When Henry Kissinger secretly traveled to Beijing in 1971 to negotiate the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and China, he came bearing multiple requests — about the Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the Soviet Union and more. Kissinger’s Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, had only one focus: Taiwan.
The U.S. needed to recognize the government in Beijing, not Taipei, as the only legitimate China, and the United Nations needed to expel Taiwan, Zhou said. Kissinger agreed to those terms, and President Richard Nixon triumphantly visited China the next year.
Still, the U.S. did not abandon Taiwan. Even as it refused to recognize Taiwan, it continued selling arms to its government and implicitly warned Beijing not to invade. The policy is known as “strategic ambiguity,” and it has endured since the 1970s.
Now some U.S. officials and foreign-policy experts worry that it has become outdated, as my colleague Michael Crowley explains. They think that President Biden may need to choose between making a more formal commitment to Taiwan’s defense or tempting China to invade.
Adm. Philip S. Davidson, the U.S. military commander for the Indo-Pacific region, recently told Congress that he thought China might try to reclaim the island by force within the next six years. The policy of strategic ambiguity, he added, “should be reconsidered.”
China also seems to be considering a newly aggressive approach. This week, it sent an aircraft carrier near Taiwan’s coast, as The Times’s Amy Qin, who’s based in Taipei, told me. The Chinese Navy later released a statement saying, “Similar exercises will be conducted on a regular basis in the future.” Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic has suggested that a Chinese invasion “could happen at any moment” and that Biden should be prepared.
A military conflict still seems unlikely. Then again, military conflicts often seem unlikely until the moment they begin.
‘A window of opportunity’
China’s current leaders view Taiwanese reunification much as Zhou did in 1971: urgent and vital. “Fast forward half a century, and the same issue — Taiwan — remains Beijing’s No. 1 priority,” as Niall Ferguson of Stanford University writes in a Bloomberg Opinion piece. To Beijing, Taiwan continues to be a source of embarrassment, the island where the losers in the country’s civil war fled in 1949 and whose government is propped up by foreign powers.
Just as important, though, is what has changed in recent decades. China has transformed itself from a poor country that endured the chaos of civil war, famine and the Cultural Revolution during the 20th century into one of the world’s leading powers. It has become the only serious rival to the U.S., economically and militarily.
As part of their rise to global power, China’s leaders believe they must regain control over what they consider their rightful territory. China has already cracked down in Tibet and Xinjiang, partly through severe human rights violations. It has crushed dissent in Hong Kong over the past year. Taiwan remains the only part of greater China that’s outside of Beijing’s grip.
“Xi seems to see the U.S. as weakened and distracted,” Michael Crowley told me, “but also focusing more and more on the China threat — leading to concern that he may see a window of opportunity that moves him to action in the near future.”
What’s both tough and effective?
Biden and his foreign-policy team have decided to take a fairly tough approach to China. They do not believe Donald Trump’s specific policies, like his tariffs, were effective, but Biden’s team has accepted Trump’s view that Barack Obama and his predecessors were too soft on China, mistakenly hoping it would become friendlier as it became richer.
Even within this hawkish framework, though, the most effective approach to Taiwan is not obvious. Some Americans — including Robert Gates, a former defense secretary; Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican; Barney Frank, a Democratic former House member; and Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations — argue that while “strategic ambiguity” worked when China was weak, it no longer does. Today, they say, the U.S. must provide clarity, to prevent a thriving, affluent democracy of 24 million people from being overrun.
Other experts argue that a formal change in U.S. policy would be so confrontational as to force Beijing to choose between humiliation and war. “For Taiwan, strategic ambiguity remains a relatively successful policy,” Lu Yeh-chung of National Cheng-chi University in Taipei told The Times. Advocates for the status quo say that China’s leaders understand that an invasion of Taiwan could bring global condemnation, tough economic sanctions and a needless risk to China’s continuing rise.
The view from Taipei
What’s the feeling in Taiwan? My colleague Amy Qin says that people there remain largely unfazed about the escalation in rhetoric and military activities. They have lived under the existential threat of an attack from mainland China for seven decades.
“What is there to be scared of?” Stacy Ko, 36, who was dining on a bar patio in Taipei last night, told Amy. It may help that life has been fairly normal for months in Taiwan, thanks to its highly effective response to Covid-19.
“China is China, and Taiwan is Taiwan,” Ko said. “We welcome America’s support, but there’s no reason to be scared.”
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