Credible Assurance is Appeasement by Another Name

As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) mourns the loss of their “old friend” Dr. Henry Kissinger, who passed away on November 29, it is worth noting his influence as the originator of the “Engagement School” of thought towards the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which remains the dominant voice amongst the “China Hands” of America’s foreign policy establishment. Ironically, this was exemplified the day after his death in the pages of the Council of Foreign Relations Foreign Affairs international relations magazine. It published an article entitled “Taiwan and the True Sources of Deterrence: Why America Must Reassure, Not Just Threaten, China.”

The article was written by three of America’s most prominent “China Hands,” Bonnie S. Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss, and Thomas J. Christensen whose primary thesis is that U.S. deterrence against the PRC should be more than just “weapons in arsenals, boots on the ground, planes in the air, ships at sea, or strategies on the planning table.” As these China Hands argue, America and Taiwan must provide “credible assurances” to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to have any effective deterrence of the PRC’s expansionist agenda.

The authors condemn “ill-advised” statements by former and current U.S. officials who have called for the United States Government (USG) to formally recognize Taiwan. The authors go so far as to demand that USG officials avoid even giving the impression that America is moving toward restoring formal diplomatic relations or a defense alliance with the island, even in the face of the PRC’s military threats against Taiwan that have dramatically spiked in the past year.

These respected China Hands recommend the U.S. unambiguously commit to a policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which avoids specifying under what conditions the U.S. would intervene in a cross-strait conflict—something they assert will demonstrate America’s commitment to suppressing any unilateral move by Taiwan to achieve its own self-determination—one of the political warfare goals long sought by the CCP.

Moreover, the authors condemn Taiwan’s current leader, and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), President Tsai Ing-wen for not accepting the so-called “1992 Consensus,” an alleged agreement between the PRC and Taiwan, then led by the Kuomintang—today’s opposition party, as belonging to the same country and being the formal basis for all future negotiations between both sides of the strait. Furthermore, these three China Hands criticize Tsai for having the audacity to teach Taiwan’s history separate from the history of China in their high schools. Ironically, these three never mention the curriculum that the CCP falsely teaches millions of PRC students that Taiwan has always been a part of China and belongs to them.

While the authors do include the PRC as being a party to this notion of providing “credible assurances,” there can be no doubt that the main thrust of their assertions is that Washington and Taiwan are responsible for “raising fears” in Beijing and, as such, should instead be focusing on how not to provoke Xi and the CCP into starting a conflict. Despite the clear change in the correlation of forces in the PRC’s favor, these authors incredibly try to assert that the U.S. and Taiwan are the root cause of the current cross strait tensions.

The authors also preemptively argue that some in the U.S. foreign policy and national defense arena mistakenly conflate assurances with “appeasement or outright capitulation,” something they state is “wrong-headed.” They openly reject any suggestion that by using such “credible assurances” Washington and Taipei would be signaling weakness and inviting Chinese aggression.

Yet throughout the article the authors provide no acknowledgement for the past 30 years of prior “credible assurances” the USG has made to the PRC through the implementation of the Kissinger School of Engagement by both Democrat and Republican Administrations.

The authors make no mention of the Clinton administration’s efforts to provide the PRC, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), access to sensitive rocket and space technology or for ushering the PRC into the World Trade Organization (WTO) before the PRC’s economy was fully qualified. WTO entry greatly accelerated its military capabilities and thus threat to Taiwan and the U.S. and its allies. Neither still do the authors fully acknowledgement the Bush administration’s very public castigation of former Taiwan President Chen Shui-bien for his comments regarding independence.

What is most egregious is the failure of the authors to acknowledge the decades old policy of the U.S. Department of Defense’s invitations to their PLA counterparts to visit U.S. naval bases in Hawaii, San Diego, and Norfolk and to openly share with them solutions to improving the PLA as a fighting force. Neither do the author’s mention the Obama administration’s dismantlement of the U.S. Navy over an eight-year period that subsequently led to the PRC Navy becoming the largest in the world. In that vein, the authors also make no mention of the current administration’s pleadings to re-establish military-to-military relations to bring down the tensions they claim are so dangerous, and dominate, in U.S.-PRC relations.

The fact is these authors know full well that none of these efforts at “credible assurance” have altered the CCP from achieving its strategic goal of achieving the Great Rejuvenation of the PRC. Its end state demands the degradation of the United States and the post WWII system of peace and stability that most of the world has benefited from like no other time in history.

What is also clear is that the authors’ article has been used by pro-PRC parties in Taiwan to undermine the upcoming Presidential and parliamentary elections on January 13, 2024 and to interfere in Taiwan’s inherent right to pursue their own self-determination. This amounts to election interference, which the pro-PRC Engagement community appears to believe is their duty. Yet, regardless of what the authors claim, the assertion that Washington and Taipei must provide “credible assurances” is appeasement to the CCP and will only lead to more aggression and danger.

Rather than take the advice of these appeasers, American leaders should stand firm against the threat of war from the PRC and instead should get busy building up the hard-power elements of America’s national defense, which the authors dishonestly proclaim has received too much attention. The reality is the opposite—America’s military power vis-à-vis the PRC and our ability to deter a PRC invasion of Taiwan are at their lowest levels ever.

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat. 

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About James E. Fanell and Bradley A. Thayer

James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is a Founding Member of the Committee on Present Danger China and the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.

Photo: This file photo taken on Jan. 29, 2015 shows former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing on Global Challenges and the U.S. National Security Strategy in Washington D.C.. Henry Kissinger passed away at 100 on Nov. 29, 2023. (Photo by Bao Dandan/Xinhua via Getty Images)