President Biden has still to grasp that Taiwan is far more important than Ukraine to the future of American power in the world. Yet the likelihood is growing that, on Biden’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping will move on Taiwan, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
In a forewarning of that, China has recently started claiming that it owns the critical international waterway, the Taiwan Strait. Just as it did earlier in the South China Sea – the strategic corridor between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes – Xi’s regime is seeking to advance its expansionism by laying an expansive claim to the Taiwan Strait, which, by connecting the South and East China Seas, serves as an important passage for commercial shipping as well as foreign naval vessels.
The new claim signals that Xi is preparing to move on Taiwan at an opportune time — an action that would involve exercising maritime domain control.
By forcibly absorbing Taiwan, China would drive the final nail in the coffin of America’s global preeminence. A takeover of Taiwan would also give China a prized strategic and economic asset.
The defense of Taiwan has assumed greater significance for international security because three successive U.S. administrations have failed to credibly push back against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, relying instead on rhetoric or symbolic actions.
Biden, rather than working to deter and thwart a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan, is seeking to shield his tentative rapprochement with China, which has been forged through a series of virtual meetings with Xi and by offering Beijing important concessions. This explains why Biden publicly pushed back against a Taiwan visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
It is important to remember that, much before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden had begun to ease pressure on China. He effectively let Xi’s regime off the hook for both covering up COVID-19’s origins and failing to meet its commitments under the 2020 “phase one” trade deal with Washington. Biden also dropped fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of the military-linked Chinese tech giant Huawei. U.S. sanctions over China’s Muslim gulag remain essentially symbolic.
And now Biden is planning to roll back tariffs on Chinese goods, which will further fuel China’s spiraling trade surplus with America. After swelling by more than 25 percent last year to $396.6 billion, the trade surplus with the U.S. now makes up almost three-quarters of China’s total global surplus.
The mammoth surplus is helping to keep the Chinese economy afloat at a time when growth has slowed almost to a halt, triggering rising unemployment and mortgage and debt crises. The situation has been made worse by Xi’s lockdown-centered, zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19, which is breeding anger and resistance amid a property implosion.
Xi’s growing domestic troubles at a critical time when he is seeking a norm-breaking third term as Communist Party chairman heighten the risk of the Chinese leader resorting to nationalist brinkmanship as a distraction. After all, initiating a foreign intervention or crisis to divert attention from domestic challenges is a tried-and-true technique of leaders of major powers.
In his latest virtual meeting with Biden on July 28, Xi sharply warned against U.S. interference in the Taiwan issue, saying that those who “play with fire will perish by it.” Biden, by contrast, struck a defensive tone, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to a one-China policy and reassuring Xi that American “policy has not changed and that the United States strongly opposes anyone who will change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Having swallowed Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party seems itching to move on Taiwan, a technological powerhouse that plays a central role in the international semiconductor business. Annexing Taiwan will make China a more formidable rival to America and advance its goal of achieving global preeminence by the 100th anniversary of communist rule in 2049.
Against this background, Biden’s conciliatory approach toward China threatens to embolden Xi’s designs against Taiwan.
Taiwan’s imperative is to expand its global footprint to help safeguard its autonomous status. Instead of aiding that effort, Biden inexplicably excluded that island democracy from his recently unveiled Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — an economic platform that seeks to promote cooperation among its member-states.
Biden’s pursuit of a rapprochement with China also explains his administration’s proposal to roll back tariffs on Chinese products, an action that would break his promise not to unilaterally lift tariffs unless Beijing’s behavior improved.
Not once, not twice, but at least three times Biden has said in recent months that he is willing to get militarily involved to defend Taiwan, only to have his senior officials walk back his comments on every occasion. The last time when he sowed international confusion afresh, Biden himself walked back his Taiwan comments, telling reporters a day later, “My policy has not changed at all.”
In seeking to placate China, Biden is sending out contradictory signals, leaving Taiwan vexed and confused.
Instead of privately advising Pelosi against visiting Taiwan, Biden gratuitously told a reporter that “the military” thinks a Pelosi visit to Taiwan is “not a good idea right now.” Pelosi then told the media, “I think what the president is saying is that maybe the military was afraid our plane would get shot down or something like that by the Chinese.”
The president’s unusual remark conveyed American weakness by implying that the U.S. military was not capable of securing the flight path of the Pelosi-carrying military aircraft to Taiwan or effectively responding to any Chinese provocation. The comment also encouraged Xi’s regime to escalate its bullying threats to stymie a Taiwan visit by the person second in line to the U.S. presidency.
More fundamentally, if Biden fears a Pelosi visit to Taipei would set back his nascent rapprochement with China and ignite new tensions, it raises serious doubts whether he will have the political will to help defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Xi is also likely encouraged by Biden’s failure to force Russian forces to retreat from Ukraine, despite Washington spearheading unprecedented Western actions against Russia, including weaponizing finance, slapping wide-ranging sanctions and arming Ukraine with a plethora of sophisticated weapons.
With Biden’s poll numbers already in the tank, the president is likely to emerge further weakened from the approaching midterm elections. By contrast, a strengthened Xi securing a precedent-defying third term is likely to be bolder and more assertive in pursuing his geopolitical ambitions.
Instead of ordering a full-scale invasion, Xi may begin to slowly throttle Taiwan so as to force it to merge with China. A strangulation strategy would likely include blockading the Taiwan Strait (which will close off Taiwan’s main port, Kaohsiung) and seeking to cut off Taiwan’s undersea cables, internet connections and energy imports.
Make no mistake: Xi perceives an advantageous window of opportunity to accomplish what he has called a “historic mission” to incorporate Taiwan. And, in the style recommended by ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, Xi’s aggression will likely begin with stealth, deception, surprise and innovative methods.
For Xi, taking Taiwan is essential to achieving larger strategic goals, including making China a world power second to none by displacing America from the regional and global order.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press). Follow him on Twitter @Chellaney.