Washington Compounds the Taiwan Problem

Jan 12, 2024

So much for the “San Francisco vision”—the feel-good spin that followed quickly on the heels of the 15 November summit between Presidents Biden and Xi. Once again, US politicians can’t resist the temptation to pour salt on China’s most open wound, Taiwan. Just as the Biden Administration condoned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taipei, the Financial Times reports it is making an unnecessarily aggressive statement by sending a high-level mission to the island in the immediate aftermath of tomorrow’s elections in Taiwan.

To be sure, the principal bipartisan US emissaries of 2024—James Steinberg (Democrat and former Deputy Secretary of State) and Stephen Hadley (Republican and former US National Security Advisor)—are a significant cut below Speaker Pelosi’s status, who at the time in 2022 was second-in-line to the presidency. But the point is crystal clear: with US presidential election politics now shifting into high gear in an era of extreme anti-China sentiment, no American politician can afford to turn his or her back on the live issue of Taiwan democracy.

This is not going over well in China. Yes, by now Chinese officials have become quite familiar with the ebb and flow of contentious US politics. But I am just winging my way back from another visit to Beijing where the positive spin of the San Francisco vision was in full force, stressing the encouraging resumption of military-to-military communications and the progress being made by the establishment of new US-China working groups. Why, I was asked repeatedly in the past few days by senior Chinese officials, would Washington risk squandering this progress by political posturing following a very important election in Taiwan?

Good question. As I write this dispatch, the outcome of tomorrow’s election in Taiwan remains very much in doubt. While the oddsmakers give the nod to the current vice president, Lai Ching-te of the pro-independence DPP party, which would continue to hold the presidency and legislative leadership for the third political term in a row, that is now almost beside the point. In Washington, the Taiwan independence train has left the station.

Under the stridently hawkish leadership of Mike Gallagher, the House Select Committee on China has seized the upper hand of America’s so-called value-based anti-China stance. In doing so, they have effectively cornered the Biden Administration, leaving the president with little choice other than to stiffen his resolve in defense of freedom and democracy. Domestic political considerations are very much at work here: In taking his pro-democracy campaign against Donald Trump directly to the American public in Valley Forge early 2024, Joe Biden’s political script also puts him on a pro-democracy collision course with China over Taiwan.

That leaves me with the uncomfortable conclusion that there is a non-trivial risk of a replay of a balloon-like scenario that could lead to yet another setback in a conflict-prone US-China relationship. Coming a few months after the Bali summit of November 2022, a congressional uproar and subsequent missile destruction of a Chinese surveillance balloon in early February 2023 quickly dispelled the notion that the two leaders had put a “floor” on a worrisome conflict. A comparable outcome could follow the upcoming high-level US political mission to Taipei in the aftermath of Taiwan’s elections. I have little doubt that Beijing will most assuredly respond to these developments.

In short, the San Francisco vision could be just as vulnerable as the spirit of Bali was a year ago. The still contentious Sino-American conflict is unlikely to be spared from the political theater of what has been widely billed as the most important US presidential election in modern history. The destabilizing politics of America’s Taiwan diplomacy may well be the functional equivalent of this year’s surveillance balloon. And then what?

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