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Biden faces day of reckoning on China and Taiwan

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The Biden administration continues to impress advocates of a strong, clear-eyed U.S.policy on China and Taiwan — and to anger Chinese communist officials who had planned for a return to the accommodationist policies of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.

President Biden has put Beijing on its back foot by adhering rigorously to the Trump administration’s historic shift to a policy of defiance against China’s onslaught on Western interests and values. Since the inauguration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have embraced, and greatly expanded, their predecessors’ sporadic efforts at multilateral cooperation and emphasis on human rights in meeting the China threat.

In just the past week:

  • The U.S. ambassador to Palau visited Taiwan;
  • The State Department (DOS) called Taiwan “a critical security partner”;
  • The USS McCain (DDG-56) transited the Taiwan Strait on its way to yet another Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea;
  • The USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) made its third visit to the region under Biden; 
  • DOS released new, relaxed guidelines for official U.S.-Taiwan interactions replacing the restrictive ones Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, had canceled;
  • The administration issued a statement of “rock solid” support for Taiwan and a condemnation of China’s threatening behavior;  
  • The Commerce Department banned the sale of U.S.-made chips to Chinese technology giant Huawei;   
  • DOS affirmed that “the United States stands with our ally, the Philippines, in the face of the [People’s Republic of China’s] maritime militia amassing in the South China Sea”; and
  • Commerce blacklisted seven Chinese supercomputing companies for assisting People’s Liberation Army activities, including China’s weapons of mass destruction program.

Meanwhile, Congress, on a broad, bipartisan basis, continues to express its strong opposition to Beijing’s hostile policies and deplorable human rights record against Tibetans, Uyghurs and political dissidents, and its destruction of Hong Kong’s limited democratic system. Congress is considering several pieces of legislation that would apply further economic and diplomatic pressure on China to leave Taiwan alone — and increase political pressure on the executive branch to sustain a strong, consistent policy.  

The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act (TIPA) calls on the Biden administration — as it did the Trump administration — to take more meaningful action to deter Beijing. Neither administration has worked to advance TIPA, which is consistent with historic executive branch reluctance to surrender foreign policy prerogatives to the lawmakers. But at least the Trump and Biden teams have not openly opposed pro-Taiwan initiatives the way the Carter administration did with the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. 

When asked in the waning months of his term what he would do if China were to attack Taiwan, Trump said, “China knows what I’m gonna do” in a menacing tone that suggested a robust U.S. military response. But he declined to share with the American public what only his administration and the Chinese communists supposedly understand about the prospects for war over Taiwan.  

Similarly, Biden, in his long-delayed and only press conference so far, gave a rambling account of his two-hour telephone conversation with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, saying he told him “we are going to hold China accountable to follow the rules [on] their agreement made on Taiwan.” Like Trump, he did not disclose the actual verbal exchange so that the policy implications could be understood by the American, Taiwanese and Chinese publics.

Did they discuss the commitments Trump said he made on Taiwan? Did Biden tell Xi the U.S. will defend Taiwan? If so, what was Xi’s response? Did the leaders of the world’s two most powerful militaries discuss the likelihood of escalation over the Taiwan Strait and how it could be controlled?  

Xi and his communist colleagues have been preparing the Chinese people for the growing possibility — even the necessity — of war to “return Taiwan to the motherland.” But no U.S. president has seriously informed the American people of the moral and geostrategic implications of allowing Taiwan to fall under communist rule. Neither the Trump nor the Biden presidential campaigns addressed the issue of war with China over Taiwan, which was actually a prominent issue in the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. 

It is entirely possible, however, that Biden’s conversation with Xi accomplished one thing: dissuading Beijing from exploiting “legal warfare” to mandate an attack on Taiwan as threatened during the proceedings of the Two Sessions last month. So far, there has been no further action in Beijing to enshrine in Chinese “law” the communist state’s “obligation” to subjugate and absorb Taiwan.

Yet, actual military preparations for that contingency are ongoing and increasing — which could mean Beijing has decided it needs no further “legal” pretext beyond the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, which threatened the use of “non-peaceful means” to “reunify” China and Taiwan if “peaceful” means failed to persuade the Taiwanese to see the light … of the onrushing train.

Blinken capped the week with a television appearance in which he again criticized China for its deceitful performance on the pandemic. Asked the inevitable question on America’s intention to defend Taiwan, he responded: “We have a commitment to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, a bipartisan commitment that’s existed for many, many years, to make sure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself and to make sure that we’re sustaining peace and security in the Western Pacific. We stand behind those commitments.”

When pressed to clarify whether Washington “will militarily respond,” he said, “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. … [I]t would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force.”

Like officials from all administrations, Blinken was simply reciting the core TRA mandates to enable Taiwan to defend itself and to maintain “the U.S. capacity” to intervene directly. He did not dispel the ambiguity as to whether America actually will do so — the crucial element in China’s strategic planning. Beijing will force a decision at some point, probably when Washington is preoccupied with a crisis precipitated by Russia, Iran and/or North Korea, the quadrilateral axis of evil.

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. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Anti-Secession Law Antony Blinken China Cross-Strait relations Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Mike Pompeo Taiwan

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