When Joe Biden won the 2020 US presidential election, China briefly hoped that diplomatic relations between the two superpowers would thaw. That hope was quickly dashed.
At the first summit in Alaska in March 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US and allies were determined to curb China’s growing authoritarianism and assertiveness at home and abroad. According to Blinken, China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan undermined the international legal order.
China could almost silently take over Hong Kong in the summer of 2020 – in contrast to the agreements made in this regard when the British colony was handed over in 1997. Trump would have preferred to shrug it off as president, but under heavy pressure from the US congress, he revoked Hong Kong’s preferential trade status as a sanction.
So it is not surprising that the Biden administration wanted to draw a line in the sand to show China that it would not be able to easily conquer the democratically-ruled Taiwan.
But President Biden, through a series of careless statements, has confused America’s commitment to the policy with “strategic ambiguity.” This means that the US does not recognize Taiwan’s independence, but promises that it will help the island defend itself.
Contrary to the policy of strategic ambiguity, Biden said last November that Taiwan was independent. In May, Biden said at a news conference in Tokyo that America would militarily defend Taiwan if China attacked it.
In both cases, White House spokesmen were quick to deny that US policy towards Taiwan had changed, but Xi has been cast in doubt. The US and China were thus already on a collision course in the Taiwan Strait for the visit of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in Taipei. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan confirms President Xi’s view that the United States wants to change the island’s status.
The White House has clearly told Pelosi, who unfurled a banner in Tiananmen Square in 1991 to commemorate the students who sacrificed their lives for democracy, why she should not go to Taiwan. But President Biden did not directly call Pelosi to tell her not to go.
According to New York Timescolumnist Thomas Friedman feared that Biden would be seen as weak on China, allowing Republicans to attack him before the midterm elections.
Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is the epitome of recklessness. In an interview with The New Yorker Shelley Rigger, who has written several books on Taiwan, described the relationship between China and Taiwan as a couple that has separated but not yet filed for divorce.
China can tolerate the status quo, but not a divorce. According to Rigger, Pelosi was not invited and her visit to Taipei served mainly domestic political purposes – showing that Pelosi dares to confront China.
China has responded to Pelosi’s visit with the largest ever military exercises around Taiwan. According to military analysts, the Chinese show of force is a turning point in relations between China and Taiwan. The drills were expected to end last Monday, but China is continuing with the drills.
The US has not responded by sending a warship and bombers, as it did in 1995 when then-Taiwanese President Lee visited Washington. China can already pocket it.
Meanwhile, Beijing is closely monitoring the war in Ukraine. It shows that military superiority does not automatically lead to victory and that a smaller army can successfully resist. Moreover, NATO has proven to be much stronger than expected. But the war in Ukraine also shows that the US does not want to intervene directly militarily for fear of provoking another world war, which will undoubtedly reassure Beijing.
Pelosi should have realized that the best way to support Taiwan is to have Ukraine defeat Russia.
Helen Mees is an economist. She writes an exchange column with Marcia Luyten every two weeks.