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China needs a stronger message to ‘tamp down’ aggression against Taiwan

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Last week, China dramatically escalated its naked military threats against Taiwan, flying almost 150 warplanes through Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated: “We are very concerned. …[T]he PRC’s provocative military activity near Taiwan … is destabilizing, … risks miscalculation, and … has the potential to undermine regional peace and stability.” 

His formulaic message is not commensurate with China’s increasingly aggressive actions.  Beijing has heard it all before, for decades. What it has never heard — except transiently from George W. Bush and only implicitly from Donald Trump — is that America will defend Taiwan.  

Instead, Washington muddles along with its policy of strategic ambiguity, unchanged since the Clinton administration told the Chinese military what America would do if it attacks Taiwan: “We don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.” 

Far from dissuading Beijing from planning to use force against Taiwan, the vagueness has encouraged its preparations, building attack submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles. China believes it has created severe enough “circumstances” — such as the prospect of sinking a U.S. aircraft carrier or two and killing 5,000 to 10,000 sailors, as a Chinese admiral has threatened — to deter Washington from intervening in any cross-Strait conflict. 

Responding to questions about the growing prospect of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “[W]e have a significant amount of capability forward in the [Indo-Pacific] region to tamp down any such potential.” But America’s military capability to counter China’s aggression against Taiwan is not in doubt. 

What is questioned, by many on both sides of the Pacific, is whether America has the requisite will to undertake military conflict with China, especially after the humiliating Afghanistan debacle and its devastating impact on U.S. credibility.

To its credit, the Biden administration has been building on the Trump team’s transformative Taiwan policies by deepening and broadening U.S. relations with its fellow democracy and “security partner” — through arms sales and high-level visits.   

So far, however, it has failed to fulfill its tentative intention to invite Taiwan to Biden’s upcoming Summit for Democracy, or to change the name of the Taipei Economic, Cultural and Representative Office to the simpler, more accurate Taiwan Representative Office. The administration fears offending Beijing, which objects even to those symbolic steps to enhance Taiwan’s international standing. 

Doing these things in the face of China’s opposition will be further indications that America’s moral commitment to Taiwan is as firm as Blinken and other administration officials say it is.  But they still fall far short of the strategic clarity needed to persuade Chinese leader Xi Jinping that attacking Taiwan would be self-destructive in the extreme for China.  

Beijing will need serious convincing of American resolve after the lessons it took from the Obama administration’s obliterated “red lines” in Syria, Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds there, and Biden’s catastrophic abandonment of U.S. interests and values in Afghanistan.

The administration has ample opportunity — and urgent need — to send a stronger deterrent message to China. It was revealed this past week that for at least a year, American military personnel have been in Taiwan, supporting and training their counterparts to meet the rising danger from China.

Beijing may well have known of this U.S. stationing and tolerated it because the numbers were small and it had larger issues on its negotiating agenda with Washington. But now that it has become public knowledge, China is registering its expected complaint. Zhao Lijian, spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, stated, “In his phone call with President Xi Jinping, President Biden emphasized that it has no intention to change the One China principle … the political foundation of China and U.S. relations.” 

The Chinese statement distorts the historical record in important ways. America’s “One China policy” is not the same as China’s “One China Principle,” much as Beijing constantly conflates them. The latter claims Taiwan is part of China, period. The former says Taiwan’s international status is yet to be determined. Most critically, as the Taiwan Relations Act recounts, the entire basis for U.S.recognition of Communist China “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”  

It is not evident that Biden reminded Xi of that during their 90-minute phone call, only that, “We agree, we will abide by the Taiwan agreement.” Xi did repeat this week that China will pursue “unification through peaceful means,” though he did not remove the threat to use force if “persuasion” fails, Beijing’s traditional default position. Xi’s use of “unification” instead of the usual “reunification” might suggest a slight concession that Taiwan has never been ruled by China’s communist government. But it is a thin reed since he also referred to “Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots.” 

If the story about U.S. forces in Taiwan was leaked to convey determination, the administration can reinforce that message by stating its intention to retain or even expand the complement in parallel with China’s threatening actions. If, instead, someone in the administration intended to remove an irritant to U.S.-China relations by ending the quasi-deployment, Biden must know he cannot afford another capitulation to America’s adversaries. He should also invite Taiwan to participate in the multinational RIMPAC naval exercise.

While the administration talks of “tamping down” a China-Taiwan conflict, Robert Thomas, the former Indo-Pacific commander, said Beijing “won’t allow … the U.S. Seventh Fleet [just to] show up and say, ‘Everybody calm down.’” 

The real test of America’s “rock-solid” commitment will come after any initial suppression of China’s opening thrust by air or sea. Washington needs to make clear its strategy against Chinese escalation based on these strategic rules of engagement:

In accordance with the international law of collective self-defense, it will assist Taiwan in blunting any Chinese aggression by resisting and defeating the attacking forces. The initial response will be measured and proportional, intended only to halt the aggression at its impact point, not at its source, risking only the forces on each side actually engaged in direct combat operations. 

If, however, China expands its targeting to ships or bases from which U.S. defensive actions originate, or to other U.S. or allied assets or territory, Washington will consider such actions a major escalation tantamount to a declaration of war against the United States and will respond accordingly. Hopefully, Beijing will decide that tamping down rather than ramping up is the prudent way to close the matter.

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 Donald Trump Joe Biden Kathleen Hicks One-China policy Taiwan US policy on Taiwan

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