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Tone down the rhetoric and play the long game with China

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As the Peoples’ Republic of China steps up its pressure on Taiwan, the debate over U.S. policy heats up as well. 

The longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity,” wherein the United States recognizes “one-China” but seeks to deter a final resolution by violent means, is seen by some as inadequate to today’s threat. Critics like former secretary of Defense Robert Gates and diplomat Richard Haass, call for “strategic clarity,” making more explicit our willingness to raise the costs of an attack on Taiwan.

The Biden administration has moved in the direction of “clarity” while honoring the commitment to a one-China policy, a sine qua non of the Peoples’ Republic government. The nuclear submarine deal with Australia (AUKUS) and the agreement with the Quad nations (the U.S., India, Japan and Australia) for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” are clearly designed to contain China’s ambitions in the Taiwan Straits, the South China Sea and the India-Chinese border region.

There is a rare bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress in support of an aggressive competition with China in security, trade, science and culture. This included an Innovation and Competition Act that passed by a wide margin in the US Senate on the basis of a claim that it was essential to compete with China.

Where is this all headed? The rhetoric is heating up both in Washington and Beijing. Are the world’s two superpowers moving toward conflict? The elements are present and an unintended naval confrontation in the South China Sea could easily take us there. How did we get to this place?

Not long ago the opening to China by the Nixon administration and the establishment of diplomatic relations by President Carter stimulated the imagination of the American people. The history and culture of China fascinated Americans and the opening of relations was seen as offsetting the Soviet Union. 

In 1979 as assistant secretary of State in charge of relations with Congress, I transmitted a draft bill requesting that Congress pass a Taiwan Relations Act to maintain a non-diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. The final form of that act was much more robust than what had been proposed. Its stated intent was to “maintain peace, security and stability in the Western Pacific and to promote the foreign policy of the United States.” Trade, cultural exchange and the sale of weapons systems to Taiwan would continue unabated, much to the chagrin of the Peoples’ Republic. The policy of “strategic ambiguity” was born.

Following China’s “Cultural Revolution” where 2 million people died at the hands of Maoist radicals, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations where young Chinese protested their lack of freedom, Chinese governments began to embrace meaningful reform. The party leadership began to rationalize communist ideology as they developed a controlled form of capitalism that attracted foreign companies and permitted some private enterprise. 

These reforms reached their apex in the 1990s during the regime of Deng Xiaoping. Eight hundred million people were lifted out of poverty and thousands of young Chinese each year went off to the West for their university education, an exodus that has continued to this day. 

Liberal internationalists who saw these developments as moving China toward the global rules-based system are accused today of having been naïve. Yet, the analysis was based on strong evidence. Given its growing population and limited carrying capacity, China’s need to engage the outside world was apparent. Yet, as China’s real and perceived power grew so too did its nationalist spirit and the arrogance of its government. Which brings us to today.

President Xi Jinping is no Deng Xiaoping. Xi has turned back the clock, making himself president for life while outlawing any criticism of the Communist Party. He has cracked down on Hong Kong democrats and is attempting to ethnically cleanse the Uighurs and further repress Tibetan nationalists. His claims to international sea lanes in the South China Sea are a threat to the entire region. And then there is Taiwan.

What then should be the U.S. response? A good bet would have been to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement that would have kept the Chinese on the outside looking in unless and until it began to play by global trade rules. Congress failed to approve that during the Obama administration. Now, ironically, China is seeking to join that pact leaving the U.S. on the outside looking in.

The watchword of the Biden administration is “competition.” There is nothing ambiguous about that word. It is taking shape in many forms but is dependent on alliances. We are finding that China’s economic and security reach is considerable and nations in Europe and Asia aren’t so inclined to embrace an aggressive form of competition.

As for Taiwan, we can no longer see a China under Xi negotiating a settlement that would allow Taiwan to maintain its liberal democratic political system. If we wish to avoid a violent conflict where China has the geographic advantage, our best bet at this stage isn’t either strategic ambiguity or strategic clarity. It is strategic patience, something we Americans need to get better at.

China is never going to abandon its claim on Taiwan, but at this stage, President Xi has too much to lose if he attempts to take that island by force. We should take our cue from the government of Taiwan and tone down the warmongering rhetoric. Each time we challenge China’s claim or imply that we will come to Taiwan’s defense we stimulate a nationalist reaction in China. The result more recently was an armada of aircraft approaching the edge of Taiwan’s airspace. If we aren’t careful, we will encourage a very bad miscalculation. 

So let’s be competitive. Let’s be supportive of democratic Taiwan. Let’s be critical of China’s human rights offenses, its cyberattacks and its trade distortions. Let’s maintain strong alliances in Asia and South Asia.

But, above all, let’s take a page out of Chinese political culture and be patient. Xi after all is only president for one life! 

Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at the Watson Institute at Brown University. He served as assistant secretary of State for Congressional Relations in the Carter administration and undersecretary of State and administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration.

Tags China–United States relations International relations One-China policy Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Taiwan Taiwan Relations Act Taiwan–United States relations Trans-Pacific Partnership United States foreign policy Xi Jinping

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