China’s president, Xi Jinping, says he wants to achieve “peaceful reunification” with Taiwan just days after sending scores of warplanes close to its airspace.
The Taiwanese don’t believe it, which is why they held their own military exercises in response. The U.S. and Great Britain also held military drills late last month, which served to ratchet up tensions in the region.
Xi is looking to head off the U.S. from forging closer ties with Taiwan. And Taiwan has been unusually open in making noises that sound to Beijing’s ears like a desire for independence. The combination of closer ties to the United States and an emboldened Taiwan cannot be allowed by the Communist Chinese government under any circumstances.
But Xi’s saber-rattling carries risks. With so many planes and ships operating in a confined area like the Taiwan Strait, a mistake or miscalculation could involve the U.S. and China in a situation neither wants.
In Saturday’s speech, Xi did not mention the military drills. Instead, he said that “achieving unification through peaceful means is most in line with the overall interests of Chinese people, including Taiwan compatriots.” However, he also warned that “those who forget their heritage, betray their country and seek to break up their country will come to no good end.”
Xi’s tone took a more conciliatory approach than that of a speech he made in July, when he vowed to “smash” any attempts at Taiwan independence.
There’s a lot at stake for the United States in maintaining an independent Taiwan. The Taiwanese are the linchpin to regional stability and resistance to the Chinese Communists’ bid for hegemony in the region. If Taiwan — a close ally of the United States — were to fail, other nations in the region would have little choice but to submit.
It would be a strategic setback of tremendous proportions—and Taiwan knows it.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who argues Taiwan is already a sovereign nation, called for the world’s democracies to rally to her government’s defense in an article published Tuesday in Foreign Affairs magazine. She said China gaining control over the island would show that authoritarianism has the upper hand over democracy in the global contest of values.
“As countries increasingly recognize the threat that the Chinese Communist Party poses, they should understand the value of working with Taiwan,” she wrote. “And they should remember that if Taiwan were to fall, the consequences would be catastrophic for regional peace and the democratic alliance system.”
The question for Xi — and for Biden — is should the U.S. go to war to maintain Taiwan’s independence? The actions of both nations will be dictated by the answer to that question.
If Xi doesn’t think America has the stomach to go to war to save Taiwan, the People’s Army will be in Taipei in a heartbeat. But Biden doesn’t want events to get to the point where a decision is forced upon him. President Tsai has already shown a propensity for shooting off her mouth about Taiwan’s independence. This kind of talk enrages Beijing and only serves to destabilize the situation.
So Biden’s game is to keep Taiwan on the back burner and deal with other, more vital issues to America like trade and Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea. This won’t please the Taiwan hawks in either party, but it’s the safe course. And the wise course.