Some years ago, I traveled to Taiwan (Republic of China) – and was shocked. The spirit of the place was overwhelmingly pro-American, economy thriving, citizens working, crime minimal, social life comfortable, natural beauty extraordinary. Freedom abounded. Today, Taiwan is under intense pressure from Communist China. America needs to say: “Backoff!”
History is worth a quick review. A free Republic of China was founded in 1912, not in Taiwan but in Mainland China. The Republic came to life after the Xinhai Revolution, ending 2000 years of imperial rule, removing the Qing Dynasty.
Life after a revolution is never simple; it was not in China. Warlords battled until 1928, with civil war ebbing and flowing until Japan invaded in 1937. China’s invasion by Japan was only reversed by Japan’s defeat and the end of WWII in 1945.
Unfortunately, WWII ending just reopened China’s civil war, this time with clear sides – the non-communist Chinese Nationalists or “Kuomintang” under Chiang Kai-shek versus the Communists under Mao Zedong.
Despite heroic efforts to broker peace in China immediately after WWII, led by General George C. Marshall, discussions collapsed, war resumed, and in 1949, the Communists had forced the Nationalists to the island of Taiwan.
Until the early 1970s, the US position was that Nationalist China was the country’s only legitimate government, despite the reality that Communists controlled the mainland.
Then, in 1972, historically anti-communist US President Richard Nixon pulled a jujutsu move, opening diplomatic relations with the Communist Mao, meeting him in Beijing.
Tellingly, Nixon and Mao centered their discussions on trade, security, and Taiwan. On the plus side, US diplomatic opening to Communist China put intense pressure on the Soviet Union, and – at the time – seemed a possible means for liberalizing China.
On the minus side, as history has proven, no free lunches. While the Soviet Union fell, when Ronald Reagan put pressure on that bastion of Communism, China got stronger. They profited handsomely from Western economic links – but used the profit to reinforce political repression.
This was not the intended effect. Worse, opening diplomacy with Communist China pinched Taiwan’s freedom.
In what Nixon thought was a clever diplomatic move, he negotiated the “Shanghai Communique,” a Kabuki dance agreeing “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain that there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China.” Left unclear was whether that “one China” was free or Communist, thus leaving Taiwan in limbo.
All this is backdrop. The US has long sold weapons to Taiwan, defended their relative independence, with some US presidents – especially Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush, and Donald Trump articulating firm defense.
Now, we are in a great contest with Communist China, testing whether freedom will be defended around the globe or allowed to perish, whether alliances long respected will be honored, or suddenly left dishonored.
Biden and his administration are perceived – for good reason – as weak, unprincipled, unwilling to stand up to adversaries, Taliban and Iran to China.
Communist China is ruthless, opportunistic, and repressive – but not stupid. They see the game is afoot, early indications that they aim to take Taiwan by diplomatic, economic, and military intimidation, if not by invasion.
Why? Because as China continues ramping up pressure on Taiwan, Biden is doing nothing.
Silence is deafening. China continues to violate Taiwanese airspace, on October 6, sending 52 military aircraft into Taiwanese airspace, the largest show of force on record. That day was preceded by days sending 38, 39, and 16 aircraft to violate Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Meantime, China is deploying nuclear weapons, expanding land and sea-based options, preparing to unveil a carrier-based jet that – surprise, surprise – looks much like the US F-35. They call it their J-31 stealth fighter. Notably, Taiwan is nervous. See, e.g., Taiwan “very concerned that China is going to launch a war” to take over, foreign minister says; China preps rollout of a new carrier-based fighter jet.
So, what should be done? The answer to this international conundrum is, unlike many, not hard.
Biden’s people need to dig up words used by past presidents – especially Reagan, GHW Bush, and Trump – then put them on an index card, practice with Mr. Biden, and get him on record.
Beyond the strategic, military, economic, operational, and wider diplomatic imperatives – Mr. Biden just needs to step up and tell China, in a clear, unequivocal, un-muttered soundbite, “Back off! That would be the beginning of wisdom, a good way to prevent an accidental war with China.
Many years ago in Taiwan, heading for a plane – a diplomat showed me a necktie covered in Chinese letters. The letters spelled out free newspapers in Hong Kong. They are now all gone. Biden needs to step up before the freedoms Taiwan knows disappear, too.