How Obama Can Deter China
When Chinese President Xi Jinping comes to Washington next week, will U.S. President Barack Obama again miss an opportunity to permanently deter conflict with China over Taiwan, as he and his predecessors have repeatedly done?
Obama is proud of accomplishing things no other president could achieve: health care reform, recognizing the Communist government of Cuba, and negotiating the Iran nuclear deal.
A Landmark Decision
During Xi‘s visit, the president can unilaterally announce a landmark decision that won't require either the concurrence of the U.S. Congress (which would support him on this issue in any event) or reciprocal action by the government of China. On his own, Obama could declare publicly that the United States will defend Taiwan against aggression or coercion from China.
For the first time since 1979, when President Jimmy Carter unilaterally terminated the U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty, Beijing would know with certainty that any use of force against Taiwan would mean conflict with the United States. Since China's leaders are not suicidal, such a presidential declaration would prevent potentially disastrous Chinese miscalculation. This is the same kind of deterrence President Dwight Eisenhower achieved when he entered into the 1954 treaty with the Republic of China.
After Carter severed the Taiwan security pact 25 years later, Congress immediately passed the Taiwan Relations Act, pledging U.S. arms for Taiwan's self-defense, but the legislation did not commit the United States to directly defend the island. In the ensuing years, Taiwan began its transition from dictatorship to democracy, over the strong objections of China, which claims the island as part of its territory even though the Communist government has never ruled it.
To protest Taiwan's democratic trend, in 1995 and 1996 China mobilized forces and fired missiles toward Taiwan. President Bill Clinton responded by sending aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait to deter any further Chinese moves against the island.
But when Chinese officials asked then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye what Washington would do if China actually attacked Taiwan, his response was less than a resounding statement of U.S. resolve: "We don't know and you don't know; it would depend on the circumstances." It was the explicit articulation of a strategic ambiguity that successive administrations have deemed expedient to follow.
While Washington hedges, Beijing has been busy planning and building its military capabilities to create precisely "the circumstances" that will prevent the United States from once again coming to Taiwan's defense. Anti-ship ballistic missiles and attack submarines are the instruments that enforce China's area denial and anti-access strategy.
At one point, an American president seemed prepared to clear the murky policy and make explicit the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. After the EP-3 incident in April 2001, President George W. Bush was asked what the United States would do to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. "Whatever it took," he replied.
But Bush's strategic clarity was shortlived. Asia specialists in and out of the government immediately began walking the president's words back as too provocative to China, forcing the administration to announce that there had been "no change" in the U.S. posture of strategic ambiguity.
An Aggressive China
A bemused Beijing stayed on its course of building a counter-deterrent to U.S. intervention in any future Taiwan crisis. As voices in the United States increasingly questioned the wisdom of even the ambiguous commitment to Taiwan, Beijing decided its strategy was proving effective and extended it to the entire region. In 2009, it announced a "nine-dash line" claiming 90 percent of the South China Sea as Chinese waters and territory. Its aggressive claims have resulted in numerous maritime clashes with other regional claimants as well as the United States. In recent years, China has upped the ante by building up rocks and reefs, making them large enough to support airfields and other military installations.
The administration has unequivocally stated its commitment to freedom of navigation, though it has yet to send the U.S. Navy through the international waters that China claims as a 12-mile territorial zone around its artificial islands. The Xi visit provides an appropriate occasion to start rolling back Beijing's aggressive claims against Taiwan and throughout the region.
Advocates of the policy status quo assert that a clear statement of U.S. commitment to Taiwan would increase the risk of conflict in two ways. First, they argue, it would unnecessarily provoke China by challenging its core interest in absorbing Taiwan into the reconstituted Chinese empire. (Tibet, East Turkestan, Hong Kong, and Macao already having been returned to the Motherland).
Second, it is asserted, a clear U.S. security commitment would provide a shield behind which Taiwan could relax its own already limited defense preparations and rely on the Seventh Fleet to fend off China, while recklessly moving toward formal separation from China (particularly given the likely victory of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party in the 2016 election).
The potential risks of a declarative statement of U.S. commitment to Taiwan must be weighed against the risks of continuing with a policy of diplomatic equivocation. Ambiguity regarding U.S. intentions has already led China, and its North Korean ally, into disastrous miscalculations. As Henry Kissinger has written about the Korean War, "We did not expect the invasion, China did not expect our response."
Moreover, as noted, Taiwan's fate is no longer just about Taiwan. America has five treaty allies and a range of friends and partners in the region who look to the United States to ensure East Asia's security in the face of an increasingly powerful and assertive China. If U.S. resolve is seen to be faltering regarding Taiwan, with its special historical ties and shared democratic values, the entire region could be rendered defenseless against Chinese economic and military pressure. Then Communist China will have achieved without a war what Imperial Japan tried to do through war - its own Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
If a clear and firm American commitment to South Korea's defense could deter even the infamously volatile sequence of Kim regimes from repeating their June 1950 mistake, surely the more mature and seasoned Chinese leaders, with far more to lose, would not seriously challenge such a U.S. guarantee for Taiwan. Diplomatic coyness is no substitute for clearly communicated strategic resolve.
That dynamic would not change even in the most extreme scenario under a U.S. security guarantee for Taiwan-i.e., a formal declaration of independence by Taiwan after a popular referendum. Putting aside the moral question of why the United States should object to democratic expression - what if Taiwan did it on the Fourth of July? - Tsai I Ing-wen, the probable next president of Taiwan, has pledged not to make any unilateral changes to the cross-Strait status quo or to Taiwan's present constitutional system. And, of course, Washington and other capitals have the option of not formally recognizing a new political entity.
In any event, Washington would issue the same caveats to Taipei under a security guarantee as it does now without one - and as it did to Chiang Kai-shek under the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty. It worked then with the strongman, and there is no reason to believe it would not work now with a democratic partner. Buying a decade of cross-Strait stability at least as solid as the present precarious situation seems a prudent course of action.
It must be kept in mind that under the 2005 Anti-Secession Law, Beijing claims the right to use force against Taiwan not only if it declares independence, but also if it indefinitely refuses unification. Xi has stated that the Taiwan issue cannot be passed from one generation to another. Kissinger has also warned Taiwan that China will not wait forever.
So the restraint that is the linchpin of cross-Strait stability is required not so much from Taipei, but from Beijing. U.S. diplomacy can handle the former. U.S. deterrence is needed to achieve the latter.
Xi will surely object to this U.S. challenge to one of China's core interests. But America also has core interests that China repeatedly defies: freedom of navigation and overflight, the sanctity of our government's personnel records, the security of our companies' trade secrets. Those challenges remain unanswered.