But whenever it takes place, aggression against Taiwan will pose the same dilemma to the West as Hitler’s militarization of the Rhineland posed to the Allies in 1936. Western democracies blinked 85 years ago, and war engulfed the world shortly thereafter. Threat followed threat, demand followed demand, and the policy of appeasement of Germany failed. What happened next was a catastrophe.
China’s aggression has stepped up of late. Chinese aircraft have been testing Taiwan’s air defenses for weeks; the next step is possibly an encounter at sea or a move against Taiwan’s outer islands. Whenever the escalation, the United States and its allies will sooner or later face a sudden, inescapable choice: Defend Taiwan or acquiesce.
The United States is bound by a combination of the Taiwan Relations Act and presidential statements to defend Taiwan, but no one really knows what that means anymore. It should mean deploying U.S. troops and weaponry to assist Taipei in repelling any takeover attempt, meeting force with force. It also means working with allies now to form a visible and resolute coalition against Beijing’s aggression across the Taiwan Strait and throughout the free seas of the region.
Economic sanctions will not work, not against determined opponents of any sort, but especially not against Xi and his communist hard-line allies.
Beijing has stepped up its rhetoric, too. Team Biden discovered that last month when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan endured a 16-minute tongue-lashing by China’s top diplomat at their Anchorage summit. Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi’s harangue followed a less-aggressive statement from Blinken mentioning a half dozen U.S. objections to Chinese foreign and domestic policy. But Yang blistered the U.S. delegation with a broadside in response, publicly telling the world that the days of Americans speaking to China in an imperious tone were over. After first knocking the United States for its own alleged human rights problems, Yang took off. “I think the problem is that the United States has exercised long-arm jurisdiction and suppression and overstretched the national security through the use of force or financial hegemony,” he said, “and this has created obstacles for normal trade activities, and the United States has also been persuading some countries to launch attacks on China.”
Upon returning to D.C., the chastened U.S. team commenced shadowboxing. A U.S. official suggested to reporters that the United States might boycott the 2022 Games, then the State Department and the White House clarified that quickly to say it was not being discussed. Now President Biden is sending an unofficial delegation to Taiwan of former officials: former senator Chris Dodd and two former deputy secretaries of state — Richard Armitage and James Steinberg.
This is a tremulous message from a confused administration. While every American president — including the last one — embraced strategic ambiguity, some like President Donald Trump sent far more direct messages through administration figures, such as former vice president Mike Pence, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, national security advisor Robert C. O’Brien, attorney general William P. Barr and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray of resolve concerning a free Taiwan. The United States must wholly jettison the remnants of ambiguity after Yang’s throwdown. The Biden administration has begun its relationship with Beijing on its back foot and needs to step up and do it soon.
Amid these developments, the first budget from Biden actually cut defense spending in real terms. At a minimum, Congress must boost the Navy’s top-line spending significantly if deterrence is to hold. Having just spent $1.9 trillion on stimulus — and it is absurd to call that measure “covid relief” since relatively few of the dollars went to actual, direct covid relief. Team Biden now seeks trillions more in “infrastructure” that includes nothing for such national security needs as expanding shipyards to build and repair submarines or a new class of frigates or the money needed to modernize the naval leg of the nuclear triad.
The confrontation with China over Taiwan approaches. It is up to Biden to very clearly communicate that the United States will meet force with force and for our allies to back us up. This is not the time for diplomatic pirouettes about what constitutes “ambiguity.” It is a time for clarity. Its absence sends every signal the Chinese Communist Party needs.