Storm clouds are gathering. China has a plan for Taiwan, likely isolating and declaring “one country, two systems,” as in Hong Kong. Problem is, Taiwan is not interested, has had decades of de facto independence. Many in Congress, as well as Biden and Trump Administrations – think Taiwan is in danger. They are right. China must be deterred.
Taiwan is important, and emblematic. China is testing US resolve – not just with indignant words (“wolf warrior diplomacy”), COVID or information operations (“unrestricted warfare”), trade or currency manipulation, maritime or space weapons, but in a more palpable way.
China wants to see how far the US will go to support Taiwan, since NATO doctrine in Europe limits how we support Ukraine to defeat Russian aggression. If offensive weapons are sent to Ukraine, that could trigger Article 5 – open a world war. For that reason, NATO has hedged bets defending Ukraine, offered defensive but not offense weapons.
In Asia, there is no NATO, no limits on US support. The SEATO treaty – South Asia Treaty Organization – died in 1977, two years before Jimmy Carter pushed the “Taiwan Relations Act,” which de-recognized Taiwan for Communist China.
This means that, in addition to defensive systems, the US could offer dual use or offensive systems to Taiwan. Australia and Japan would likely agree since Taiwan is their front yard.
Adding uncertainty, President Biden has blurred diplomatic lines, apparently ditched “strategic ambiguity” and a “two Chinas” policy for the edgy idea that, if China attacks Taiwan, we will defend the island.
That abrupt turn created what you might call a “diplomatic riptide,” decades of US policy – and even State now – reassuring China nothing has changed, while Biden suggests war is possible.
To some, this might seem clever policy or a happy evolution in Biden’s pro-China policy to something with teeth, a “stand up” approach. Problem is China does not believe Biden, as evidenced by anti-US rhetoric, invasion of Taiwan’s airspace, maritime encirclement, bribing nations to de-recognize Taiwan (15 from 22), and rising pressure on the democratic island.
Looking at recent history, false promises by China not to abrogate the Hong Kong treaty were washed out to sea, gradual incursions becoming a communist tsunami, ending their status.
True, open water separates Communist China from Taiwan, and Taiwan is not naïve. They are well-stocked with defensive systems, would be hard to overcome by force, and China is watching Russia hemorrhage credibility in Ukraine, start an emergency call-up, get pushed back.
China does not want to start a losing war. To his credit – a bit late – Biden has learned to not invite a “minor incursion” by an adversary on an ally. The adversary may take you at your word.
Which brings us back to what China really thinks. Watching Biden fail miserably in Afghanistan, founder at border protection, drug interdiction, crime, economic policy, cultural cohesion, public trust, and everything he does, China may think this is their chance.
No member of the US Congress, this Administration, military service chief, intelligence community leader, or any official in a position of public trust should underestimate what China could attempt, may be thinking, and may imagine they could get away with.
Nor should they underestimate the unintended-yet-hard-to-reverse ways in which horrific wars begin. They are easier to start than stop, do more damage than anyone imagined, scar the land.
The real question is simple: How does Biden, with the help of R’s and D’s in Congress, send a clear, unambiguous message to Communist China, one that says we will defend that nation, will win any war we enter, and that China would end with less credibility than Russia?
The answer is, complete near-term weapon deals with Taiwan as possible, including for offensive or “dual use” weapons, to be clear we are serious. Make clear any aggressive act will produce immediate US military support, permitting Taiwan to prevail. Stop sending mixed signals. And now that Biden has offered a commitment, hold it – firmly, no walk-backs.
Congress should unify around the mission of deterring war, as Reagan unified congressional Republicans and Democrats to make clear the Soviet Union’s communist aggression would not stand, would fall to freedom and self-determination. This is the moment to say “No.”
China is uneasy and unclear what US policy is, what the Biden Administration’s mixed messages, jumbled words, and half-hearted pledges mean, especially in view of Afghanistan, Russia, and Ukraine. China is testing us. Now is the time to make clear we are the world’s strongest, proven defender of freedom, one friends can count on, and foes must fear.
If the Biden team can pause long enough to synchronize their messages, bring Congress around, and focus on where our most serious threat is, stop playing politics and get serious, China can be deterred. If not, ominous storm clouds will continue to gather.