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Biden must tell Beijing: ‘War means instant independence for Taiwan’

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The people of Afghanistan are bearing the escalating brunt of inhuman Taliban rule after President Biden’s abandonment of the country. However exasperated many Americans felt about the prolonged U.S. stay in Afghanistan, they do not like what Biden has done and said about it, and his approval ratings have justifiably fallen.

For its part, China mocks Biden personally and the United States generally as weak and untrustworthy. Driving its disdain home, it has issued a brazen new challenge, threatening military action against Taiwan if Washington merely allows President Tsai Ing-wen to participate in a remote democracy conference planned for December.

Biden announced in February that he will convene a Summit for Democracy to “bring together heads of state, civil society, philanthropy and the private sector, serving as an opportunity for world leaders to listen to one another and to their citizens.”

Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador in Washington, Hsiao Bi-khim, told administration officials that Taiwan would like to participate. She said she received “very positive feedback.”

At a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting in March, Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.) asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken if he was committed to inviting Taiwan, and he responded, “I’m absolutely committed to working on it. I share your view that Taiwan is a strong democracy, a very strong technological power and a country that can contribute to the world and not just its own people.”                    

That glowing commitment has been put in doubt now by a) the disastrous retreat from Afghanistan, and b) China’s dire warnings against Taiwanese involvement.

Hu Xijin, editor of Beijing’s propaganda outlet Global Times, warned last week that Tsai’s participation would “gravely violate” China’s red lines on Taiwan and would present “a historic opportunity for Chinese fighter jets to fly over the island.” That would be a blatant violation of Taiwan’s sovereign airspace, and Taiwan’s military would be justified in firing warning shots.                                                                     

Hu, known for fiery rhetoric unrestrained by Beijing, anticipated that possibility: “If the Taiwan military dares to open fire on the PLA fighters, the large number of missiles aimed at Taiwan’s military targets from the mainland and our bomber fleets will make a decisive answer and write history.”

The cross-Strait war would then be on, and the United States would have to discover, in extremis, whether it has the capacity mandated by the Taiwan Relations Act  “to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security …  of the people on Taiwan.” More critically, Washington would need to decide under desperate circumstances whether it has the will to do so.

The crisis scenario can be avoided if Biden makes clear now that the U.S. will defend Taiwan — for all the longstanding moral and geostrategic reasons, but now also to restore America’s international credibility after the horror and shame of Afghanistan. That U.S. red line more than matches Communist China’s sensibilities over whether Tsai appears on a virtual conference with scores of other democracy advocates, many of whom would not be national leaders or even government officials.  

Beijing could save face by choosing to treat Tsai as representing just another nongovernmental organization, called Taiwan. Washington, of course, would simply ignore that pseudo-designation and treat Taiwan as Taiwan, not Chinese Taipei or any other demeaning alias. 

While the administration said last week that invitations to the summit had not been extended yet, at least some embassies already had received theirs. Biden and/or Blinken must announce soon that Taiwan has been invited and will participate on an equal basis with all other democratic invitees.

As for China’s “unofficial” threats to violate Taiwan’s airspace and potentially provoke a military conflict, Washington should definitively declare that America will help defend Taiwan. In an ABC-TV interview last week, Biden seemed prepared to take such a stand. George Stephanopoulos challenged him with this: “You already see China telling Taiwan, ‘See? You can’t count on the Americans.’”

Biden responded emphatically, “We made a sacred commitment to Article 5 that if, in fact, anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

Biden’s declaration of a solid security commitment to Taiwan was quickly diluted by administration explanations that “U.S. policy has not changed.” That recalled the immediate staff walk-back of President George W. Bush’s pledge to do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan, or the hasty reassurance of “no policy change” when then-President-elect Trump graciously accepted Tsai’s congratulatory call in 2016. 

But there is also Trump’s enigmatic comment in 2020 that “China knows what I’m gonna do” if it attacks Taiwan, obliquely suggesting that Beijing was warned of military conflict with America. Biden’s far more specific security statement expands on Trump’s remark and seems to suggest that both administrations have conveyed firm U.S. intentions to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

If so, those secret warnings manifestly have not had the intended deterrent effect; China persists in both its escalating rhetoric and its provocative actions. A greater public demonstration of U.S. will is needed. Biden should repeat his statement of commitment to Taiwan — and this time, Blinken and the rest of the national security team should endorse and affirm it as a serious new policy declaration, rather than dismissing it as a typical Biden gaffe.  

To further demonstrate U.S. resolve, Biden should tell Beijing that any more threats of force against Taiwan’s participation in the democracy summit will trigger immediate diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and an official statement of Washington’s new “One China, One Taiwan” policy. Beijing must understand that war would mean instant Taiwan independence.

Finally, the administration should warn Beijing that any use of force against Taiwan would undermine the very premise of the U.S.-China relationship itself.  

The Taiwan Relations Act clearly stated in 1979, “[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.” 

Beijing long has gotten away with threats of force against Taiwan through its moves short of kinetic action in the “gray zone.” Flying military aircraft over Taiwan as a direct provocation would make it a very dark gray zone and would virtually constitute an act of war. Biden needs to tell Xi that brinkmanship over Taiwan is no longer acceptable in a peaceful relationship with the United States.

Perversely, Biden’s disastrous performance on Afghanistan and the terrible price the Afghan people are paying have created both the imperative and the motivation for Washington to act responsibly on Taiwan.

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 Antony Blinken China Cross-Strait relations George Stephanopoulos Joe Biden Taiwan Taiwan–United States relations Tsai Ing-Wen

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