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Biden’s staff: He didn’t really mean he’d go to war over Taiwan

To be fair, he didn’t say the words “go to war”, but there would be very few ways to avoid it, under this kind of scenario. Which, presumably explains why his officials were so keen to walk this back yesterday evening:

US PRESIDENT JOE Biden has said the US would intervene militarily if China were to invade Taiwan, saying the burden to protect Taiwan is “even stronger” after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It was one of the most forceful presidential statements in support of self-governing in decades.

Biden, at a news conference in Tokyo, said “yes” when asked if he was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if China invaded.

“That’s the commitment we made,” he added.

In point of fact, it’s not actually a commitment the USA has ever made before. The US has long had a policy of “strategic ambiguity” vis a vis Taiwan – always being clear that it stood with the Taiwanese in their desire to remain independent, but never quite saying that it would defend the island with US arms. So, this was a new commitment, and a startling one. Here’s Biden’s officials, yesterday evening, scrambling to put things right:

How many times is this now that the US President has made a major statement on foreign policy, only to have his staff completely reverse it before the day is out? I make it at least three times with this President. He’s lucky he’s a Democrat, otherwise the media might start wondering about his recklessness in front of a microphone.

If you don’t know why there’s conflict between China and Taiwan, here’s a brief and very simplistic history: When Chairman Mao emerged victorious in China’s civil war, the Republican Government that he had opposed fled to the island, which used to be known as Formosa. Taiwan doesn’t actually style itself as Taiwan – they call themselves “The Republic of China”. They see themselves not as a breakaway state, but as the legitimate Government of China itself. Chinese communists, meanwhile, see Taiwan as the last remaining rebel enclave. And so it has been, for the last seventy years.

China refuses to recognise Taiwan as an independent state, and forces countries around the world with whom it has diplomatic relations to adopt what they call “the one China policy” – in other words, to refuse to recognise Taiwan. Ireland, faithful friend of the Chinese Communist party these days, is one of those countries who goes along with this. So too do many UN organisations: The World Health Organisation, for example, refuses to admit Taiwanese representatives for fear of alienating China.

Up until now, aside from the diplomatic bullying from Beijing, this situation has never really been a problem in terms of a threat to peace: The Taiwanese lack any prospect of pushing their claims against Beijing, by virtue of being outnumbered. And the Chinese, in turn, have long lacked the capability to mount a naval invasion of Taiwan, which comprises over 70 islands.

In recent years, though, the Chinese have begun an aggressive expansion of their naval capacities, and of the Peoples Liberation Army. Whether they could successfully invade Taiwan is an open question. But they could certainly try it. In recent years, China has become markedly less tolerant of dissent and alternative ways of living within its claimed boundaries: Witness the fall of Hong Kong from relatively open democracy to one-party state over the last few years.

Back to Biden: Note that though he didn’t say the US would go to war with China over Taiwan, it is almost impossible to see any other outcome were his commitment to be met. Consider that in Ukraine, NATO has long refused to implement even a no-fly zone on the basis that direct air conflict between NATO and Russian planes would effectively escalate the war into a general battle between the Kremlin and the west. Why wouldn’t that logic also apply in Taiwan? US planes and tanks shooting at Chinese invaders would be a war in everything but name, and it is not hard to see how matters could escalate very quickly.

Ultimately, though, the responsibility falls on the Chinese not to risk any such conflict. Taiwan poses no strategic or military threat to mainland China – at least, not any more than other US allies in the region, like South Korea or Japan, do. Even without US assistance, a naval invasion of a large island that is well armed would cost an ocean of Chinese blood, and treasure. The risk of such a conflict spreading would be significant.

And, probably, the Ukrainian war makes such an eventuality less likely. President Putin’s gamble that Ukraine would fall quickly, with a relatively muted western response, has not paid off: The war looks likely to drag on for years, and Ukraine looks likely to continue receiving vast western support. A sensible Chinese leader would look at this situation and conclude that the risks were not worth the reward.

Unless, of course, they think Biden is bluffing, which is much more likely after yesterday. Or if, perhaps, they think the US may ultimately replace Biden with a leader who is more comfortable with strongmen and bullies in the region than Biden is. Who could they be thinking of?

 

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