With this year’s Democratic National Convention in the books, editorialists and foreign policy experts are speculating on where the party’s standard-bearer, former US vice president Joe Biden, stands on the most critical and pressing national security issue of our time — the US’ relationship with communist China — and on Taiwan, the most dangerous flashpoint in US-China relations.
That the Democratic presidential nominee’s position remains a matter of conjecture at this point in his 50-year government career, including as a member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, is concerning. He has made a number of inconsistent, sometimes incoherent, statements about China.
US President Donald Trump is guilty as well of uttering or tweeting confusing or erroneous messages on the subject, either publicly or as reported by former aides.
However, Trump also heads an administration whose actions and words have defined a pretty clear policy of active resistance to China’s worst depredations: on trade, economic and intellectual property issues; on maritime and airspace aggression, seizure of national resources, and environmental destruction in the South and East China seas; on Hong Kong, where people’s limited democratic rights are being extinguished; on the destruction of the human rights of the Uighurs, Tibetans, Falun Gong, Christians and dissidents; and on the expanding Chinese threat to Taiwan.
Yet, Biden mentioned none of those security, environmental and human rights matters in his speech accepting his party’s nomination. Nor did he talk about the effects of China’s malign behavior closer to home: its extensive efforts to infiltrate and subvert major US educational, scientific and governmental institutions and telecommunications systems, and to interfere in the US election — which China wants Biden to win, according to US intelligence.
The only Chinese threat he found worthy of a passing reference was that the US must “never again be at the mercy of China” for the supply of medical equipment.
You would not know from his speech that the director of national intelligence while Biden was serving as former US president Barack Obama’s vice president called China “America’s greatest mortal threat.”
In 2001, Biden criticized then-US president George W. Bush for saying, briefly, that the US would do “whatever it took” to assist Taiwan if it were attacked by China. Even though the offhand remark was retracted within hours, Biden felt compelled weeks later to set Bush straight in a Washington Post opinion piece.
He lectured that it was better to preserve “strategic ambiguity under which we reserved the right to use force to defend Taiwan but kept mum about the circumstances in which we might, or might not, intervene in a war across the Taiwan Strait.”
The policy was first articulated by the administration of then-US president Bill Clinton in 1996 when China was lobbing missiles toward Taiwan to protest its first direct presidential election.
The problem with the Clinton-Biden approach is that it virtually invited Beijing to create the “circumstances” that would deter US intervention.
Ever since, China has been following an area-denial/anti-access strategy, building an arsenal of anti-ship missiles and attack submarines, while periodically threatening to sink US ships, and kill thousands of US sailors and pilots. At the same time, it has escalated its aggressive movements of naval forces and aircraft in the Taiwan Strait.
As Biden said, Section 3C of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) directs the US president “to inform the [US] Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom.”
It does not say the president must wait to consult Congress until a Chinese attack actually occurs or is imminent — only that the threat to Taiwan’s democratic security and the danger to US interests be identified. They are hardly disguised, having been asserted by Beijing repeatedly, even enshrined in China’s 2005 “Anti-Secession” Law.
Even without the TRA, should an actual Chinese attack on Taiwan occur, it would be well within the president’s constitutional powers as commander-in-chief to respond militarily and then consult with Congress regarding further action.
Yet, Biden apparently believes the TRA constricts the president’s inherent powers when applied to Taiwan as a US national security concern.
In the event of a sudden attack by China on Taiwan, consultation with Congress prior to responding would cause a disastrous delay, allowing China to overrun Taiwan. So much for Taiwan’s democracy and for the US’ strategic interests under that scenario.
However, the Biden consultation trap need not paralyze the US’ ability to save its democratic security partner from being swallowed by China. Since the TRA’s preconditions of “threat” and “danger” have been met, the president is free to seek congressional authorization for a possible use of military force to defend Taiwan. He can hold that security chit in reserve to exercise immediately, if and when needed — and let China know he is prepared to do so.
As it happens, there is pending in Congress a legislative instrument that could accomplish that purpose without the president having to ask. The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act establishes a limited defensive authorization for the president to use military force for the specific purpose of securing and protecting Taiwan against armed attack. That legislative action complies in advance with the TRA and avoids the fatally costly step of further congressional consultation after an attack actually occurs.
Trump and Biden, jointly or separately, should support the legislation and state their intentions, whoever is elected, to exercise the authorization to defend Taiwan. It would go a long way toward deterring a Chinese attack by preventing the strategic miscalculation that triggered the Korean War in 1950.
As former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote: “We didn’t expect the invasion; China didn’t expect our response.”
This time, Beijing would know the dire consequences of its aggression.
Yet, in his article, Biden was worried about Taiwan, as much as China, getting the US into a conflict: “The president should not cede to Taiwan, much less to China, the ability automatically to draw us into a war across the Taiwan Strait.”
Yet Taiwan wants to avoid a war on its soil even more than the US does. For that matter, China does not want war either — it just wants to threaten it so that Taiwan and the US will surrender the democracy and independence of 24 million free Taiwanese.
The US’ political leaders must make clear to Beijing that they will do “whatever it takes” to prevent that from happening, and stop tempting it with the ambiguity that only invites strategic miscalculation and calamity.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense. He is a fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the advisory committee of the Global Taiwan Institute.
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