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To deter war with China, US must commit to defend Taiwan

To deter war with China, US must commit to defend Taiwan
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Should Xi Jinping be quaking in his boots at the prospect that Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders press secretary: 'Principal concern' of Biden appointments should be policy DeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump MORE (I-Vt.) might become president? Sanders just stated emphatically that he would “absolutely” use military force if China attacks Taiwan.

That is an (almost) unprecedented  expression of strategic clarity on the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s democratic security. But Beijing might be forgiven for dismissing it as so much political rhetoric in the midst of a presidential campaign. It has heard such tough talk before, and seen it dissipate once the candidate took office and actually had the power to follow through — but didn’t.

When Richard Nixon prepared his 1968 run for the presidency, he laid out his strategy to get “Red China” to moderate its harsh domestic policies and aggressive approach in international affairs. He argued against making premature concessions such as “to ply it with trade … which would serve to confirm its rulers in their present course.”

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He delegated to his junior partner, national security adviser Henry Kissinger, the immediate task of starting negotiations, but told him to avoid giving away too much just to get a deal: “We cannot be too forthcoming in terms of what America will do. We’ll withdraw from Taiwan, and we’ll do this, and that, and the other thing.”

Yet, in the end, that is exactly what the two consummate realists did, thereby establishing a pattern in U.S.-China relations: strong rhetoric and strategic retreat.

When Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonJimmy and Rosalynn Carter encourage people to take COVID-19 vaccine Harris taps women of color for key senior staff positions Obama, Bush and Clinton say they'll get vaccine publicly to prove safety MORE ran against George H.W. Bush in 1992, he justifiably criticized the incumbent president for “coddling the butchers of Beijing” — implying he would act differently in office.  Just after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Bush had sent his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Beijing to clink glasses with Deng Xiaoping, who had ordered the slaughter, and assured him Washington would conduct business as usual with China.

But when Clinton became president, he followed the soft Bush approach and doubled down on the China coddling. He visited Beijing and declared “three nos” against Taiwan: “We don’t support independence for Taiwan, or ‘two Chinas,’ or ‘one Taiwan, one China,’ and we don’t believe that Taiwan should be a member in any organization for which statehood is a requirement.” What were actually four restrictions on Taiwan further crushed its hopes for international dignity and respect, if not outright recognition.

But it wasn’t only political and diplomatic isolation that Clinton imposed on democratic Taiwan in deference to China’s communist leaders; it also was a diminution of Taiwan’s sense of security. When his Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Nye was bluntly asked by his Chinese counterparts what Washington would do if China attacked Taiwan, he answered, speaking for the administration, “We don’t know … it would depend on the circumstances.”

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Based on that response — which became the apotheosis of strategic ambiguity religiously followed by subsequent administrations — China set about creating “the circumstances” that would dissuade a future American president from even thinking about coming to Taiwan’s defense. It became known as the strategy of anti-access and area-denial, and consisted of a fleet of attack submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles intended to deter the Seventh Fleet from entering the Taiwan Strait or other close regional waters.

But China knew it would take a decade or more to build that capacity, so to keep the United States at bay in the meantime, Chinese military officials periodically made apocalyptic threats against the American homeland itself, using the missiles and nuclear weapons it already had — first warning U.S. officials “you care more about Los Angeles than Taiwan.” A few years later, it escalated the warning of nuclear annihilation to “hundreds of American cities.”

Now, 25 years after the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis that ended in U.S. aircraft carriers standing down after Chinese threats of a “sea of fire,” China has the military capability to make more specific and credible threats. Rear Adm. Luo Yuan of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, said last year: “What the United States fears the most is taking casualties,” and that sinking a couple of U.S. carriers could kill as many as 10,000 sailors. “We’ll see how frightened America is.” 

Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, when asked the same question early in his administration, stated emphatically the United States would do “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. But this precursor to the Sanders warning, even by someone already in office, horrified the foreign policy establishment and was quickly walked back by administration officials.

Such defiance was not heard again as the administration suddenly found itself waging a Global War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks and bought into Beijing’s line that China and the U.S. were “strategic partners” in the anti-terrorism project. Would a new terrorist attack during a Sanders administration similarly divert its attention from the omnipresent China threat, especially given his aversion to U.S. defense spending? For that matter, would it divert President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE, who, Xi may have noticed, has yet to declare a firm commitment to Taiwan’s defense? 

For the eighth American administration, strategic ambiguity continues to wield its dangerous allure — even as Xi shows increasing impatience and Kissinger warns Taiwan that China “won't wait forever.”

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 is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies, and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.