Biden was right to affirm U.S. support for Taiwan

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On Oct. 21, President Biden answered a question from CNN’s Anderson Cooper: “So are you saying that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked?”

“Yes,” Biden replied, “we have a commitment to do that.”

On Nov. 16, one day after his virtual summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, President Biden stated that Taiwan was: “Independent. It makes its own decisions.”

Each statement was then “clarified” by the White House to say America did not intend to end the strategic ambiguity America has long maintained about defending Taiwan from an invasion by mainland China.

Some have marginalized Biden’s remarks as gaffes. A better view is they were purposeful statements. Twice within a single month, President Biden made unscripted, spontaneous remarks about Taiwan that signaled what he really thinks. No amount of elegant prose from career diplomats can undo that message.

Suppose American intelligence reports the commencement of Chinese military action against Taiwan. Only a few hours would separate the first reports and the fait accompli represented by sufficient Chinese troops on Taiwan so that U.S. military action would be infeasible without massive loss of Taiwanese civilian lives.

Would America torpedo Chinese navy ships crossing the Taiwan Strait, or would the Chinese forces be allowed to approach close enough to Taiwan to launch their landing craft? The president would make that decision on the basis of the best intelligence but also, and fundamentally, on instinct. President Biden has now telegraphed what his instinct would dictate in that situation.

Last Sept. 2, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, with his colleague David Sacks, published an article calling on America to drop its strategic ambiguity and make clear that America would defend Taiwan militarily should China attempt reunification by force. The prestige of Haass’ position is unique in foreign affairs circles.

With the possible exception of a former secretary of state or national security advisor, no American sitting outside of government commands the audience, or respect, of the foreign policy establishment as does Haass. The timing of President Biden’s statements suggests Haass’ views had their intended effect.

Indeed, what resulted was even better than Haass suggested. Had America officially changed its policy from ambiguity to assurance of the military defense of Taiwan, Xi would have felt compelled to respond, particularly given the delicate timing of his own ambition.

On Nov. 11, Xi presided over a meeting of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, which opened the path for him to receive an unprecedented third five-year term as China’s leader, placing Xi on a par with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiao Ping. With Biden’s statement about Taiwan being independent coming only five days later, Xi would appear weak if he did not threaten severe consequences of America acting on that belief. By making the statements he did, then immediately “clarifying” them, Biden allowed Xi a way not to have to make a bellicose reply, while still conveying Biden’s message. Had Biden not made his statements at all, Xi would likely have inferred that this administration was not prepared to risk U.S. soldiers in defense of Taiwan any more than it would in Afghanistan.

Biden’s statements appear to have been tailored to deflect that inference.

U.S. foreign policy history post WWII has many examples of perceived weakness leading to opportunism by our adversaries. In April of 1961, President Kennedy failed to support the Cuban guerillas who landed at the Bay of Pigs. Soviet leader Khrushchev inferred he was dealing with a weak leader, confirmed that view in an in-person meeting with Kennedy that June and commenced building the Berlin Wall that August. Secretary of State Dean Acheson stated on June 12, 1950, that the U.S. defense perimeter did not extend to the Korean peninsula. North Korea invaded South Korea on June 15.

Biden’s spontaneous Taiwan statements have gone far not to repeat those regrettable precedents.

Tom Campbell is a professor of law and of economics at Chapman University. He was a five-term member of Congress, where he served on the International Relations Committee. He is also past chairman of the World Affairs Council of Northern California. He left the Republican Party in 2016 and is in the process of forming a new party in California, the Common Sense Party.

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US warship sails through Taiwan Strait, first since Biden-Xi meet

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Beijing condemned the manoeuvre as an ‘attempt to disrupt and undermine regional peace and stability’.

A US destroyer has sailed through the waterway separating Taiwan and China, the United States Navy said, the first such passage since leaders from the two superpowers held a rare video summit earlier this month.

The passage through the Taiwan Strait by the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Milius was a routine transit, the US Seventh Fleet said in a statement.

The voyage “demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific”, the statement said.

The manoeuvring comes after US President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping traded strong warnings on the future of Taiwan at a virtual summit earlier this month.

Chinese state media reported that Xi had cautioned Biden that encouraging Taiwanese independence would be “playing with fire”.

In October, Biden appeared to break from a longstanding US policy of strategic ambiguity in regards to Taiwan, saying Washington would come to Taipei’s defence in the event of a Chinese attack.

The White House later walked back the statement, saying the US position towards Taiwan remains unchanged.

While Washington does not officially recognise Taiwan’s sovereignty, it has for decades provided support, including military training and weapons, to the island, which Beijing considers part of its territory.

Washington and Taipei were this week holding their second annual economic dialogue.

In October, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen confirmed for the first time in years that US military personnel were present on the island as part of a training mission.

‘Stop stirring up trouble’

US warships periodically conduct exercises in the Taiwan Strait, often triggering angry responses from Beijing.

A growing number of US allies have transited the route as Beijing intensifies its military threats towards Taiwan and has also sought to assert its claim over the disputed South China Sea.

British, Canadian, French and Australian warships have all made passages through the Taiwan Strait in recent years, sparking protests from Beijing.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian condemned the latest transit as a “deliberate attempt to disrupt and undermine regional peace and stability”.

“The US should immediately correct its mistake, stop stirring up trouble, crossing the line and playing with fire,” he warned.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, keeps a database of declared US transits through the Taiwan Strait.

Nine were conducted in 2019, followed by 15 in 2020. So far this year there have been 11, including the USS Milius crossing.