America’s China Policy Is Not Working
The Dangers of a Broad Decoupling
“The military thinks it’s not a good idea right now.” That was U.S. President Joe Biden’s observation in late July about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s planned trip to Taiwan, which is reportedly scheduled for next month. Such trepidation seems to be well warranted. Pelosi herself acknowledged as much; when asked about the president’s remarks, she said, “Maybe the military was afraid our plane would get shot down or something like that by the Chinese.” Those statements reveal that the United States likely has intelligence or a private warning from China that it is planning an unprecedented, highly escalatory response if Pelosi does indeed visit Taipei.
A two-hour phone call between President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping on July 28 appears to have done little to defuse the situation. China’s official summary of the conversation quoted Xi warning President Biden that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”
Pelosi’s potential visit leaves U.S. policymakers with few good options. If she cancels the trip, it would likely embolden China to increase its coercion of Taiwan and deal a blow to the Taiwanese public’s confidence in their future. On the other hand, a visit would probably provoke a crisis, as China would feel compelled to respond lest its threats be seen as hollow. It would be wrong to think, however, that Pelosi’s travel plans will determine whether a showdown materializes in the Taiwan Strait. In reality, the United States and China are barreling toward such a crisis—and it will be far riskier than previous standoffs. China, possessing significant military capabilities and less concerned about preserving its relations with the United States, is now far more willing to respond to a perceived provocation with escalation than it was during previous crises.
Given the probability of a crisis or even a conflict, the United States should prioritize ensuring that it has the capability to come to Taiwan’s defense and helping Taiwan ready itself for a potential invasion. This agenda, more than symbolic gestures, should guide the U.S. approach in the critical years ahead.
For all the attention that Pelosi’s trip is attracting, it is not unprecedented. There have been similar visits in the past, which are fully consistent with the U.S. one-China policy, under which the United States recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, acknowledges (but does not endorse) China’s position that there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China, and maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan. Pelosi is not the first Speaker of the House to visit: Newt Gingrich met with Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui in Taipei in 1997. To be sure, Gingrich was a Republican Speaker during a Democratic administration; Pelosi and Biden, in contrast, belong to the same party. For that reason, Chinese officials believe she is acting in coordination with the White House.
Still, congressional delegations routinely visit Taiwan. Past administrations have sent cabinet-level officials to the island; in 2020, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited Taipei. Pelosi would travel on U.S. military aircraft, but that is also nothing new; in June 2021, for instance, three U.S. senators arrived in Taiwan aboard a U.S. Air Force plane.
What sets Pelosi’s visit apart is that it would occur at a time when Beijing believes that the United States is moving away from its one-China policy. And there have been noticeable changes in U.S. diplomacy toward Taiwan in recent years. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent his congratulations to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on her inauguration in 2020. The Trump administration hosted Taiwan’s diplomats at the State Department and in other federal government buildings, which has remained the practice during the Biden administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly referred to Taiwan as a “country.” The Biden administration extended an invitation to Taiwan’s representative in the United States to attend Biden’s inauguration and invited Taiwan to participate in its Summit for Democracy. Administration officials also leaked to the media that U.S. military personnel are in Taiwan training its forces. None of these moves are tantamount to diplomatic recognition, but Beijing may view Pelosi’s trip as an opportunity to send a message that the United States must stop what China sees as an intentional pattern.
Beijing believes that the United States is moving away from its one-China policy.
Aside from attempting to halt the strengthening of U.S.-Taiwanese ties, China’s reaction to Pelosi’s potential visit is in part the product of unfortunate timing. Chinese President Xi Jinping will be seeking an unprecedented third term as head of the Chinese Communist Party this fall. He likely fears that high-level, public U.S. support for Taiwan would make him look weak and not in control of critical relationships and undermine his standing.
More important, Beijing’s reaction reveals its growing comfort with the prospect of a crisis over Taiwan. As Xi faces economic headwinds at home and growing resentment over his strict zero-COVID policy, he may have concluded that a Taiwan crisis could rally the public and shore up his popularity. Xi may also have decided that international support for Taiwan is growing too strong, especially in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both Taiwan and Ukraine are relatively young democracies that exist next to much larger authoritarian neighbors with long-standing designs on their territory; leaders around the world have taken note of the parallels. Xi may feel he needs to deter countries from working with Taipei to increase its defenses and resilience. He could also find Pelosi’s visit to be an advantageous pretext for large-scale military exercises, which could test the People’s Liberation Army’s preparedness for complex operations. That could provide him clues as to whether China’s military would fare better than Russia’s did in Ukraine and gauge how the United States and Taiwan would react.
The last Taiwan Strait crisis occurred more than a quarter century ago. The instigating event was the 1995 address Lee gave at his alma mater, Cornell University, on what he dubbed “Taiwan’s democratization experience.” The fact that the Taiwanese president was granted a visa to visit the United States after Secretary of State Warren Christopher assured his Chinese counterpart that Lee would not be allowed to enter the country enraged Beijing. In retaliation, the Chinese military conducted missile tests and exercises in the Taiwan Strait. This prompted Secretary of Defense William Perry to announce that the United States would dispatch two aircraft carrier strike groups to the area, demonstrating that the United States was prepared to intervene to repel a Chinese invasion.
Since then, China has developed a more robust toolkit to punish Taiwan. Whereas Taiwan’s military budget exceeded China’s in 1994, China now outspends Taiwan by a factor of 20. In recent years, China has become bolder in its coercive military maneuvers: look no further than its near-daily incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. To send a message, China will now have to do something that rises significantly above that kind of baiting, which means its options are increasingly escalatory.
In addition to its military advantage, China has significantly more leverage over Taiwan’s economy. At the time of the 1995–96 crisis, Taiwan’s exports to the mainland accounted for one-third of one percent of its total exports; today, that figure is 30 percent. China could choose to cut off its market to many Taiwanese goods, a move that would be difficult for Taiwan—or the United States—to counter.
It is not just relations between China and Taiwan that have evolved. During previous crises, China had an overriding interest in preserving a constructive relationship with the United States. This was true during the 1995–96 crisis, the standoff sparked by the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and an incident in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft. In all these cases, Chinese leaders ultimately sought a way to de-escalate tensions. Now, however, with U.S.-Chinese relations in a free fall, Xi may believe there is little left to preserve.
A far more dangerous era for cross-strait relations is in the offing. Xi has set an objective of achieving China’s “great rejuvenation” by 2049; unification with Taiwan is a condition for that goal. And he may want to move more rapidly than that timeline suggests: Xi is unlikely to live to see 2049 (he would be approaching 100 years old) and has said that this issue cannot be passed from generation to generation. That implies he would like to at least make significant progress on the question of Taiwan’s status or resolve it altogether on his watch. As CIA Director William J. Burns recently said, “I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s determination to assert China’s control—the People’s Republic of China’s control—over Taiwan. . . . I think the risks of that become higher, it seems to us, the further into this decade that you get.” After cementing his rule at the upcoming Party Congress and having sidelined rivals and placed loyalists in critical positions, Xi will have a freer hand for pursuing his objectives.
To head off the worst possible outcomes of this dangerous new phase, the Biden administration should initiate a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Taiwan. This is overdue, given that the last such review took place in 1994, and there have been significant changes in cross-strait dynamics in the intervening years. A guiding principle of U.S. policy should be deterring a Chinese attack on Taiwan. To that end, the United States should make clear that it would use force in coming to Taiwan’s defense.
The U.S. government should improve Taiwan’s combat capabilities.
In addition to such assurances, the U.S. government should improve Taiwan’s combat capabilities. The United States should assist Taiwan in reforming its reserve forces and developing territorial defense forces while pushing Taipei to increase its defense spending and invest in asymmetric capabilities such as missiles, sea mines, and portable air defenses. U.S. policymakers must also work with Taiwan to prepare its civilian population for a potential Chinese attack. This would entail planning for how to maintain adequate food, fuel, and medical supplies during a conflict.
Meanwhile, to lower the chances of a conflagration, the United States should reconsider gestures that will inflame tensions but do not meaningfully increase deterrence or Taiwan’s resilience. Bilateral security cooperation between the United States and Taiwan will need to grow in the coming years, but such activities should not be made public. High-level U.S. officials should visit when there is a substantive reason for doing so, such as discussing U.S.-Taiwanese trade relations or cooperation on global health issues. If the United States believes that a crisis is brewing, a high-level symbolic trip could be useful to send a signal to China, but until that day arrives, senior officials should not touch down in Taipei just for the sake of doing so.
By that standard, Pelosi’s planned visit is ill advised. Although Taiwan is unlikely to secure any tangible gains, it will bear the brunt of any Chinese response. But Pelosi seems unlikely to cancel her trip; she may feel that this is her last opportunity to show her support for Taiwan, given that she is unlikely to remain Speaker following the midterm elections. Plus, a bedrock of her political career has been taking a tough stance on China. Now that the visit has become public and there is significant bipartisan support in Congress for her trip, there will also be political fallout if her plans end in a cancellation.
The best outcome, then, would be for Pelosi to delay her trip until after the midterms but before the next session of Congress, which would coincide with the aftermath of China’s Party Congress. Xi will likely sell any delay as a Chinese victory, much as Chinese President Jiang Zemin cast the 1995–96 crisis in the same light, and Pelosi would still be able to count a trip as part of her legacy. In the meantime, Pelosi could introduce legislation that would increase Taiwan’s defense capabilities, potentially including provisions such as prioritizing arms deliveries to the island or starting a foreign military financing program with Taipei. A bill could also grant the Biden administration authority to negotiate a comprehensive trade deal with Taiwan. In preparing for a future crisis over Taiwan, such substantive measures would be far more meaningful than any symbolic gesture.
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