Now that the United States presidential election has drawn to a close with Joe Biden as president-elect, there is a grave concern in Taipei that “a return of Obama-era foreign policy advisers in a potential Biden administration” could mean “a more conciliatory” approach toward China and “less supportive of Taiwan” compared to the Trump administration.
In fact, it hardly mattered who won the election. Geography and history dictate that the American defense policy and the security of Taiwan are one and the same—and it cannot be decoupled. More importantly, will the incoming Democrat president—like President John F. Kennedy—“pay any price” to support Taiwan and its “survival and success of liberty” against the Communist Party of China (CPC)?
The decades of economic growth since Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up policies have given China the needed resources to exert its power militarily, economically, and diplomatically. Over the course of the past decade, Beijing has gradually departed from Deng’s “hide your strength, bide your time” governing philosophy and has now begun to reveal what President Xi Jinping intends to do with that power. Unification with Taiwan, by force if necessary, is at the very top of Xi’s list of foreign policy endgames.
Less discussed however are the larger implications of which an invasion of Taiwan is only a strategic component for the CPC. Seizing Taiwan is not an end in itself. China’s grand plan on unification with Taiwan today is based not only upon unresolved historical grievances but also its geostrategic imperatives. The two are inextricably linked.
A Closure on Unfinished Business
After World War II, the Civil War between the Communists led by Chairman Mao Zedong and the Nationalists (Kuomintang, KMT) continued, with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek of the Republic of China ultimately retreating to Taiwan in 1949. Ever since, China has continued its saber-rattling; however, cross-Strait relations in the more recent decades have largely been peaceful—maintained by the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity.”
Nevertheless, while the rest of the world has moved on, the internecine war between the Communists and the Nationalists has continued as anxiety rises in Taiwan. The CPC has never lost sight of its strategic objectives—maintaining a Zen-like focus on unification with the “breakaway province” and bringing this conflict to closure.
Over the years, the lessons of the former Soviet Union and its dissolution have always been pervasive in the consciousness of CPC leaders. Xi has continuously invoked Chairman Mao’s chuxin or the “original aspirations” of the Communist Party to warn current leaders to avoid drifting, saying, “if we lose Mao, we lose the party’s glorious history.”
Losing that history would likely include the abandonment of unification as China’s Korean war veterans still remain bitter about how “Mao’s plan to take the island back was interrupted.” With its propaganda campaign, the CPC has then used the Taiwan unification as “the main justification for taking part in the Korean war.” The “interrupted” revolution in Chairman Mao’s Long March must continue.
Did the United States Abandon Taiwan?
In his China-focused speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in July 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that the United States had “marginalized our friends in Taiwan” and embarked on “the old paradigm of blind engagement” with Beijing.
Lost in Pompeo’s narrative was the fact that the world was in the middle of a Cold War at the time. The major threat to world peace was Soviet expansion around the globe. The Soviet Union was not only exerting pressure on Western Europe, the Sino-Soviet split was also creating concerns in China that Moscow and Beijing could end-up in a war. Making China even more vulnerable at the time was the fact that the sole legitimate Government of China was in Taipei, which raised the possibility that “China’s adversaries along its northern [the Soviet] and southern [Indian] borders might misconstrue the absence of recognition as an opportunity,” wrote former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in his book, On China.
Consequently, the United States severed its relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) and formally recognized the Government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979. The U.S.-PRC Joint Communiqué stated that “there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” However, Congress also passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in 1979, in which the United States would maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan and would help the island retain its capacity to resist the use of force or coercion by China.
Moreover, the TRA committed Washington to providing Taiwan with the arms necessary to defend itself. While the TRA did not explicitly declare that the United States would protect Taiwan if attacked, the recent declassification of the 1982 “Six Assurances” to Taiwan made it clear America’s commitment to the island’s security. Secretary Pompeo’s declassification was likely a political tactic to dissuade China from any aggressive moves against Taiwan as recently witnessed in Hong Kong.
Hence, the United States was performing an extremely delicate balancing act. The U.S. recognition of China was not only to dissuade the Soviets from attacking China but also to dissuade India in its border conflict with China. At the same time, Washington was balancing Taiwan against China. The United States had to ensure that an ally would not be abandoned in the midst of this balancing act. Even if it was left unsaid, historical evidence points to “strategic clarity” all along.
Former U.S. Ambassador to China Stapleton Roy recalled that the purpose of Washington’s engagement with Beijing had never been based upon a “naïve expectation that China was bound to liberalize politically.” The American engagement strategy was twofold:
1) Strengthen its position in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, and
2) Secure China’s help to bring the Vietnam War to a close.
Taiwan as the Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier
However, China’s endgame goes well-beyond Taiwan, which lies on the first chain of major archipelagos that opens directly to the Western Pacific Ocean. If China were successful in seizing Taiwan, it would allow China to use Taiwan as a point of departure to deploy its forces directly into the Western Pacific. This would enable the People’s Liberation Army of China’s Navy and Air Forces to challenge U.S. forces more directly and push American and Western influences out of Asia.
This observation is not new. Imperial Japan had envisioned it prior to World War II with their “Asia for Asiatics” policy as well as their own version of the “Japanese Monroe Doctrine” and the specious “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” During the War, Tokyo also used Taiwan as “a base for Japanese invasions of Southeast Asia and the Pacific.” The nationalism and fanaticism with which Imperial Japan fought to push the United States out of the Pacific resulted in two of the most epic air-sea battles in the world’s history: the Battle of the Coral Sea in the Southwest Pacific and the Battle of Midway in the Western Pacific in 1942.
The significance of Taiwan to American security interests in the Western Pacific was not forgotten after World War II when General Douglas MacArthur reminded Congress in 1951 that the loss of Taiwan would not only threaten the Philippines and Japan but “might well force our western frontier back to the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington” from the second islands chain from Okinawa to Guam and Manus Island. Indeed, General MacArthur had earlier already referred to Taiwan in “Communists’ hands” as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier and submarine tender.”
During the Cold War, the United States faced down the former Soviet Union, which also tried to push America out of the Western Pacific. Soviet forces consistently deployed far out into the Western Pacific to prod, test, and challenge America’s ability to defend its interests.
Should China succeed in pushing the United States out of Asia, Beijing will have achieved what no nation has ever been able to achieve in history. With the Japanese catchphrase of “Asia for Asiatics,” Xi has also repeated the viewpoint explicitly that Asia’s problems should be solved by Asians.
Heeding a Warning from China
In Henry Kissinger’s book On China, Deng Xiaoping mocked the United States for any of the agreements Washington had made with the former Soviet Union because those “concessions and agreements had never produced Soviet restraint.” In a stark warning to then-National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski under President Jimmy Carter, Deng remarked: “To be candid with you, whenever you are about to conclude an agreement with the Soviet Union it is the product of [a] concession on the U.S. side to please the Soviet side.”
Then-Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama likely conceded to Beijing for going ahead with China’s own Monroe Doctrine and allowed Beijing’s artificial island-building and incremental militarization of the South China Sea. President-elect Biden now needs to reconsider the serious warning that Deng had issued to Brzezinski. China’s actions over the last few years are evidence that the decades of accommodation with China have now permitted Beijing to assert its influence in every corner of the world—and most significantly allowed the CPC to seriously contemplate unification with Taiwan by force. It would be President Xi’s crowning achievement, but it would be at the expense of a vibrant democratic Taiwan as well as the enduring American values of freedom.