Michael D. Swaine
President Biden has moved us all a very large step closer to conflict with China. In a 60 Minutes interview, he repeated his past statements saying that the US would go to war with China if it were to attack Taiwan. In doing this as part of a prepared interview (and not, as in the past, as a seemingly spontaneous, off-the-cuff remark), he has now removed all ambiguity as to whether he really meant what he said on those other occasions. There is no longer any doubt that this represents a change in U.S. policy.
All Americans and U.S. allies should regard the president’s statement with great alarm, for many reasons. First, he has committed the United States to engage in what would be a major war (and with a nuc-lear power no less) without having obtained congressional approval, as required by the U.S. Constitution. E-ven in the case of Ame-rica’s several formal security treaties, signed with allies such as Japan and South Korea, the U.S. only commits itself to “…act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
Biden went well beyond this in committing the U.S. to send troops to defend the island if attacked, apparently under virtually any circumstances. He did not condition a U.S. defense on an unprovoked Chinese a-ttack on Taiwan, instead i-mplying that such an attack would need to be “unprecedented.” Well, any direct attack on the main island of Taiwan would be unprecedented. So, forget constitutional processes or conditionality. Biden will initiate a war with China on his own if Taiwan is attacked, thereby endangering U.S. lives and resources.
Second, Biden has now largely trashed what little remains of the U.S. One China policy and the strategic ambiguity that underlies it — a policy that, in the seventies, caused Beijing to commit itself to seeking peaceful unification as a top priority. That understa-nding, which has kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait for decades, is now on life support (if not already dead). Of course, many have asserted with great confidence that Beijing had already dropped its support for peaceful unification, so Biden’s commitment is simply a response to that new reality. Yet those seemingly rock-solid assertions rest on thin ice.
There is no conclusive proof that Beijing has given up on peaceful unification, although it has certainly increased its own military deterrence efforts many-fold, which is and should be of great concern. And yet Biden has given up on strategic ambiguity. Therefore, it has now become laughable, not just to the Chinese, but probably to many U.S. allies, for U.S. spokespeople to keep trying to clean up after Biden by stating that nothing in U.S. policy has changed. Washington cannot both provide a security guarantee to Taiwan, thereby treating it as an ally tied to vital U.S. security interests, and at the same time credibly assure the Chinese that it does not treat the island as a sovereign state.
Third, Biden’s statement puts U.S. allies in harm’s way and gives them no say in avoiding such a path. The U.S. could not intervene successfully in a war with China over Taiwan without using American bases in Japan, and possibly South Korea. That would leave both countries open to a Chinese attack. And yet the U.S. president has now committed the country to a course of action that would directly endanger those allies, without gaining their approval beforehand. And it is by no means clear that either Tokyo or Seoul would grant such approval if they had not been attacked by Beijing first. Biden has thus placed them in a near-impossible situation. They must not be happy.
Fourth, China will not in any sense be deterred by Biden’s remarks. Most analysts believe that Beijing already assumes that Washington will attempt to intervene militarily if China attacks Taiwan and is building its capabilities to deal with that eventuality, while also striving to improve its non-military influence over the island. All Biden’s remarks do is give further ammunition to those in China who argue in favor of putting more stress on military deterrence over any type of reassurance or non-military leverage. And make no mistake: China could plow a much higher level of its resources into accelerating its military threat to Taiwan and the U.S. In other words, Biden’s clear statement will further intensify the already escalating vicious circle driving toward conflict without compelling Beijing to behave in a more restrained manner.
Fifth, Biden’s statement further encourages Taiwan to free ride on its own defense. With a clear commitment by the U.S. president to defend the island, those on Taiwan who argue against increased sacrifices to greatly augment the island’s military capabilities will have more running room. The reality is that Taiwan needs to do much more to provide for its own defense. And yet, by his remarks, Biden has now undermined efforts by Washington and some in Taipei to encourage such Taiwanese self-strengthening. And so U.S. lives are now on the line to defend a people who will not do what is necessary to defend themselves.
In addition, by stating in his interview that it is “their [i.e. Taiwan’s] decision” to decide if it wishes to be independent, Biden contradicts past U.S. statements asserting that the fate of Taiwan should be determined peacefully and without coercion by both sides of the Strait. More troubling, he implies that the U.S. would have no say regarding such a decision, which of course is absurd. If such a decision could draw the United States into conflict with China, there is no doubt that Washington would exert decisive leverage over Taipei in taking it. There is also little doubt that the bulk of the international community would balk at any such move if it were made without Chinese acquiescence or approval.
Finally, Biden’s statement provides more running room for those U.S. politicians and officials who believe that Taiwan should be regarded as a strategic asset that must be denied to China. From this perspective, if the U.S. is unambiguously committing itself beforehand to defending Taiwan if attacked, it must be because the loss of the island would constitute a major blow to vital U.S. security interests. Therefore, the argument goes, the U.S. needs to ensure that China cannot take the island by vastly increasing America’s military presence near Taiwan, including, perhaps, by stationing U.S. forces on the island. That would be a sure path to war.
Finally, what makes the Biden remark particularly amazing is that it directly contradicts the arguments he made in a May 2001 Washington Post oped. Then-Senator Biden extolled many of the benefits of the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity in criticizing a statement in which George W. Bush casted doubt on the policy.
Apparently, all those benefits have disappeared, and the above dangers can be neglected, simply because China’s military poses a greater potential threat to Taiwan. That is a reckless calculation. President Biden needs to rethink his view of the Taiwan issue and start speaking more responsibly.
Courtesy Responsible Statecraft.
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