Confronting China

May 26, 2022

On March 26, in Poland, President Biden referring to President Putin said, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Administration officials immediately scrambled to clarify that what he meant was not regime change. “That’s not for Biden to decide,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters. “The president of Russia is elected by Russians.” Two days later, Mr. Biden said that his comment was an expression of his outrage and not a change in American policy.

This week President Biden was in Asia. As he concluded his first visit to the region as president, CNN, reporting on the trip said, “President Joe Biden used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to send an unmistakable message to China.”

Because on May 23, in Tokyo, during a joint press conference with Prime Minister Fumio of Japan, President Biden was asked, “You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons.  Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?”

This was his response:

“Yes. That’s the commitment we made.  That’s the commitment we made.  We are not — Look, here’s the situation: We agree with the One China policy; we’ve signed on to it and all the attendant agreements made from there.  But the idea that — that it can be taken by force — just taken by force — is just not a — is just not appropriate.  It will dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in — in Ukraine.  And so, it’s a burden that is even stronger.” [i]

Soon after the press conference, the New York Times reported the following:

“The White House quickly tried to deny that the president meant what he seemed to be saying. “As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the White House said in a statement hurriedly sent to reporters. “He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also reiterated our commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military means to defend itself.”

Under the “Taiwan Relations Act” of January 1, 1979, it is the policy of the US,

  • to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including boycotts or embargoes, as a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the US;
  • to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character;
  • and to maintain the capacity of the US to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.

Responding to Mr. Biden’s comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said:

“China expresses strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to the remarks by the US side. There is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory and the government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China. This is a consensus of the international community and a political commitment made by the US to China. The Taiwan question is purely China’s internal affair that brooks no foreign interference…

“We urge the US side to abide by the one-China principle and the stipulations in the three China-US joint communiqués, honor its important commitment of not supporting ‘Taiwan independence’… We mean what we say.” [ii]

A day later, Biden told reporters the US policy of “strategic ambiguity” had not changed. “The policy has not changed at all and I stated that when I made my statement,” Biden said.

What is clear is that, beyond the question of Taiwan, Washington is trying to create a broad front to contain China.

During the past two decades, as the US fought its longest war in Afghanistan, tried to deal with the negative consequences of the invasion of Iraq and Arab spring interventions, and encouraged Georgia in what proved a disastrous attempt to challenge Russia, China focused on its economic development. It built economic bridgeheads across the world becoming the world’s top trading nation. It avoided getting involved in international disputes, and Arab spring adventures. US officials have continuously referred to its aggressive policies, but Peking has not allowed regional questions to turn into crises. It has not resorted to force. Chinese officials have reacted to such allegations in measured language because China’s public diplomacy is generally reserved and cautious. China advocates multilateralism.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that between 1839 and 1949, China lived what it later called the “Century of Humiliation” under the aggressive policies of the powers who are today advocating a “rules-based international order”. Yes, this is now that was then when the world only knew about a “no rules colonial order”.

Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur population is an outrage. However, if others are truly interested in alleviating their plight, engagement is a better option.

Drawing parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the question of Taiwan is wrong for especially two reasons. Firstly, Ukraine is not Russia’s land. Taiwan is part of China. Secondly, providing military support to Taiwan like Ukraine is an illusion. Ukraine shares borders with four NATO countries. Taiwan is an island only 160 kilometers away from the mainland. Supporting Taiwan militarily against China is mission impossible.

Constant challenging of Beijing’s Taiwan policy would only provoke China. Diplomatic engagement with China on a broad range of international issues is the better option. European members of NATO have rallied behind Washington in confronting Russia. They are unlikely to do that against China, perhaps except for the UK. They would not wish to go beyond what was said in NATO’s June 14, 2021, Brussels summit communique.[iii] EU countries would not look favorably on confrontation in both Europe and Asia. Such a confrontation would bring Moscow and Beijing closer. President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a miscalculation, but he may prove right at least in some of his assumptions on transatlantic relations. Moreover, President Biden is faced with a multitude of challenges at home.

Having said all that I must admit that I am no expert on China but during my years as Turkey’s ambassador in Riyadh I was fortunate enough to meet a distinguished American diplomat who is exactly that. So, I would advise the reader not to miss the speech delivered by Ambassador Chas Freemen at the Metropolitan Club of Washington, DC on May 5: Outcompeting China to “Win the Future”. https://chasfreeman.net/outcompeting-china-to-win-the-future/

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[i] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/05/23/remarks-by-president-biden-and-prime-minister-fumio-kishida-of-japan-in-joint-press-conference/

[ii] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/202205/t20220523_10691505.html

[iii] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2021/06/17/president-bidens-first-overseas-trip/

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