The Biden administration must stop Beijing’s bullying of Taiwan
China has greatly increased its provocations against Taiwan since Oct. 1, dispatching 145 military aircrafts into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone; on Oct. 4 alone it flew 56 warplanes, the largest incursion in recent history. Two salient issues are whether China intends to intensify its bullying of this democratic country, and how the United States should respond.
As Taiwan’s international status has risen dramatically since the pandemic, the U.S. and other countries have increased official contact with the self-ruled island. Chinese leader Xi Jinping no doubt worries about this trend. Xi does not want the international community to treat Taiwan as a normal, independent country — as, in fact, it should be — because that could grant Taiwan full nation-state status in the eyes of international law.
Xi has employed a strategy that he put forward in 2016 when addressing the South China Sea problem just before the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued its landmark ruling in favor of the Philippines over China. Xi ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and other agencies to take immediate actions to create and maintain China’s presence in the region and make this presence uncontroversial to ensure China’s sovereignty claim over the entire area.
The Global Times, an official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), published an editorial on Oct. 3 praising the PLA for doing a great job, claiming that flying warplanes in Taiwan’s airspace was “another form of the National Day air parade … moved from Tiananmen Square to the Taiwan Strait, a clear and unmistakable declaration of China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.” It also asserted that Taiwan’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has become a thorn that China must remove, and claimed that how and when to resolve the issue of Taiwan’s future is entirely up to China.
To implement Xi’s strategy to ramp up China’s presence over the Taiwan Strait and disrupt existing international norms, China has flown its fighter jets over Taiwan’s airspace for more than 198 days this year, as a show of force. It apparently intends to scare Taiwan into not pursuing full membership in the international community. China’s warnings are directed not only at Taipei but also at the U.S. and other countries not to elevate relations with Taiwan, including by formally admitting Taiwan into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Xi evidently intends to corner Taiwan by leaving no space for its existence but to accept annexation under Beijing’s terms. Still, no imminent war appears to be looming over the Strait because China needs another strategic opportunity period to catch up with U.S. military strength. Additionally, there are no concerted actions in other branches of the PLA under way. Yet the continued air harassment could cause misfires and accidentally trigger an armed conflict that would destroy peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and harm U.S. vital interests. The Biden administration must draw a clear and firm “red line” to protect Taiwan.
We believe the U.S. must have strategic clarity on Taiwan under its obligations stipulated in the 1979 Taiwan Relation Act and President Reagan’s Six Assurances committed to Taiwan. President Biden must resolutely state the U.S. will defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China — not only because the U.S. promised to ensure Taiwan’s safety under its law, but also because since the 1980s, Taiwan has grown into a full-fledged democracy and America has a moral obligation to do so. The U.S. must return to the original position stated in the Three Communiqués — to “acknowledge,” not recognize, China’s sovereignty claim over Taiwan.
Additionally, the Biden administration should fast-track the free trade agreement with Taiwan on a reciprocal preferential basis. The agreement is critical for Taiwan’s survival under China’s mounting pressure. China has weaponized trade to punish Taiwan, targeting its agricultural products such as pineapples by banning imports into China. The U.S. must support Taiwan’s application to the CPTPP and block China’s. Taiwan’s economy heavily depends on China, giving Beijing a powerful weapon to subdue Taiwan without fighting.
The Biden administration should continue to increase its contacts with Taiwan and help Taiwan to be accepted as a “normal state” in the international community. At the same time, the U.S. must increase its arms sales to Taiwan to address, in proportion, the gap in military strength between Beijing and Taipei, and China’s breaking its commitment of maintaining a peace in the Taiwan Strait.
For the first time since 1982, more than half of Americans support defending Taiwan if China invades today, according to an August survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Many Americans may still question why the U.S. needs to defend the island state thousands of miles away. The simple answer is, Taiwan is an unsinkable aircraft carrier for the U.S. to protest its core interests in the region. More importantly, if the U.S. and other Western countries agree to let China annex Taiwan, it won’t ensure “peace for our time” because that would further fuel Xi’s ambition to dominate international politics.
Any war is a contest of wills. China has displayed its will of using force against Taiwan, if and when necessary, and it is America’s turn to show ours by strengthening our efforts to win this contest.
Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.
Bradley A. Thayer is the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”