US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has done her part to honor democratic Taiwan. US President Joe Biden must now do his part to defend it.
Having failed to deter Pelosi from visiting Taiwan, despite its crude threats to her safety, Communist China is now asserting forceful measures directed at Taiwan. It has encircled it with naval forces armed with guns and missiles that could strike the nation from multiple directions, and it has conducted live-fire “exercises” from those locations.
The US Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 states: “It is the policy of the United States ... to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
The Chinese naval encirclement of Taiwan — including its major commercial ports in Kaohsiung and Keelung, and the firing of weapons and missiles — would prevent the movement of goods to and from Taiwan, the very definition of a boycott or embargo, and a clear contravention of the TRA.
When China launched missiles toward Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, it sent insurance rates soaring and effectively closed the Taiwan Strait to international commerce — precisely what China’s current expanded military operations intend to accomplish.
When the first missiles were fired in 1995 to protest then-president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) reunion visit to Cornell University, then-US president Bill Clinton sent the USS Nimitz through the Taiwan Strait. It was the first time a US aircraft carrier had made the transit since former US president Richard Nixon withdrew the Seventh Fleet to assuage Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and pave the way for Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972.
However, Washington diluted the message after Beijing’s complaint, saying it was a mere weather diversion.
Further weakening US deterrence, when Chinese military officials asked Clinton’s highest official in charge of China affairs what Washington would do if China attacked Taiwan, then-US assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs Joseph Nye said: “We don’t know, it would depend on the circumstances,” without making mention of the TRA.
In March 1996, just before Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, China fired missiles again. This time, Clinton sent two carriers, the Nimitz and the Independence. As they approached the Strait, Beijing said they would face “a sea of fire.” The ships turned away, and only one carrier has made the passage in the 27 years since, while Chinese carriers routinely pass through the Strait, although smaller US and allied combatants make monthly transits.
It is time for Biden to invoke the TRA and the UN Law of the Sea Convention by breaking the Chinese blockade of Taiwan. It can be accomplished by peaceful passages through the Strait, which is an international waterway under the convention, contrary to Beijing’s absurd recent claim, and through other international waters around Taiwan, enabling world commerce to come and go unimpeded.
The US ships would have no reason to fire their weapons unless fired upon or otherwise physically attacked by Chinese vessels — extreme measures by China that would constitute acts of war and require an appropriate US response. Bringing an action before the UN Tribunal for the Law of the Sea would also expose the legal, historical and moral bankruptcy of Beijing’s assertions, just as the Philippines did regarding its South China Sea claims.
Beijing has been testing the US’ will for many years, and believes that Biden’s presidency provides them their most propitious opportunity to force the US to back down without triggering a shooting war. Biden must disabuse them of that perception of American weakness, just as Pelosi did in her own way.
The current crisis has been caused by Beijing’s disingenuous argument that Washington is reneging on the “one China” principle, in which the People’s Republic of China is said to be the sole legitimate government of China, and that Taiwan is a part of it.
However, while conceding that Beijing governs “one China,” the US has never agreed that Taiwan is part of China — it only “acknowledged” that that was the position of Mao and former Republic of China president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) knows the truth, but it serves his purpose to keep the facts from his country’s populace to gain their support for aggressive moves against Taiwan and the US. Stirring nationalist fervor by that deception, Xi asserts that it is the “feelings of 1.4 billion Chinese” that motivate Beijing’s aggression.
In addition to keeping Taiwan’s ports open and functioning, Biden’s other major task is to launch a major information campaign to get the truth to the Chinese public about Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and other issues Communist leaders have lied about for decades. As the Tiananmen Square massacre demonstrated, Chinese leaders fear their people more than any imaginary foreign enemy.
Going on information offense against Chinese tyranny is the surest way for the US to avoid being on kinetic defense.
Joseph Bosco, who served as China country director in the office of the US secretary of defense, is a fellow of the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and a member of the Global Taiwan Institute’s advisory committee.
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