Even before taking office, US president-elect Donald Trump signaled to China’s communist government that the old ways of doing business were ending. He shocked Beijing and the US foreign policy establishment when he accepted a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and made a dismissive comment about the once-sacrosanct “one China” policy.
Since then, the Trump administration has taken unprecedented actions to deepen the US’ security and diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. On a separate but parallel course, the US Congress passed a succession of broadly bipartisan bills further strengthening the US’ moral and diplomatic support for democratic Taiwan in the face of ever-increasing Chinese pressure.
As each landmark piece of legislation sailed virtually unopposed through the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, and was signed into law without reservation by the president, Beijing’s frustration and annoyance levels mounted. It accused America’s political leaders of interfering in China’s domestic affairs and encouraging the Tsai administration to harden its opposition to unification with the communist dictatorship.
The coronavirus pandemic that originated in China and was spread globally by the Chinese government’s inept, reckless and even willful policies has severely damaged Beijing’s international reputation. By contrast, democratic Taiwan’s disciplined, transparent and eminently sensible approach to the pandemic earned accolades from the international community. Beijing made matters worse by churlishly opposing Taiwan’s participation in the WHO, which had rejected Taiwan’s early warning of human virus transmission in China.
Beijing’s chagrin and anger recently boiled over, and it issued a naked threat of force against Taiwan. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Li Zuocheng (李作成), chief of the Joint Staff Department and member of the Central Military Commission, stated: “If the possibility for peaceful reunification is lost, the People’s Armed Forces will, with the whole nation, including the people of Taiwan, take all necessary steps to resolutely smash any separatist plots or actions.”
The occasion was the 15th anniversary of China’s “Anti-Secession” Law that purportedly provided a “legal” basis for China to attack Taiwan, not only if it declared formal independence, but also if it simply took too long to accept Beijing’s rule.
Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who once jokingly chided Mao Zedong (毛澤東) for saying that China could delay using force for 100 years, was less patient and in 2007 warned Taiwan that “China will not wait forever.”
The act was Beijing’s answer to the US’ Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which Congress passed near-unanimously in 1979 to pledge a continued moral commitment to Taiwan after official diplomatic relations were terminated.
The TRA stated the US’ “expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means” and declared that the use of force or coercion would be seen as “a threat to the peace and security of the western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
It committed to provide arms “of a defensive nature” to Taiwan.
However, the TRA is not as forthright in stating that the US will defend Taiwan as the Chinese legislation is in declaring China’s determination to attack it. The US itself would “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” against Taiwan. It only addresses the capacity to intervene, not the intention to do so.
That question was put directly by Chinese military officials to then-US assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs Joseph Nye in 1995, between episodes of Chinese missile firings toward Taiwan: What would the US do if China attacked Taiwan?
Nye’s response was: “We don’t know and you don’t know; it would depend on the circumstances.”
From that moment on, China’s strategic planners have been preparing “the circumstances” that will deter US intervention in a cross-strait conflict. Known as the anti-access/area-denial strategy, it relies on a fleet of attack submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles to keep the US Navy out of the Taiwan Strait, where it could expect “a sea of fire.”
For the next two decades, the ships made only rare transits until the Trump administration changed the paradigm and made them a relatively routine operational practice, with one exception: The last passage through those international waters by a carrier task force, the US’ ultimate show of force, was in 2007.
Enter Congress at another pivotal moment in US-China relations. Around the same time that Li was issuing his inflammatory threat against Taiwan, US Senator Josh Hawley (Republican, Missouri) introduced the Taiwan Defense Act, which would bolster the TRA’s reference to “resist[ing]” Chinese aggression against Taiwan. The act would require the US Department of Defense to demonstrate to Congress that it is actually preparing to undertake that mission.
The Hawley bill focuses on the danger of a Chinese “fait accompli” strategy. That could involve a lightning strike to decapitate the Taiwanese government and/or immobilize its defenses together with a special operation to capture key governmental and installations — all as Washington was mired in mulling “the circumstances” for a possible US intervention.
While the Taiwan Defense Act might be seen as adding little to the TRA’s call for contingency planning, it highlights the intimate and sometimes conflicting relationship between capabilities and intentions. It was not for nothing that former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) told his colleagues to “hide our capabilities and bide our time.”
He knew that capabilities also convey intentions, and he deemed it too soon to alert the West on what the communist regime intended.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has been less shy.
The TRA spoke vaguely about capabilities to “resist.” The Chinese defense officials who confronted Nye in 1995 wanted to know what Washington actually would do. His hesitant, ambiguous response — and silence on the TRA — was given when the US enjoyed unchallenged military superiority over the PLA and its meager naval elements.
Now, 25 years later, the situation and the circumstances, have dramatically changed and whatever trepidation Washington’s officials might have felt then about conflict with China over Taiwan have compounded exponentially.
At least, that is what PLA officials and Communist Party hawks say they believe when talking of sinking one or two carriers to kill up to 10,000 sailors and “teach America a lesson.”
For them, the capabilities ratio has been so radically transformed where China already has an asymmetrical regional advantage, that US intentions have also been affected — as have Beijing’s.
By requiring a constant strengthening of US capabilities explicitly devoted to the defense of Taiwan, the Taiwan Defense Act would signal clearer US intentions. The very filing of the legislation puts the China-Taiwan-US triangular relationship at a new inflection point. If it passes Congress and is signed into law, it will move US policy just one step short of an open defense commitment to Taiwan, equivalent to the former US-Republic of China mutual defense treaty.
If it is withdrawn or fails to pass Congress because of perceived administration opposition, or if it does pass and the president refuses to sign or vetoes it, the signal to Taiwan, China and the world would be devastating to the US’ credibility. Now that the act exists, it must be enacted and signed into law.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the US secretary of defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Korean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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