China and Taiwan: Can Biden be like Ike?

China and Taiwan: Can Biden be like Ike?
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As China takes another step to crack down on Hong Kong, forcing the removal of four pro-democracy members of the Legislative Council and sparking the defiant resignation of 15 more, the reaction in Taipei has been unmistakable.

Last week, Taiwan’s Naval Command for the first time publicly acknowledged that U.S. Marines are taking part in a “routine” joint training exercise with their Taiwanese counterparts. Such actions have taken place regularly since the 1979 American recognition of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and declaration of a “One China” policy. But to mollify Beijing, the U.S. and Taiwan have maintained a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” regarding publicizing these maneuvers. 

Adding an element of intrigue, the Pentagon on Tuesday tersely retorted that “The reports of US Marines on Taiwan are inaccurate.” Whatever has taken place, Taiwan’s leaders are hinting they would like the American security commitment, outlined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, to be clarified, something President TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE and his administration have avoided. In his recent White House memoir, former National Security Adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonBolton: Trump lacked enough 'advance thinking' for a coup Trump said he hoped COVID-19 'takes out' Bolton: book US drops lawsuit, closes probe over Bolton book MORE described Trump’s attitude toward Taiwan as “dyspeptic.” 

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Taipei has legitimate cause for concern. In recent months, People’s Liberation Army aircraft have regularly violated what Taiwan considers its airspace, and there is speculation that Chinese President Xi Jinping might authorize the seizure of one or more of Taiwan’s offshore islands. In October Xi called for his army “to put all minds and energy on preparing for war.” Despite the deep economic ties that have evolved between the two entities, tensions are on the rise. 

While economic rivalry with China has taken the center of the policy stage during the Trump years, the incoming Biden administration may soon find itself tested by a direct military confrontation with Beijing over Taiwan. A look back six decades at the last such standoff offers some insight into how one might play out today.

Japan seized control of Taiwan in 1895 and relinquished it after its 1945 Pacific War surrender. The U.S. transferred control of the island – then known as Formosa – to the Nationalist (Kuomintang)  forces of Chiang Kai Shek, whose government fled to the island following its 1949 civil war defeat by Mao Zedong’s communists. Chiang’s forces brutally suppressed a Formosa independence movement that resisted his establishment of a Republic of China government in exile, and the Nationalists would rule the island under a state of martial law for nearly four decades.

Preoccupied with security considerations in Europe, the Truman administration was reluctant to make commitments to Chiang or to the South Koreans. But its hand was forced, politically and strategically, by the 1950 North Korean invasion of the South. As the U.S. Army fought in Korea, military aid to Formosa was resumed in 1951. In December 1954, the Eisenhower administration signed the U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty, which led to one of the biggest foreign policy crises of the decade.

On September 3, 1954, Mao had authorized the shelling of the Nationalist controlled island of Quemoy in the Taiwan Strait. An outpost with more psychological than military significance, it could not be allowed to fall following the French defeat in May at the hands of the Vietnamese communists, and the subsequent partition of Vietnam that was perceived as a collateral blow to America’s position in East Asia. 

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While the Mutual Defense Treaty did not specifically mention Quemoy or neighboring Matsu, Mao saw it a provocation, and his subsequent shelling of the Tachen islands compelled Eisenhower in January 1955 to seek authority to defend Formosa and its “closely related localities.” Congress overwhelmingly concurred. Ike had decided that the perceived drift in American Asia policy since the Korean armistice and Vietnam partition was itself a threat to peace.

In the words of biographer William Hitchcock, “Eisenhower had laid down a bold red line and signaled to his adversary that he, and his nation, would not retreat.” Asked in March, 1955 if he would authorize the use of atomic weapons against the People’s Republic, he bluntly answered that “for strictly military purposes, I see no reason why they shouldn't be used just exactly as you would use a bullet, or anything else.” China got the message. In April, PRC Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai announced that China sought peace with the U.S. and the shelling of the islands tapered off.

Eisenhower had successfully defended a U.S. ally, but has been criticized in retrospect for brinkmanship, and for advocating a domino theory that helped make inevitable the U.S. military commitment in Vietnam. But as Hitchcock points out, Eisenhower was not making decisions in retrospect, but in real time, in the face of a real threat. There is no question that his action in 1954 has preserved to this day Taiwan’s territorial integrity, fostering its remarkable economic growth and transition to democracy and growing sense of Taiwanese identity.

The Taiwan Relations Act declares that American recognition of the People’s Republic “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means and that any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means … is considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” It also permits defensive weapons sales to Taiwan, sales that have increased in recent years. 

Looking across the South China Sea at Hong Kong, where China’s guarantee of that city’s autonomy until 2047 has been effectively nullified, it is difficult to imagine Beijing's avowed objective of absorbing Taiwan taking place by “peaceful means.”  

A Biden State Department will no doubt express grave concern at threats of Chinese aggression. It may not come to a nuclear standoff; but should recent provocations escalate, would President Biden, like Ike, be willing to draw a red line?

Paul C. Atkinson, a former executive at the Wall Street Journal, is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.