John Hennessey-Niland’s late March visit to Taiwan was the first by an American ambassador in 42 years. It came on the heels of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s meeting with top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Anchorage, Alaska. That meeting was characterised by palpable tension and a vitriolic diatribe against the United States for its ostensible international bullying and supposed white supremacist ideology. Of course, scarcely a week after the Anchorage summit, the People’s Liberation Army staged its largest incursion of Taiwanese airspace since China began to conduct daily airspace violations in 2020. The PLA Air Force effectively deployed a strike package — four H-6K strategic bombers that specialise in anti-surface warfare at extreme range, and ten J-16 fighters — and flew over the Bashi Channel, a critical maritime link between U.S.-affiliated Taiwan and the U.S.-allied Philippines. This exercise came just after Taiwan suspended training missions after two fighter jet crashes earlier that week.
Ambassador Hennessey-Niland is the U.S.’ official representative in Palau, a small Pacific republic of 17,000 people. Palau, along with the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, are “Freely Associated States.” While they administer their internal affairs, the U.S. is charged with their defense, although it may not declare war on their behalf. In return, the U.S. receives functionally unimpeded military access to these territories.
Palau has a specific role in the Taiwan question. It is one of only 15 states — including the Marshall Islands, but not the Freely Associated Micronesia — to recognise Taiwan. Hence Ambassador Hennessey-Niland’s visit was a calculated diplomatic gesture with two prongs. By sending Hennessey-Niland to Taiwan, the U.S. hopes to signal its support for Taiwan. An ambassador is an ambassador, even if only to a nation the size of Clive, Iowa. But by using an ambassador from a nation that already recognises Taiwan, President Biden and Secretary Blinken hope to avoid implying that the U.S. may recognize Taiwan or encourage its partners to increase their diplomatic contact with Taipei.
This approach — one that hopes to send subtle signals through the dance of diplomats — does have a place in foreign relations. But in the context of Sino-American rivalry, or more accurately, in broader Eurasian competition, its risks are high.
China has made no secret of its designs towards Taiwan. Taiwan’s existence has preoccupied Beijing since the CCP took power, and colored its relations with the US since Kissinger’s secret visit to China in 1971. The CCP’s antipathy towards Taiwan has only escalated since Taiwan’s transition to full democracy in the 1990s. Like Hong Kong before the 2019-2020 putsch, Taiwan demonstrates the speciousness of the CCP’s central claim to authority — that without the Party, neo-colonial predators would dismember China. In a manner shocking to any Party official and, one should note, repugnant to any Anglo-American critical race theorist, Chinese people when left alone prefer a liberal, capitalist democracy to a thuggish oligarchy.
The CCP has escalated its efforts to “reunify” — in plain English, conquer and subjugate — Taiwan with the Mainland. Paramount Leader Xi has made reunification a central pillar of his international policy, declaring that Taiwan “must and will” be “reunified,” and maintaining that the CCP reserves the right to use force to that end. China’s repeated violations of Taiwanese airspace, military exercises that simulate critical elements of an amphibious assault on Taiwan, and increasingly bellicose rhetoric cannot be considered “sabre-rattling”, another of those diplomatic double-speak terms that obfuscates the issue. The CCP no longer believes, perhaps it never believed, that it can “reincorporate” Taiwan through bluff and bluster. The soft touch, the hallmark of hybrid or grey zone warfare, will not achieve the Party’s goals in Taiwan, just as it did not in East Turkestan or in Hong Kong. China may continue to bide its time, awaiting the opportunity to strike. But foreign policy niceties and moderate concessions will not satisfy the CCP’s ambitions.
China’s hostility has not been lost on the Biden administration. It has continued to develop the “Quad”, the four-member Indo-Pacific security forum that the previous administration began to convert into an alliance. Mr. Biden, likely following Asia Czar Kurt Campbell’s advice, has encouraged the European powers to deploy their forces to the Pacific. Britain, France, and Germany have already committed to a multilateral Pacific naval exercise in early April.
The danger, however, is that half-measures and diplomatic implications will be mistaken for deterrence policy.
China has made its objectives clear. Yang Jiechi’s remarks in Anchorage are illustrative. China has an official foreign minister, career diplomat Wang Yi. But like all authoritarian regimes, the actual power structure is opaque. Yang Jiechi, former foreign minister and US ambassador, now chairs the Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, and by most accounts has been Xi Jinping’s primary foreign policy advisor since the mid-2010s. Notably, although Yang and Wang attended the Anchorage summit, Yang spoke first for the Chinese delegation.
Yang’s opening speech articulated the CCP’s worldview and objectives. He emphasised the distinct — but equally democratic — nature of the Chinese Party-State and American federalism. He demanded that the U.S. cease attempting to “smear” the CCP by implying that Chinese people do not support the Party. He lambasted the U.S.’ human rights record, while defending China’s apparent progress in furthering human dignity, apparently for those outside of concentration camps. And despite linguistic window-dressing, Yang signalled Chinese resolve, stating that, although America would not gain from Sino-American confrontation, China would “pull through.”
A nation like this, with a clear conception of its role in the world at odds with extant power structures, will neither be satisfied with moderate concessions nor view subtle signals as an impediment to its ambitions. History demonstrates the consequences of mistaking diplomacy for deterrence. Part of the British policy establishment grasped the threat that Germany posed in 1914. But the cabinet was unwilling to make permanent continental commitments, despite its de facto arrangement with France. Britain refused to expand its ground forces pre-emptively, instead believing that the British Expeditionary Force, a six-division formation, would be a sufficient continental commitment in a European war. Evidence exists that the German Army both discounted Britain in its war planning and may have been shocked by the U.K.’s entry into the conflict.
Even as the German Army prepared to invade France, the Cabinet dithered, seeking a diplomatic summit to ameliorate tensions. Only the German invasion of Belgium tilted the Liberal Party towards war. Had Winston Churchill, then the enterprising, energetic First Lord of the Admiralty, not deployed the Royal Navy to its war stations several days before the formal declaration of war, it is possible that the equally aggressive German commander of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral Friedrich von Ingenhol, would have staged a pre-emptive strike.
The Chamberlain government, a quarter century later, did realise its mistake at Munich, and began to place Britain on a war footing. But the Polish guarantee did nothing to deter German aggression. Not only had Hitler committed to war, but France and Britain were wholly incapable of preserving Polish independence absent a western ground offensive that neither nation wished to conduct.
The U.S. has been equally guilty of mistaking diplomatic signals for genuine deterrence. Dean Acheson’s January 1950 Perimeter Speech both left Korea outside of the U.S.’ defense network and cast the Cold War as an economic, diplomatic, and ideological competition, rather than a struggle for military dominance. The result was Kim Il-Sung’s invasion, and a conflict that persists, officially, to this day.
Surely, Mr. Biden recognises that China must be deterred. The CCP’s ambitions entail the use of force, or at a minimum, its threat. Only a countervailing force powerful enough to deny the CCP its objectives and raise the cost of its actions to a prohibitive level will prevent war.
The anticipated Biden administration flat defense budget will not keep pace with inflation. This is an ill-advised time to send such a signal. The commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Phil Davidson and the officer who will relieve him, Admiral John Aquilino have each recently told Congress that China could attack Taiwan within the next six years. China’s increasing grey zone tactics and overflights of Taiwanese air space are a small portion of the evidence of intent and capability that supports these experienced naval officers’ judgment. Ignoring its military character is inexcusable folly on par with British policy during much of the 1930s. Besides destroying a flourishing democracy, the fall of Taiwan would end the U.S.’ pre-eminence as the great Pacific power as other American partners and allies shifted reliance on security and economic arrangements to China. Now is the time to increase U.S. deterrence in the West Pacific, not diminish it.
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