Our forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East are about to recede into history at a cost of nearly 7,000 dead and more than 50,000 wounded American troops.
President Joe Biden and his national security team have shifted focus to China, the first geostrategic competitor since World War II to seriously challenge American dominance of the Asia-Pacific region, and beyond. The danger of major military confrontation with China is rising, and the potential costs could make our Middle East losses pale in comparison.
Taiwan is the most likely source of conflict. Japan took Taiwan from China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 and ruled it until Japan’s WWII defeat in 1945. Since then, Taiwan has been ruled by anti-communist governments under the name, Republic of China. A hundred miles across the Taiwan Straits lies the People’s Republic of China — as China is officially known — established in 1949 after defeating the Nationalists who had retreated to Taiwan. Beijing, the ruling center of China, fervently holds that it will never be whole until Taiwan is reunited with the mainland.
The U.S. has played an essential role to block a forced takeover of Taiwan by Beijing. For decades we have called on Taiwan and China to work out a peaceful, mutually agreed solution to Taiwan’s final status. We have maintained carefully honed unofficial relations with Taiwan and provide its authorities with defensive arms to deter hostile actions by China.
We have declared that militant action by China to force the issue “will be considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the U.S.” This formulation, labeled “strategic ambiguity,” was crafted to make Beijing think twice before trying to take Taiwan by force. This statement has long underscored America’s commitment to resolution of Taiwan’s relationship with China only through mutual agreement by the two sides. It is clear that Biden’s Asia advisers favor raising the level of strategic competition with China since it has risen to peer status with the U.S. as a major power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Now, many influential academics and officials recommend that the U.S. partner with Taiwan. They see it as a potentially valuable link in a strategic chain of islands off China’s coast, stretching south from South Korea and Japan. This U.S.-allied “first island chain” would be a physical barrier to hinder Chinese military power projection eastward. China’s illegal claims of sovereignty over disputed territory in the South China Sea heighten U.S. worry over Chinese challenges to America’s dominance in the region. Some advisers are considering abandonment of the formula of “strategic ambiguity” in favor of a firm commitment to defend Taiwan against any threat from China, and closer official political and economic ties to Taiwan.
Entwined in these arguments are praise of Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and free economy, in obvious contrast to China’s communist regime and notorious human rights abuses (including, of course, its repression and mass detention of the mostly Muslim Uighurs in the region of Xinjiang). President Biden recently dispatched former senior national security officials, along with former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd to Taiwan. Biden characterized the delegation as a “personal signal” of his commitment to Taiwan and its democracy.
Of more practical importance, Taiwan fabricates about half of all the semiconductors used by the U.S. and the rest of the world, which enhances Taiwan’s value as a vital strategic asset.
China clearly fears that the U.S. is drifting toward outright support for Taiwan’s independence. To demonstrate its pique, Chinese fighter planes, bombers and anti-submarine aircraft have flown hundreds of sorties into Taiwan’s airspace in the past year. Washington has sought to counter these actions by ordering U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups and other U.S. naval ships to transit between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland on numerous sorties. At the same time, U.S. naval forces are conducting “freedom of navigation exercises” to challenge the illegal Chinese actions in the South China Sea where it has expanded its military presence. Tension is high.
U.S. leaders may be underestimating the danger of open-ended military conflict with a well-armed China. China would have the advantage of operating from air and naval bases very near to sites of any likely military clashes. The closest U.S. major naval and air bases are on Guam, more than 1,700 miles from Taiwan, but well within range of Chinese missiles.
In March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan staged the administration’s first senior-level bilateral meeting with Chinese diplomats in Anchorage, Alaska. Blinken did not use the occasion to explore ways to reduce tensions. On the contrary, he held news interviews beforehand to note that he would use the meeting to focus on America’s criticisms of China’s domestic human rights violations and what he terms China’s failure to act in accordance with the international rules-based order. Blinken did as promised in Anchorage with media present, then summoned the media back in to record the furious, lengthy response by the Chinese side.
No further high-level meetings between the U.S. and China have been announced, and Blinken has said the time is not ripe for high-level strategic dialogue with China.
Blinken is wrong. It is urgent that the Biden administration seek confidential senior-level talks with Chinese political and military officials at an early date. The most urgent topics must be to reduce current military tensions and begin to build a foundation for reducing the chance that competition becomes armed conflict. Otherwise, even an isolated, accidental armed incident on either side could lead to grievous military conflict with costly unpredictable consequences.
At best, the U.S. would find itself engaged in a new Cold War with unpredictable economic and political costs. The worst is unthinkable.
Kent M. Wiedemann is a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia now living in Lancaster County. He was a senior foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department, and was a diplomat at a number of other posts, including in China and Taiwan. He also held senior Asia policy positions at the National Security Council, State Department and Department of Defense.