China escalates its threats against Taiwan — and Biden offers concessions

Along with China’s usual vituperation and threats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit brought both admiration and alarm from American observers. The most quoted of the latter group was Thomas Friedman, who branded the trip “reckless” and warned, “Nothing good will come of it.” 

Certainly not good was the Biden administration’s response. Asked about the trip after the initial press report, the president said the Defense Department thought it untimely but he knew nothing more about it. His situational unawareness and his reliance on a subordinate’s opinion about the trip’s advisability suggested unpresidential weakness and indecision.

White House spokespersons then offered the administration’s considered position: Pelosi (D-Calif.) represented an entirely separate branch of government that was not under the president’s control. Rather than lauding the strength of the American system, the White House pleaded constitutional helplessness, conjuring an image of presidential handwringing by implying he would block the visit if he could.

The administration’s defensiveness forfeited an opportunity to give a calm and unapologetic explanation of America’s constitutional democracy where different voices are heard and heeded. The situation invited a contrast to the one-man dictatorships in Russia and China, which mock the U.S. system as ineffective and dysfunctional.

The administration could have reminded Beijing of an earlier encounter with America’s separation of powers. In 1971, President Nixon sent his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, on a secret mission to China to arrange for a subsequent presidential visit for the historic opening to China. The plan was kept not only from Congress, but even from Nixon’s own State Department.  

The absence of input from those parts of the government resulted in the deeply-flawed Shanghai Communique, with its deliberate U.S. ambiguity regarding the status and future of Taiwan. That is, it was ambiguous only on the U.S. side; China stated unequivocally that Taiwan is part of China and will be incorporated by force if necessary.  

Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai were only too happy to accept Kissinger’s language that the U.S. “acknowledges” and “does not challenge that position.” Beijing saw no ambiguity at all in the U.S. statement and welcomed it then — and for the next half-century — as full and explicit acceptance of China’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan. Legions of U.S. and foreign China experts and media pundits have read the carefully-crafted language the same way China does. That quasi-consensus in many quarters has greatly impeded American efforts to muster international opposition to China’s aggressive moves against Taiwan. It has lent credibility to Beijing’s charges of American bad faith and reneging.

When the Carter administration followed Nixon’s clandestine negotiations with China over derecognizing and further abandoning Taiwan, congressional resentment boiled over.  Immediately after Carter’s flash announcement that America would recognize the Chinese communist government and terminate diplomatic and formal security relations with Taiwan, the unconsulted Congress went to work on repairing as much of the damage as it could.

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 was a major congressional undertaking seeking to restore the diplomatic and security status quo ante to the extent possible under the separation of powers. 

The TRA enshrined three main policy principles, but for decades presidential administrations noticed only one: “Any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, [constitutes] a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and [is] of grave concern to the United States” and its corollary language, “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.”

China’s current missile launches, live-fire exercises, and complete naval encirclement of Taiwan have imposed a blockade of the island, disrupting normal commercial traffic through Taiwan’s ports and airspace, just as its military exercises did in precipitating the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1995-96.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called China’s actions “a matter of grave concern,” echoing the language of the TRA. But the administration has not moved an aircraft carrier though the Taiwan Strait, as President Clinton did in 1995 even without invoking the TRA.

Instead, Washington is positioning naval and air forces in the region and says it will continue to send some ships through the Strait, though no carrier has transited since 2007.

Hiding in plain sight in the TRA is a provision cited only recently, and not repeated, declaring it U.S. policy “to maintain the capacity … to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

That means direct U.S. intervention, which Biden has thrice said he would do for Taiwan, even though he rejected that course as too dangerous in Ukraine. China’s current blockade, along with missile and aircraft flights over Taiwan, certainly qualifies for U.S. action. If more evidence of China’s capabilities and intentions is needed, Maj. Gen. Meng Xiangquing of China’s National Defense University said last week that the demonstrated capacity to blanket the entire island means “[W]e have the ability to switch the exercise into a real war at any point.”

The third major policy declaration that has remained all but invisible in the TRA is this statement: “[T]o make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”

Taken literally, the U.S. “expectation” of a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s status was frustrated long ago, and China’s latest overt acts of aggression confirm that the premise on which diplomatic recognition of China was based has been rendered inoperable.

That is not to suggest that Washington should take the drastic step of breaking relations with China, but it certainly no longer should be reluctant to move openly to a one China/one Taiwan policy.   

Instead, as China escalates its hostility by canceling cooperation on climate change, transnational crime, and other areas supposedly inviolable and separate from contentious issues, the Biden team has responded with further concessions. It has postponed for the second time an essential test of a long-range ballistic missile. As administration spokesman John Kirby put it, the United States “is demonstrating … the behavior of a responsible nuclear power by reducing the risks of miscalculation and misperception.”

The Biden team also has registered its opposition to a congressional bill that would strengthen and expand U.S. support for Taiwan.

Once again, as with the TRA itself and the Pelosi visit, Taiwan finds its strongest friends in Congress and the American people, rather than the administration.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Biden Biden foreign policy China Henry Kissinger Nancy Pelosi Pelosi Taiwan visit Taiwan–United States relations Thomas Friedman

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