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China and Russia escalate to intimidate; America de-escalates to accommodate

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
A security guard stands near a sculpture of the Chinese Communist Party flag at the Museum of the Communist Party of China on May 26, 2022, in Beijing. China said it was conducting military exercises on July 30 off its coast opposite Taiwan after warning House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to scrap possible plans to visit the island democracy, which Beijing claims as part of its territory.

The Defense Department’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review described Russia’s nuclear strategy as an “escalate to de-escalate doctrine.” Moscow calculated that threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons would deter U.S. intervention in any Russian regional conflict.

Sure enough, as Vladimir Putin launched Russia’s next invasion of Ukraine, after going into eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, he raised his nuclear force alert and suggested using those weapons “to defend Russian sovereignty.”  

President Biden, asked if Washington and NATO would grant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s urgent request for a no-fly zone to protect against Russian air attacks, immediately rejected it. As if reading from Putin’s script, he dramatically declared, “That’s called World War III.”

The lurking fear of Putin’s threats has continued to hamper U.S. support for Ukraine. Washington has held back from providing the full complement of defensive weapons needed to defeat and repel Russian forces from all Ukrainian territory seized in the 2014 and 2022 invasions. Concern over escalation has meant that saving Putin’s face weighs more heavily in Western decisions than saving Ukrainian lives, cities and sovereignty.

China’s Xi Jinping also has used the “escalate to de-escalate” rhetoric — more accurately termed “escalate to intimidate” — as Chinese officials have brandished the use of nuclear weapons in a Sino-U.S. conflict over Taiwan. While Biden has said, three times, that America would defend Taiwan, his staff canceled each of his declarations of strategic clarity.

The “escalate to intimidate” approach permeates Beijing’s strategy toward America and the West at all levels. Its utility in advancing China’s interests, while keeping Washington on the defensive, was evident when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recently visited Taiwan.

China escalated what could have been a low-key, relatively uneventful visit into the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, threatening “severe consequences” and even allowing quasi-official conjecture about the possibility of shooting down Pelosi’s plane. It then conducted the largest ever military exercises near, over and around Taiwan, exceeding what it did in 1995-96, which Kurt Campbell, then a Clinton official, often cites as “our own Cuban missile crisis.”

Missing this time was a U.S. response commensurate with China’s expanded aggression against Taiwan, which Beijing describes as the “new normal.” 

But the new normal is anything but normal — that is, in accordance with international norms. It is a blatantly aggressive military strategy of economic, diplomatic and political strangulation against the 24 million people of Taiwan and its government. It is a clear violation of Article 1 of the United Nations Charter, which states as the organization’s purpose “the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and … the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace.”

China’s coordinated military encroachments against Taiwan and its rehearsal of a permanent blockade and invasion of the island also clearly run afoul of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which deems “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

The TRA goes further and says the use of force or economic coercion against Taiwan flouts the very basis for switching U.S. diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China: “[T]he 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.”

The Biden administration, like its predecessors, never mentions that TRA provision, even though it suggests a powerful diplomatic “nuclear” option to counter China’s growing threats against Taiwan. It supports abandoning the counterproductive policy of strategic ambiguity on defending Taiwan, essential to preventing war by Chinese miscalculation.   

Actually, the new normal had its roots in the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis when, after the Nimitz Battle Group transited the Strait in July 1995, a second transit, in March of 1996 — this time with two carriers — was shooed away by Beijing’s escalatory threat of “a sea of fire.”

Given the success of that intimidation, despite the vast disparity in U.S. and Chinese military capabilities at the time, it is no wonder Xi was sure the U.S. would back down even more expeditiously now with China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles and attack submarine fleet menacing the U.S. Navy.

His confidence was vindicated when no Navy ships ventured into the Taiwan Strait during China’s military exercises, although the USS Ronald Reagan remained on station in the region. 

Indeed, since the 1995 Nimitz transit, only one U.S. carrier has entered the Strait — the Kitty Hawk in 2007 — despite Pacific Commander Timothy Keating’s defiant statement that the Navy did not need China’s permission to transit that international waterway and would do so “whenever we choose to.” But successive U.S. administrations have chosen not to.

Russia and China escalate to intimidate; the United States de-escalates to accommodate.

While U.S. carriers have otherwise been absent from the strait for 27 years, two Chinese carriers, which didn’t exist until recently, have been making frequent patrols there, giving rise to Beijing’s latest escalation: its claim last month that the strait is strictly under Chinese sovereignty, not the international waters the world has considered it for centuries.

The Biden administration is again out-thinking itself, as it did before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, arguing that economic sanctions would best deter Putin after an invasion was underway.

After China’s unprecedented recent actions, Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, stated, “Clearly, the PRC is trying to coerce Taiwan. … They’re trying to coerce the international community. [W]e’re not going to take the bait, and it’s not going to work. So, it’s a manufactured crisis but that doesn’t mean we have to play into that.” Washington didn’t take “the bait” but Beijing pocketed the new normal.

Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink said last week that “Beijing’s growing coercion [is] deeply destabilizing. … The United States will continue to conduct routine naval transits through the Taiwan Strait.” But “routine” transits no longer include the Navy’s carrier battle groups, the greatest symbol of American power and global presence. Transits of smaller combatant ships were occurring on a regular monthly basis, but none was reported in June and, so far, none in August.

Carriers must again become part of regular strait transits if China is to understand the depth of the bipartisan U.S. commitment to Taiwan and the danger to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party that Beijing’s aggressive actions are creating. 

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 China aggression Nancy Pelosi Taiwan Taiwan Strait Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Xi Jinping

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