America’s muddled Taiwan policy

Sep 24, 2022
Nancy Pelosi and delegation arrive in Taipei on 2 August 2022
Image: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News

In early August, U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, announced she planned to make a trip to Taiwan to give it moral encouragement at a time of tense relations with China. She would be the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Taiwan since 1997, when Speaker Newt Gingrich made the trip.

Before she departed, she and many others raved about her trip saying it would confirm America’s support for Taiwan at a critical time. However, President Biden and the U.S. Department of Defense officials advised her against the trip. American leaders looked to be speaking with two opposing voices.

Further complicating the matter, Taiwan’s top diplomat in Washington, Bi-khim Hsiao, reportedly (in Taiwan’s media) telephoned Speaker Pelosi and asked her not to make the trip.  Pelosi said something like “Mind your own business” even though obviously Hsiao had President Tsai Ing-wen’s blessing before she made the call.

In route to Taiwan the Speaker’s plane went out of its way to avoid flying over the South China Sea where China has a presence, but which the U.S. claims to be a “free” international space and often times sends its naval ships through the area to prove that. Nancy apparently did not want to incite Beijing any more than she already had. Or she lacked spine, which was not the image she otherwise projected.

Once in Taiwan Speaker Pelosi received a grand “hero’s welcome” that included showy public meetings with President Tsai amidst accolades from Taiwan’s press. In return she spoke laudatory words about Taiwan’s democracy and its right to choose its future.

Meanwhile, the press in the United States gave mixed reviews to Pelosi’s Taiwan trip. They fancied the attention she gave to Taiwan. But they also wrote about her “selfish motive”: burnishing her legacy at a time when she was soon to be voted off stage with the coming November election, which it is assumed the Democratic Party will lose. Further… She is 82 (three years older than Joe) and at times is as incoherent as President Biden. Thus, this was to be her last hurrah.

Then, President Biden stated emphatically U.S. Taiwan policy (that contradicted Pelosi’s narrative): “There is One China (the People’s Republic)! No to Taiwan’s independence!” Pro-China! Crystal clear!

Yet the naked truth about President Biden’s foreign policy thinking was that China was America’s paramount challenge and, therefore, is an existential enemy. Logically then, our enemy’s enemy (Taiwan) is our friend and ally.

Confusion galore!

In fact, President Biden was on record castigating China in harsh terms and taking actions accordingly.  In June Biden had made a trip to Europe to rally democratic nations against China. But most European countries saw China as an important trading partner. They also realised China was making great strides in expanding its global influence in financial matters and in science and technology. Finally, many Europeans considered the U.S. overbearing while trying desperately to maintain its global dominance in a unipolar world.

Not to be deterred… President Biden subsequently launched an effort to build an anti-China alliance in Asia, comprised of Japan, South Korea, India and Australia. But the viability of the alliance is yet to be demonstrated.

But Biden had another ally…. The liberal Western media, including the U.S. mainstream media, backed Biden’s efforts and even raised the temperature of vilifying and assailing China.

They cited China for trying to destroy the U.S.-built liberal world order, for President Xi making a bid for a third term in office (breaking the two-term limit), and much more.

President Biden and his allies in the U.S. media called for economic sanctions against China, copying President Trump but expanding it in scope. President Biden even broached cutting trade with China. But the results were contradictory:  U.S.-China trade increased, according to Global Times by a whopping 28,7 percent in 2021 while it continued to grow in 2022.

Joe even said the U.S. would defend Taiwan.  Then he walked this back and White House officials tried to explain away the gaffe.

China’s leaders responded to Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan with extensive military exercises near and even over Taiwan. America’s response? Some U.S. officials said China was trying to save face and its actions were not meaningful.  Others advised not upsetting China’s leaders since America was not ready for combat with China.

Almost simultaneously the press cited U.S. arms sales to Taiwan to the tune of a billion dollars. This was seen as Biden coming to Taiwan’s rescue. But Ukraine had received more than 13 billion in free aid.

More muddle in U.S. Taiwan policy…

To handle these paradoxes some pundits broached assessing America’s national interests in the context of its Taiwan policy. It seemed there were poignant matters to cite in this connection.

One was the geopolitical role Taiwan plays in preventing China from expanding its naval power in the Western Pacific.  Taiwan is part of the “reverse Great Wall” blocking China’s naval expansion beyond proximity to China’s shores. More specifically if Taiwan were to become part of China the submarine base on Taiwan’s east coast would become homebase for China’s submarine fleet that could promptly enter deep water and travel undetected to America’s West Coast.

But few Americans were aware of this, and the media did not broadcast it.

Instead, what was in the news was the matter of the availability of computer chips that are critical to making cars, computers, and much more. Taiwan Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Company, a firm worth $550 billion that controls more than half the global market for made-to-order chips and has an even tighter stranglehold on the most advanced processors (with more than 90% of market share by some estimates) was front and center. TSMC is vitally important to the U.S. for economic reasons, not to mention its national security.

But…. Arguably transcending everything else in importance is the fact that if Taiwan were to become part of China by force America’s credibility in Asia and the world would be shot. Other countries in Asia would reconsider aligning with the U.S.

How could America’s national strategy and global preeminence not prevail?

The answer is: The strategic narratives were trumped by Taiwan being a shinning democracy. President Trump chose using the democracy theme against his Republican foes at home and China. It was thus his main narrative.

But Taiwan’s political system had recently grown some warts. In 2016, right after Tsai Ing-wen was elected president and her party, the Democratic Progressive Party, or the DPP, which attained a majority in the legislature for the first time ever, passed a bill to seize the “illegitimate” Nationalist Party (KMT) assets gotten in decades past. This neutered the opposition party making it difficult to impossible for the KMT to compete in election campaigns. Before the 2020 election Tsai and her party passed another bill to restrict candidates and parties from siding with China and set forth serious punishments for doing so. This was aimed at constraining the KMT’s freedom of speech.

Scholars and many pundits in Taiwan labelled both acts contrary to democracy. In fact, it was difficult to argue otherwise.

More contradictions…

There were also some inconvenient truths about Taiwan’s residents that opinion surveys revealed, the best done by Chengchi University in Taiwan and Duke University in the U.S. They recorded that few of Taiwan’s males (unlike men in Ukraine) wanted to fight and possibly die to defend their homeland. Further, many residents planned to flee if they learned of a coming Chinese invasion. This could result in a million of more refugees going to the U.S. or other countries—something American supporters of Taiwan didn’t talk about.

In addition, most residents of Taiwan told the pollsters they think unification with China will ultimately happen (because of China’s rise and the fact the U.S. will not in the long run be able to protect Taiwan from China). This accords with China’s policy for recovering Taiwan by 2049, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic indicating China is not in a hurry to absorb Taiwan refuting the charge China is about to invade Taiwan.

Finally….  Most American Taiwan scholars and diplomats involved in U.S. Taiwan relations have long favoured the policy of strategic ambiguity, and still do. That policy was used decades ago to leash Chiang Kai-shek to prevent him from attacking China to start a U.S.-China war, and to prevent Taiwan’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb and President Chen Shui-bian from bombing China’s sites as he suggested doing if pressed. There was even talk of Taiwan launching missiles to hit China’s Three Gorges dam, which would reportedly kill tens of millions of Chinese.

Of course, it was also to deter China from attacking Taiwan—and did. But this cannot last in view of America’s decline and China’s rise. Thus, many observers judged that the Biden administration’s Taiwan policy, a policy of dual deterrence, is at best temporary.

In conclusion, America’s Taiwan policy appears to be a puzzle within a maze. It is at best unclear; at worst, it is confusing and risk prone.

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