Biden and US pundits must stop legitimizing Russian and Chinese threats

Last week, spokespersons for Ukraine’s military regretted that rigid conditions imposed by the Biden administration prevent it from pushing Russian forces farther back, even out of Ukraine’s territory altogether. Ukraine’s defense minister, Olekseii Reznikov, said: “We promised our partners that we will use their weapons only on Ukrainian territory. … It’s a problem.”

The few HIMARS long-range artillery systems that Washington recently delivered to Kyiv have proved highly effective in striking Russian command posts, ammunition depots, and other high-value targets. They could reap even greater success for Ukrainian forces if they were delivered in larger numbers, more rapidly, and without the shackles Washington and NATO have attached to these and other weapons.

Ukrainian officials are reluctant to complain openly about the consequences of President Biden’s deliberately tempered policy, lest they be seen as ungrateful for the support they have received, even though the delays and constraints are prolonging the war at great cost to Ukrainians.

Biden has made his own hesitations painfully clear. He rejected Ukraine’s request for a no-fly zone because “that’s called World War III,” even denying Ukraine the ability to impose its own airspace deterrent using old Soviet MIGs offered by NATO member Poland. 

The Ukrainian experience offers worrisome portents for Taiwan, which is equally dependent on U.S. weapons for its self-defense. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires the U.S. “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.” 

But, for decades, administrations of both parties have denied or slow-walked the weapons most useful for Taiwan to defend itself. Taiwan’s requests for F-35 fighter jets and F-16s have been rejected by several administrations. The same denials and protracted delays attended Taiwan’s request for diesel submarines and other weapons systems considered potentially too “offensive” in nature.

The Biden administration has become fixated on a “porcupine” strategy, which supposedly would make the island more difficult to subdue and swallow and contemplates a Churchillian resistance: “We shall fight on the beaches … the landing-fields … the streets … the hills.” But, before describing that desperate, last-ditch stand, Winston Churchill first declared, “We shall fight in France … the seas and oceans [and] in the air.”

Taiwan needs to impose prohibitive costs on an attacking China well before its forces reach Taiwan’s beaches and cities, including the launching sites of the invaders — not as preemptive war but as forward defense once an attack starts.

Washington’s reluctance to provide both Ukraine and Taiwan with such weapons simplifies the task of the Russian and Chinese aggressors. They can deploy only as many forces as they are willing to lose, secure in the knowledge that logistical lines, reinforcement bases, and cities in the homeland are safe from the defenders’ counter-attacks. They can rely on Washington and its allies to prevent “escalation” from getting out of hand.

Western leaders and their academic and media allies have been conditioned by Russian and Chinese threats and information warfare to anticipate disproportionate responses to Western defensive measures. The self-containment applies even to the diplomatic and political realms.

The latest iteration of this phenomenon is the trauma being felt in Washington and some Western capitals over a likely visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Taiwan during her trip to Asia this week.

Beijing has chosen to magnify the attention focused on Pelosi’s trip even though former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan uneventfully in 1997. More recently, the European Union last year sent an official delegation of parliamentarians to show solidarity with Taiwan “in the defense of freedom … the rule of law and human decency … in this worldwide confrontation between the authoritarian regimes and democracies.” 

Pelosi’s inspired and well-executed Asia trip, starting with the Singapore leg, displays diplomatic competence and professionalism. But it is marred by the absence of Republicans from the six-person delegation, a perfect, but missed, opportunity to demonstrate bipartisan American support for Taiwan, either because Pelosi did not invite Republicans or because they declined the invitation.

Biden and the West are predisposed to fear bad Chinese and Russian behavior and to make preemptive concessions to avoid it and save the despots’ face. Some Western observers have fretted that U.S. and NATO aid to Ukraine should not “humiliate” Vladimir Putin. 

Decades earlier, Richard Nixon pulled the Seventh Fleet out of the Taiwan Strait and U.S. forces from Taiwan to mollify Mao Zedong even before their 1972 statement was finalized without meaningful Chinese reciprocity. The dangerously one-sided Shanghai Communique setting U.S.-China-Taiwan relations was the result.  

During the negotiation, Henry Kissinger, seeming more Catholic than the pope, said he was surprised Mao would be willing to “wait 100 years” to take Taiwan by force. As Beijing was still preparing for that contingency in 2007, Kissinger warned Taipei that “China will not wait forever.”

China’s Xi Jinping knows as well as the U.S. government that the Pelosi and other visits do not violate Washington’s official commitments (aside from whatever unauthorized private assurances Kissinger gave the Chinese in 1972). But relentless Chinese propaganda over the decades and inept U.S. responses have convinced careless U.S. media hosts and commentators — and more importantly, generations of Chinese citizens — that America is reneging on a “sacred” deal it made with China regarding Taiwan. That makes it easier for Xi to assert that his threats merely reflect the wishes of 1.5 billion angry Chinese.

Washington needs to make a concerted effort to “re-educate” the Chinese people on the facts of the relationship. It should note how hypocritical Beijing’s protestations are, given its extensive record of duplicity and broken promises on trade, human rights, nuclear proliferation, climate change and other bilateral and global issues.

China’s trashing of the commitments it made to Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and the international community is especially instructive for the Taiwan question, since both entities were promised political autonomy under the “one country, two systems” formula. Beijing now says that agreement is a “historical document” that no longer applies under current circumstances.

Biden should inform Xi that the same logic applies to the Shanghai Communique — time and events have passed it by, certainly in the distorted form that Beijing insists on. He should quote Nixon, usually lionized in China, who saw the reality of a new, democratic and independent Taiwan when he wrote in 1994 of Taiwan and China: “The separation is permanent politically, but they are in bed together economically.” Biden should reinforce that message as he edges toward an explicit one China, one Taiwan policy.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.