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Opinion Biden’s first test could be the tensest U.S. moment since the Cuban missile crisis

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, with then-Vice President Joe Biden in Beijing in 2013.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, with then-Vice President Joe Biden in Beijing in 2013. (Reuters)
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The Biden administration’s first grave test approaches, not silently on little cat’s feet but in the noisy stomping of totalitarians’ boots. In 2021, Taiwan might provide the most perilous U.S. moment since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

The U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan has become untenable, as has Joe Biden’s 2001 stance. President George W. Bush, asked that year whether the country has an obligation to defend Taiwan against an attack by China, said: “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that.” Bush was asked, “With the full force of the American military?” He answered: “Whatever it took.” Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said “the Taiwan Relations Act makes very clear that the U.S. has an obligation that Taiwan’s peaceful way of life is not upset by force.”

Biden responded: “No. Not exactly.” In a Post op-ed, Biden reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to preserving Taiwan’s “autonomy” under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, and to providing Taiwan with “defense articles and defense services” necessary for “sufficient self-defense capability.” But he said the United States “has not been obligated to defend Taiwan since we abrogated the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty,” in 1980.

The act, Biden said, makes it U.S. policy that “any attempt to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means would . . . be ‘of grave concern.’ ” But Biden stressed “a huge difference between reserving the right to use force and obligating ourselves, a priori, to come to the defense of Taiwan.” He said that neither Taiwan nor Beijing should have “the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.”

But even 19 years ago, it was essentially unthinkable that Taiwan would “draw us into” a war by attacking the mainland. Today, time is Taiwan’s friend. A 2001 poll measured Taiwanese vs. Chinese identity among Taiwan’s residents. It found that 10.6 percent identified as Chinese, 41.6 percent as Taiwanese, 43.1 percent as both. Today, 66 percent identify as just Taiwanese, 28 percent as both, and just 4 percent as Chinese. Although a majority of Taiwanese favor independence someday, today’s threat to the status quo comes from Beijing.

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The “one China policy” — the diplomatic fiction that the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China are parts of the same entity — has been made a mockery in Hong Kong. In 2001, China was just beginning the military buildup produced by a 900 percent spending increase between 1990 and 2017. In 2001, China’s gross domestic product was 12.7 percent of U.S. GDP. Today, it is almost 70 percent. (The Soviet Union’s GDP never exceeded 60 percent of U.S. GDP.) In 2001, China had not begun aggressively claiming, in defiance of international law, sovereignty over the South China Sea’s 1.4 million square miles, through which $3.4 trillion of global commerce passes annually. In 2001, Hong Kong’s autonomy was presumed to be secure until 2047 under Beijing’s 1984 commitment to Britain, which ceded control in 1997.

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Today, Hong Kong’s liberty is a guttering candle because Chinese dictator Xi Jinping meant what he said in 2017: “The wheels of history roll on, the tides of the times are vast and mighty.” Tides with wheels? Never mind. Xi said: “History looks kindly on those with resolve, with drive and ambition, and with plenty of guts; it won’t wait for the hesitant.” From the bloodshed on the China-India border to the lawless aggressiveness in the South China Sea to the coarse bullying by China’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomats, especially in Europe, China is demonstrating the arrogance that begets recklessness.

Furthermore, a regime’s internal dynamics often presage external behavior, so it is ominous, the New York Times reports, that Xi’s regime is directing the security agencies to “drive the blade in” and “scrape poison off the bone” as they “resolutely put absolute loyalty, absolute purity and absolute dependability into action” to make everyone “obey Xi in everything.”

Xi has suffocated Hong Kong because he could, and because free people on China’s periphery threaten the mainland with a destabilizing political virus. Regarding Taiwan’s 24 million free people, he said last year: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.”

To Xi, Taiwan’s autonomy means that the communist conquest of China in 1949 remains incomplete. Completing it would secure his place in Chinese history. If he considers attacking Taiwan, or even just one of its nearby islands, will he know President Biden’s intentions? Ambiguity is useful in diplomacy, until it becomes dangerous.

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Read more:

Dan Coats: There’s no Cold War with China — and if there were, we couldn’t win

Hugh Hewitt: Pompeo’s speech opens a bold new chapter in U.S.-China relations

Richard Haass: What Mike Pompeo doesn’t understand about China, Richard Nixon and U.S. foreign policy

The Post’s View: Trump’s China policy has no strategy — except to boost his reelection campaign