The May 15 cover story of the usually circumspect Economist calls Taiwan “the most dangerous place on Earth.” What happened? Are Chinese marines amassing on ships, the way Russian troops are on the border with Ukraine? Has China grabbed the two Taiwanese-owned islands, Kinmen and Matsu Islands, which are a mere three miles from the Chinese mainland, the way Russia grabbed Crimea or Turkey seized parts of Syria? Has China sent a message through back channels to the new Taiwanese government, which is less friendly to China than their previous one, calling for Taiwan to yield or else…?
Of course not. China did somewhat increase its harassment of Taiwan via overflights and ship maneuvers, but not by much. True, China seeks to incorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China; however, this is a generations-old ambition. True, China is building up its military and, last year, it produced some more landing vessels and submarines, but it has been doing so for years.
What is new is that the Biden Administration, very keen to find a theme that can unite Americans and gain bipartisan support, finally found one. It is not curbing the pandemic, as horrible as its toll was and continues to be; it is not the rollout of vaccines, which allows for the reopening of the economy and a return to a semi-normal life. It is China bashing.
China’s oppression of its Muslim minority and of Hong Kong provide strong rationales for Republicans and Democrats to compete over who can chastise China more. Their efforts are not wasted. A recent Pew research study found that 89 percent of adults in the U.S. “consider China a competitor or enemy rather than a partner.” The percentage of Americans who have “cold” feelings toward China rose from 46 percent in 2018 to 67 percent in 2021. Those who have “very cold” feelings toward China more than doubled, from 23 percent to 47 percent, during the same time period.
Biden decided to ride this wave. His administration started by employing the most incendiary terms possible to refer to the detention camps in which the Uyghurs are held, calling them concentration camps and maintaining that genocide is taking place in these camps. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated, to the nations that seek a more moderate position, you are either with us or against us.
During the Cold War, every U.S. administration had a much better chance of getting its way if it could claim that whatever project it was promoting would help fight the Soviet Union. Now, the Biden Administration is arguing that the trillions of dollars that need to be invested in infrastructure, in child care, to shore up democracy, and so on and on are needed, first of all, to stand up to China. Don’t take it from me. David E. Sanger, the leading New York Times observer in DC, stated, “President Biden has justified his broad vision to remake the American economy as the necessary step to survive long-run competition with China, a foot race in which the United States must prove not only that democracies can deliver, but that it can continue to out-innovate and outproduce the world’s most successful authoritarian state. Mr. Biden’s rationale is not just a rallying cry, but part of an effort to lift his infrastructure and rebuilding plans to a higher, less partisan plane.”
“It’s a smart argument that should pick up some Republican votes,” stated Kori Schake, who previously worked in the Defense Department and currently is the Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. She continued: “It’s likely to have more of an impact than President Obama’s did, because China’s behavior has become increasingly repressive at home and aggressive internationally.”
A Wall Street Journal headline reports: “China Rivalry Spurs Republicans and Democrats to Align on Tech Spending.” The text of the article begins with the line, “Legislation with bipartisan support in Congress would expand the role of the National Science Foundation and provide up to $200 billion in tech and related research funding to meet what backers say is a growing threat from China.”
When nations face escalating tensons, they must decide how far they are willing to go and, above all, whether they will push the most emotional buttons of their adversaries. Taiwan is the most emotional issue for China. It considers Taiwan to be one of its provinces, similar to the way Americans consider Texas to be part the U.S. China’s claims over the island, which go back to 239 AD, are highly contested, but are not without some historical foundations. For decades, the U.S. and China have had an implicit understanding that the U.S. will not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, and China will not use force to reincorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. This agreement grew from Henry Kissinger’s 1971 visit to Beijing. Kissinger raised a variety of demands; however, his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, had only one concern – Taiwan. Kissinger agreed that the U.S. would “recognize the government in Beijing, not Taipei, as the only legitimate China.”
Biden’s staff invited a Taiwanese representative to his inauguration. A delegation of American officials headed to Taiwan in April, as “a personal signal” of support from Biden. And officials from the Biden administration have been sounding the alarm that China will attack Taiwan in the near future. The U.S. military commander for the Indo-Pacific region, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, stated, “I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.” He did not cite evidence, especially about that mystifying date, when he made that claim.
Others claim that the Chinese may be on the way much sooner. Oriana Skylar Mastro, a Center Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute has asserted, “While many Western observers think China will be able to do so in the next five to eight years, Chinese military leaders have told me that they will be ready within a year.”
China is a vicious, authoritarian regime, one that is committing atrocities against its minorities and that oppresses its own people, but it belongs to the class of authoritarian regimes that have no messianic or expansionist ambitions – like Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Burma. Western sources keep calling China aggressive. Aggression is defined by the UN as “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State.” By this definition, China has been aggressive – but only toward some unoccupied piles of rocks. It has claimed rights to most of the South China Sea, but that is about it. Minor clashes with India were quickly defused. Differences with the Philippines have been worked out.
China must note that the U.S. has refused to commit itself to not be the first to use nukes in a war and that published reports about U.S. war plans for dealing with China call for striking the mainland in full force. China has worked for decades to rebuild itself after three centuries of humiliation by the West. Why would it now risk it all in order to take Taiwan?
Once chauvinism is ignited, it is difficult to cool it down. It is time to recall how much the U.S. overestimated the power of the Soviet Union, which ultimately collapsed largely under its own weight. It is also a good time to remember the American mavens who predicted that Japan would out-compete us in a jiffy. It is time for those not swept up in the swelling anti-China tidal wave to speak out and point to the fact that much is to be gained by working with China, including agreeing that both sides should leave Taiwan just the way it is.