Who cares about Taiwan? A provocative question no doubt. But however much the American “foreign policy community” cares about Taiwan, China and the Chinese people care about it 10 times more. Reunification with Taiwan has been an irredentist goal of Communist China since its founding and a frequent source of friction with the United States.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip last week to Taiwan was meant to show solidarity and support for the embattled, not-quite-a-real-country off the coast of China. But it was an extreme risk to take for a public relations gesture.
Various high-ranking Chinese officials warned the visit was both an insult and one step short of an act of war. While nothing happened to Pelosi or her plane, China has scheduled military exercises around Taiwan to commence this week. It is possible other responses are in the works.
Declaring Pelosi’s stunt a success is premature.
Our Schizophrenic Taiwan Policy
The simmering war of words is a product of our schizophrenic policy toward Taiwan. Prior to Richard Nixon’s normalization of relations with China, the United States embraced the fiction that Taiwan was the legitimate government of all of China. We called Taiwan the Republic of China. Until the late 1960s, China and the Soviet Union were Cold War allies.
Furthering the policy of making China a formal anti-Soviet ally after the Sino-Soviet split, the United Nations seated the People’s Republic of China on the Security Council in 1971 and removed Taiwan as the Chinese representative. The United States withdrew its nuclear weapons from Taiwan a few years later. Finally, we formally recognized the People’s Republic of China and de-recognized Taiwan as the government of China in 1979.
Even with the formal policy of recognizing only one China, the United States continued to maintain commercial and military connections with Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act, conducting extensive arms sales, including Apache helicopters, high-tech missiles, submarines, frigates, and fighter jets. American leaders implied, but did not say out loud, that any Chinese attempts to forcibly reunite with Taiwan would be a mistake. We continued to sell arms to Taiwan after the end of the Cold War, even as we expanded commercial ties to China.
What Is the American Interest vis-à-vis China?
China is a rising power, a hostile power, has an alien and illiberal political system, and it has the potential to undermine America’s strength in relation to the rest of the world. Our policy so far has been to cultivate an informal alliance among China’s neighbors to act as a counterweight; these allies include Japan, South Korea, Australia, and, lately, Communist Vietnam. In addition, we have periodically shown naval strength in the South China Sea, even though our comparative advantages might be shrinking or completely illusory. Simultaneously, we continue to depend on China for all kinds of goods, and Biden has hinted that he may reverse the Trump-era tariffs on Chinese companies.
China has nuclear weapons. As a general rule, nuclear powers avoid direct conflict because it could lead to their mutually assured destruction. While it may make sense to push back against China and limit their overseas ambitions, the line should be closer to home, like keeping them out of the Western Hemisphere or insisting on open sea lanes, while acknowledging their role as a regional power with influence in their near-abroad.
Taiwan is close to China’s mainland, where China’s military and logistical advantages increase, and our military is at its greatest disadvantage. Taiwan is probably indefensible if China decides to attack it, and any defense we offer would contradict decades of policy.
After all, if there is only one China, who are we to say they can’t have a “civil war” to decide their fate? Even in an alternate universe where we continued to espouse the Cold War fiction that Taiwan remained the de jure government of the entirety of China, mainland China is much closer to Taiwan, has amassed an enormous arsenal of naval assets and anti-ship missile along the adjacent coast, and has a greater moral commitment to the outcome than the United States or its people.
Americans Will Not Support a War for Taiwan
It is rather remarkable that a year after the Afghanistan debacle, the Black Lives Matter riots of 2020, and the continuing musings about an impending second civil war in America, that political leaders, Republican and Democratic alike, seem to think Americans would be eager to wage war for Taiwan—particularly as such a war risks a nuclear exchange and would entail thousands of casualties among our naval personnel, likely necessitating a draft. This all amounts to delusional wishcasting.
I have no animosity toward Taiwan, which is free and prosperous, and I wish them peace. But unlike the sustained national effort in connection with the Cold War, our Taiwan policy is murky and is devoid of both public interest and public consensus. In this respect, our politicians may not understand China, but they definitely do not understand the American people.
We must be realistic about public opinion in the event of a conflict, as flagging public support doomed the recent Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Even with the Cold War consensus for containment, political leaders could not sustain the American commitment in Vietnam.
Put simply, America is not ready for a war with China, and Americans have no appetite for such a conflict. Until Nancy’s China trip, there was no particular provocation to galvanize any such commitment. At the moment, America is particularly weak, having given large amounts of equipment, ammunition, and money to Ukraine. We are also unable to recruit sufficient manpower for the all-volunteer force and have separated tens of thousands of servicemen from the military because of foolish vaccine mandates.
So the question for Nancy and the acquiescent Biden Administration is “Why this?” and “Why now?” At the moment, we remain dependent on Taiwan for high-tech goods, particularly computer chips. The efforts to “reshore” this capacity to the United States are just getting started. This leaves us and the world very vulnerable to any Chinese blockade of Taiwan.
My best guess is that Biden put her up to it and pretended to object for diplomatic reasons. In the way of evidence, while he was publicly quiet and even critical of the visit, she did arrive on a military transport.
The Z Man, a well-known blogger and podcaster, has argued it’s all an outgrowth of our Russia policy, since China has sided with Russia, despite American attempts to cultivate a worldwide consensus. This makes some sense. Trump was substantially more hawkish on China and was harassed by the intelligence services for his desire for better relations with Russia, to the point that Biden criticized his description of China as an adversary and warned against Trump’s tariff policies. Only now are Biden, Pelosi, and company taking a hard line against China.
Our leaders are doing the same reckless thing they did with Russia, deliberately provoking a nuclear power and then hoping their predictions of a likely response are correct. This is a high risk and low reward policy. We know history is replete with miscalculations in such matters, and the people lately in charge of these things are dumber and less educated than those of the past.
Even that explanation is not really satisfying. Until recently, almost everything Biden did appeared designed to help China and hurt America. His Russia sanctions gave China preferred access to Russian oil and natural gas. He has only authorized half-hearted investigations into China’s role in creating the COVID-19 disaster. Finally, his son had extensive business interests in China, which apparently included a kickback of at least 10 percent to the “Big Guy.”
A Better China Policy
Our China policy should be less focused on Taiwan and its fate. If Taiwan were to go the same route as Hong Kong, it would do little harm to the United States. Whether it comes to Ukraine or anywhere else, America must remain singularly focused on our national interests, including our interest in peace.
The bigger threat to American interests is China’s ambition to upend maritime rules, creating tolls and self-serving restrictions over sea lanes in the South China Sea and its near-abroad. Such a policy could be used to deprive our country of essential goods and may encourage other countries to adopt similar policies. We are a maritime power, and our national wealth and independence depend on open sea lanes and an international consensus on the law of the sea.
The worst of all worlds would be our current policy: provoking fights we cannot win, which will reveal that our guarantees exceed our military’s abilities and the will of the American people. Then, instead of Taiwan merely being absorbed into China, the United States would also be exposed as an unreliable and feckless ally, whose military prowess is exaggerated, further damaging our ability to secure our core interests in other areas.
Of course, if Biden really does want to weaken the United States and reports to Chinese masters, this is exactly the policy he would pursue.