Chinese President Xi Jinping, in power since 2012, has become increasingly emboldened in pursuing his expansionist agenda, in part because three successive American presidents have allowed him to act with impunity. Having swallowed Hong Kong, is China itching to move on Taiwan, the island democracy whose incorporation Xi recently called a “historic mission”? By rehearsing amphibious and air attacks, China has displayed a readiness to seize Taiwan by force.
Make no mistake: Taiwan is on the frontline of international defense against tyranny. This small island with almost as many people as much-larger Australia is a technological powerhouse that plays a central role in the international semiconductor business. Its absorption will not only make China a more formidable economic competitor to the United States, but also threaten global peace and critically accelerate the global chip shortage.
Encouraging Xi’s unrelenting expansionism is the fact that his heavy-handed actions at home and abroad thus far have essentially been cost-free. Take the South China Sea, whose geopolitical map Xi has forcibly redrawn, despite an international arbitral tribunal’s ruling invalidating China’s territorial claims there.
Then-President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPolitics must accept the reality of multiracial America and disavow racial backlash To empower parents, reinvent schools Senate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats MORE seemed content to look the other way as Xi built artificial islands and militarized the South China Sea. This helped turn China’s contrived historical claims to that critical corridor into reality without firing a single shot.
Under President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE, despite a paradigm shift in America’s China policy, the administration prioritized a trade deal with Beijing and thus imposed largely symbolic sanctions when evidence of Xi’s Muslim gulag in Xinjiang emerged. Consequently, the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi era (which Washington acknowledges is genocide) has gone largely unpunished, even though the 1948 Genocide Convention requires its parties, which include the U.S., to “prevent and punish” acts of genocide.
When Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement was crushed and the city was brought into political lockstep with the Chinese Communist Party in breach of China’s United Nations-registered treaty with Britain, Xi and his inner circle remained untouched by the sanctions the Trump administration imposed. And all the 24 Chinese targeted by President BidenJoe BidenManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Senate cuts deal to clear government funding bill MORE’s administration in March for their Hong Kong role had already been hit with sanctions by the Trump administration.
Now there is real danger that, encouraged by Biden’s recent shift toward a more conciliatory approach toward China, Xi will move against Taiwan.
In fact, the exit of a vanquished America from Afghanistan, by underscoring the irreversible decline of U.S. power, may make Xi believe that China has an opening to seize Taiwan. Chinese state media have warned Taiwan that it will be abandoned by America in the face of a Chinese invasion, just as the Afghanistan disaster unfolded after the U.S. threw its allies – the Afghan government and military – under the bus.
Biden has accentuated America’s credibility problems. Asked at an Oct. 21 CNN town hall whether “the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked,” Biden said emphatically, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” Then the White House quickly walked back his words, saying “there is no change in our policy” on Taiwan, which is centered on “strategic ambiguity” about U.S. intentions.
Once a policy of ambiguity is described in virtually unequivocal terms by the president, and then the White House dials it back, it sends the wrong message to Beijing. Xi may read this as a lack of U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan and plan to invade Taiwan at an opportune time when America is distracted.
With its increasing bullying, Xi’s dictatorship is seeking to normalize hostile pressure on Taiwan. If not outright invasion, Beijing could seek to slowly throttle Taiwan in order to force it to accept “reunification,” including by cutting off its undersea cables, internet connections and liquified natural-gas imports.
But if Xi perceives that China has a window of opportunity to act during the Biden presidency without inviting a major blowback, he will likely employ military force. In fact, the probability of a surprise Chinese invasion will be greater if Biden is seen as lacking the strategic vision and political will to defend Taiwan against an attack.
In this light, the imperative for Washington is not merely to embrace strategic clarity by abandoning the outdated strategic ambiguity policy, which was formulated when China was still backward and in no position to annex Taiwan. Rather, the U.S. must shift from a “one China” policy to an overt “one China, one Taiwan” posture that recognizes the island’s independent status. And Xi should be left in no doubt that the U.S. would make China pay a heavy price if it attempted to invade or choke Taiwan.
A U.S. that fails to prevent Taiwan’s subjugation would be widely seen as unable or unwilling to defend any other ally, including Japan, which hosts more American soldiers today than any other foreign country. Taiwan (Imperial Japan’s first colony) is geographically an extension of the Japanese archipelago.
If the U.S. were to put up with a Chinese conquest of Taiwan, it would make the same fatal mistake as the participants of the 1938 Munich Conference who, yielding to Adolf Hitler, transferred the predominantly German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany. That concession paved the way for World War II.
Taiwan’s fall would significantly advance China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia, including by triggering the unraveling of U.S.-led alliances there. And China would emerge as a pressing military threat to the U.S. itself.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).