Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, just arrived in Taiwan. Why is this a big deal? Shouldn’t anyone be able to visit any country that has opened their doors to them? It depends on the context and purpose.

The civil war for control of China was won by the Chinese Communists lead by Mao Zedong in 1949. The opposition, led by General Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan and reestablished the Republic of China (POC) there. The civil war was fought on and off between 1927 and 1949 when the victorious Mao established the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and designated Taiwan as its 23rd province. Both the PRC and POC claimed to be the legitimate governments of all of China.

Following President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, “the United States moved to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and de-recognize the Republic of China (ROC) in 1979, [and] the United States stated that the government of the People’s Republic of China was ‘the sole legal Government of China.’ Sole, meaning the PRC was and is the only China, with no consideration of the ROC as a separate sovereign entity.

“The United States did not, however, give in to Chinese demands that it recognize Chinese sovereignty over Taiwan (which is the name preferred by the United States since it opted to de-recognize the ROC). Instead, Washington acknowledged the Chinese position that Taiwan was part of China. To this day, the U.S. ‘one China’ position stands: the United States recognizes the PRC as the sole legal government of China but only acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China.

“Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 to protect the significant U.S. security and commercial interest in Taiwan. The TRA provided a framework for continued relations in the absence of official diplomatic ties….  The TRA sets forth the American Institute in Taiwan as the corporate entity dealing with U.S. relations with the island; makes clear that the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means;… mandates that the United States make available defensive arms to Taiwan; and requires that the United States maintain the capacity 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 on Taiwan.”

“What is US one China policy and why does it matter?”

All American Presidents have affirmed this one China commitment while maintaining its “strategic ambiguity”. “U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said [that] the Trump administration is committed to the long-standing ‘One China’ policy as it reviews U.S. policy toward China, but also intends to keep all of its commitments to Taiwan.” June 13, 2017. “USA China-Tillerson committed to one China policy”

More recently: “Joe Biden made a potentially dangerous statement on Monday. In Tokyo, he gave a flat ‘yes’ to a reporter’s question of whether he was willing to ‘get involved militarily to defend Taiwan’. ‘That’s the commitment we made,’ the president claimed. In fact, the United States scrapped its formal commitment to defend Taiwan in 1979…. This is the third time in less than a year that Biden has publicly declared that the United States would use force to keep Beijing from seizing the island.  “Biden defend Taiwan-China invasion”

Pat Buchanan asks: “But if the U.S. went to war to defend Taiwan, what would it mean? We would be risking our own security and possible survival to prevent from being imposed on the island of Taiwan the same regime lately imposed on Hong Kong without any U.S. military resistance.”  “Is Taiwan’s independence worth war?”

What is Pelosi’s objective in going to Taiwan? What does she hope to accomplish with her poke in the Chinese eye? Our interest should be to promote the integration of Taiwan with the rest of China “by peaceful means.” Our diplomacy should be deployed to that end. President Biden’s repeated slips and Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit do not provide the tone nor context for such diplomacy. I believe that her visit to Taiwan is a dangerous mistake. While we would be hard pressed from thousands of miles away to win a war with China, China would suffer enormously as well and probably has better sense than to start such a war. But what is the purpose of such a challenge?

American policy on Taiwan

Following President Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1979 the so called One-China policy was first stated in the Shanghai Communiqué of 1972: “the United States acknowledges that Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position.” “One China policy – U.S. policy”  However, in the Taiwan Relations Act (April 10, 1979), the U.S. stressed its opposition to any effort by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to change conditions in Taiwan by force. Just how that opposition might be expressed has remained ambiguous ever since.

The United States has no treaty obligation to help defend the Republic of China (ROC–Taiwan) against a military attack by the PRC. It is doubtful that the U.S., located thousands of miles from Taiwan, could win an encounter with the PRC only 100 miles away. In recent simulated war games with China the U.S. has lost. “As the US and China continue to posture the key will be Taiwan” A military intervention by the U.S. would create a significant risk of escalation into nuclear war. 

China experts such as Chas Freeman have argued that since Washington long ago agreed that ‘there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it,’ any mainland invasion would simply be a civil war in which America has no right to intervene.” Moreover, risking nuclear war to defend Taiwan would not be in America’s or anyone else’s interest.

Until quite recently, Taiwan’s efforts to build its capacity to defend itself from a mainland attack rested heavily on the presumption that its defense would come from the U.S. “Taiwan’s military has closely mirrored its U.S. counterpart in miniature for years…. The problem with copying the American approach to warfare is that the U.S. military’s doctrine is to project power over great distances and to maximize mobility and networks to take the fight to the enemy with overwhelming superiority. Taiwan, on the other hand, needs the opposite: short-range and defensive systems that can survive an initial bombardment from a larger adversary and that are suitable for deployment close to home in defense of the island should it come under blockade or attack.” “Winning the fight Taiwan cannot afford to lose”

Taiwan’s almost $17 billion-dollar annual defense expenditures keep American weapon’s companies happy but didn’t contribute seriously to Taiwan’s defense. “Taiwanese military analysts have criticized the island for spending too little on defense, and for spending money on eye-catching purchases such as F-16 fighter jets rather than less-flashy weapons systems that would better enable Taiwan to wage asymmetric warfare against the PLA’s superior strength.” “Concerns about Taiwan put focus on islands defensive weakness” This has begun to change in the last few years toward weapons more appropriate to defending Taiwan against a ground assault.

While it is in America’s interest for Taiwan, as well as every other country in the world, to be peaceful, democratic, and prosperous, that interest is not sufficient to risk going to war–not even close. We should hope that the relations between Taiwan and the Peoples Republic of China remain peaceful and consensual whatever form they ultimately take. But should China attempt to “change conditions in Taiwan by force,” how should the U.S. express its opposition.  It is a very sad commentary on the state of American international policy that so many American policy makers routinely conceive of expressing American opposition militarily. We have done so too often to the detriment of American interests.

On the other hand, a Chinese military attack on Taiwan would be a violation of its commitment not “to change conditions in Taiwan by force.” In such an event the U.S. should oppose such actions vigorously with coordinated diplomatic measures. A U.S. China war would certainly stop all trade with China. This would badly hurt both of us. But even without war, if a total trade embargo by the U.S. were joined by the EU, Australia, Japan, Korea, Canada, UK, and most other UN members it would be devastating to China. China could be expelled from all the international organizations it has so proudly joined in recent years. Its global ambitions would be destroyed. Such prospects would surely be as powerful a deterrent to China’s invasion of Taiwan as would the prospect of U.S. military intervention in defense of Taiwan.

American interests are better served by being the best that we can be, i.e., by strengthening our own economy and political system (which is in a dangerous mess at the moment). It would also be helpful if Ted Cruz would stop blocking President Biden’s State Department appointments so that we can strengthening our use of diplomacy and return our military from its foreign adventures to the defense of our homeland.

See Jon Schwarz’s interesting review:  WE’VE ALL PRETENDED ABOUT TAIWAN FOR 72 YEARS. IT MAY NOT WORK ANY LONGER   “Taiwan, China, nuclear weapons”