming, just as it claims the entire South China Sea.

Let’s see what China is prepared to do in the face of such an affront, and let’s be ready to stand up militarily against China’s threats, even an attack on American or allied or friendly ships and planes.

That’s because, sooner or later — if not this time, then the next time or the time after — Washington has to defy China’s claims and charges and settle the matter of who’s got the rights to what in the region. If Pelosi is willing to take her chances, so should Biden be.

At stake is not just Taiwan but American power and prestige throughout Asia. None will be watching this drama more closely than millions of people in Japan and Korea.

The Japanese may feel they have the greatest stake since they ruled Taiwan for half a century after defeating China in the Sino-Japanese war in 1895. Unlike in Korea, which they made a protectorate in 1905 and then a colony in 1910, the Japanese got along quite well in Taiwan. They’re still close culturally and commercially.

If China were to go to war for Taiwan, Japan would have the perfect pretext for doing away with Article 9 of its “no war” constitution, adopted in 1947 during the American military occupation, declaring that Japan would never wage war again overseas. The conservatives who rule Japan would love to get away from these strictures, under which they also could do away with the policy that Japan can invest no more than 1 percent of its gross domestic product, expected to exceed $5 trillion this year, in its euphemistically named Self-Defense Forces. Military spending would probably double to 2 percent of GDP.

Korea looks upon war for Taiwan a little differently. South Korea counts on China as its biggest trading partner and also sees China as applying pressure on North Korea’s Kim Jong Un not to stage more nuclear tests or make good on his threats to “annihilate” the South.

Korea is wary of any moves under which Japan might increase its military power. Sure, it’s all well and good for Japan to defend South Korea against North Korea, but then what if the Japanese took a notion to maintain military forces in the South, as in the days before the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945?

South Korea, however, does not want China taking over Taiwan, with which it has close commercial relations. Chinese aggression toward Taiwan might expand into war on the Korean peninsula, with China on North Korea’s side as in the Korean War.

For all these reasons, Japan and Korea see the contest between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan as a test case of American power and intentions in the region. It’s a struggle from which Biden cannot back down — even if he really hates the idea of having to act strongly, decisively, if Pelosi goes there.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags Biden China aggression China-Taiwan tension Japan North Korea South Korea Xi Jinping

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