Incumbents of the White House come and go, but U.S. security objectives do not alter course so readily, Alastair Crooke writes.
Under Trump’s escalating anti-China stance, Taiwan enjoyed enhanced recognition and support – with regular high-level visits from U.S. officials, as well as increased arms sales. This led some Beltway pundits, at the time, to express concern that ‘strategic ambiguity’ regarding the possibility of a U.S. military response – were Taiwan to be militarily reunited with China – was being deliberately eroded. They warned in Foreign Affairs to not rock the boat with China.
Nonetheless, Taipei feared that this salami-slice push by Washington’s China hawks nurturing Taiwan autonomy, could be watered down by an incoming Biden administration. They feared that U.S. foreign policy under Biden would chart a softer approach, based more on managing its pivot to ‘intense competition’ with China.
Much the same expectations of a Bidenesque ‘softer’ approach – albeit in the context of multilateral co-operation – was shared by Brussels in the wake of Biden’s arrival in the White House. Biden’s ‘America is Back’ mantra received a gushing welcome from the Brussels ruling class. It was expected to overturn Trump’s scepticism and hesitancy on NATO and the EU, and to usher in a new golden era of multilateralism. It hasn’t.
Biden’s ‘laser-like pivot’ to China as its primordial security interest – rather – has resulted in the North Atlantic, the EU and NATO becoming much less important to Washington, as the U.S. security crux compacts down to ‘blocking’ China in the Pacific.
Biden may ‘speak’ multilateralism; he may speak more ‘softly’; but it is the Military Industrial, War College and Think-Tank conceptualisations ultimately that count, and to whom one should pay attention. Why? because … continuity.
Incumbents of the White House come and go, but U.S. security objectives do not alter course so readily. A touch on the tiller by an incoming Administration often is insufficient to change a massive vessel’s course. Academic military think-tank perspectives evolve to a different rhythm, and to a longer ‘beat’. When Trump was in the White House, his views on NATO and Europe’s defence efforts were not so very different to those just manifested by Blinken, when he disparages the EU as a significant actor in Global terms – as the U.S. plunges into its ‘China First’ metamorphosis.
The key difference is in style: the new Secretary of State says it in excellent French, whereas Trump just didn’t ‘do European finesse’. The continuity however, was ever present.
On 3 October, the Department of State’s spokesman, Ned Price, made a statement that the U.S. was most concerned by China’s air activity near Taiwan, calling such actions ‘provocative’. Price also described Taiwan as ‘democratic’, an ‘ally of the U.S.’, and one who ‘shares our values’. “We will continue to stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values and deepen our ties with democratic Taiwan”, he said.
Not surprisingly, Beijing responded furiously with a strong counter-statement criticising Price’s words as a plain inference that the U.S. regards ‘democratic’ Taiwan as a ‘nation’, separate to China. Beijing views any breach of America’s 1972 ‘One China’ commitment as trespassing across China’s reddest of red lines. Beijing underlined its extreme anger by deploying a record breaking 52 aircraft near Taiwan, in a single day. And a thunderous editorial in the Global Times insisted that it was ‘Time to warn Taiwan secessionists and their fomenters: War is real’.
Biden may be sincere when he says that his Administration does not seek war with China, but nonetheless, from some one, or other, wedge inside the Establishment, there has been this continuous chip-chipping away at the One China policy with a series of small, seemingly innocuous moves – proposing to change the Taipei Cultural and Economic office in the U.S. into a quasi-diplomatic Taiwan Representational Office; through more military sales; USAF touchdowns, and senior official visits – culminating last week with Australia’s former prime minister Tony Abbott visiting Taipei, where he provocatively insisted that “any attempt at coercion would have incalculable consequences” for China, and strongly suggested that both the United States and Australia would come to Taiwan’s aid militarily. “I don’t believe America could stand by and watch [Taiwan] swallowed up”.
Was this speech ‘green-lighted’ ahead of delivery from some cubby-hole in Washington? Almost certainly ‘yes’.
Then again, back in August, in the Washington Examiner, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Michael Rubin contended that Taiwan must “go nuclear” in the wake of the disastrous American withdrawal from Afghanistan. To survive Taiwan should obey the most primal, bare knuckles law of world politics: Self-help.
The Island authorities plainly have long been inching towards full independence from China. This week, President Tsai, marking the 110th anniversary of the declaration of a Republic, inflamed tensions with Beijing by suggesting that Taiwan stood as the first line of defence of democracy against authoritarianism. Her speech was riddled with language implying there are two countries on each side: i.e. in effect, that there are two distinct nations. Was Tsai egged on to use such language?
Rubin’s contention that Taiwan should go nuclear is not without history. In 1975, the CIA reported “Taipei conducts its small nuclear program with a weapon option clearly in mind.” However, Taiwan was not allowed to develop a weapon, and the CIA put a stop to it in 1987, when a defector arrived in the U.S. with proof of the programme.
President Xi however, by contrast, is fully committed to reunifying Taiwan with China. He repeated it forcefully again this week. Beijing suspects Team Biden of pursuing a stealth policy of encouraging Taiwan’s independence by such weasel-worded statements, such as the one by Price, that give the impression of an America that, in the last resort, would back a unilateral act of independence by Taiwan. China’s response is unequivocal: That would mean war.
Yet there is more to it than that. Taiwan is the principal piece on the chessboard, but not the only one. Again, continuity is the key. Incumbents and their programmes wax and wane, but the dynamic pull of continuity can prove nigh impossible to resist .
At the beginning of February – just four weeks after Biden was inaugurated – a Republican senator Dan Sullivan, a member of the Armed Services Committee, took to the floor of the U.S. Senate, in response to the Atlantic Council’s publication of “The Longer Telegram,” a paper by an anonymous former senior government official proposing a new American China strategy. The Senator said of this paper: this is “a great, important development” that the Biden administration “needs to take a hard look at”. He noted that the U.S. has arrived at a historic moment similar to the period after World War II in which it devised its containment strategy toward the Soviet Union.
Senator Sullivan’s reference to that historic Soviet containment strategy, was intended to draw comparison with George Kennan’s historic 1946 “Long Telegram” on a grand U.S. strategy for the Soviet Union. As the anonymous author of January’s Longer Telegram explains:
“Kennan’s famous 1946 “long telegram” from Moscow was primarily an analysis of the inherent structural weaknesses within the Soviet model itself, anchored by its analytical conclusion that the USSR would ultimately collapse under the weight of its own contradictions … The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), however, has been much more dexterous in survival than its Soviet counterpart, aided by the fact that China has studied carefully, over more than a decade, ‘what went wrong’ in the Soviet Union. It would therefore be extremely hazardous … to assume that the Chinese system is destined to inevitably collapse from within — much less to make the overthrow of the Communist Party the U.S. declared objective …T he present challenge will require a qualitatively different and more granular policy response to China than the blunt instrument of ‘containment with Chinese characteristics’ and a dream of CCP collapse”.
Here is a case of continuity hijacked. Yes, Kennan’s analysis was a profound appraisal of how the Soviet Union functioned internally, and from that had flowed a U.S. strategy. And the same needs to be done with China, the author insists. Yet there is in the new Telegram no comparable empathetic understanding of President Xi’s modernisation project, nor the part played by China’s experience of its’ ‘Century of Humiliation’ in the Kanaan mode. Rather, the Longer Telegram stands as a narrative supporting mainstream U.S. interventionism, albeit cloaked in the Kanaan mantle.
The playbook is very familiar (from the Iranian experience): “The political reality is that the CCP is significantly divided on Xi’s leadership and his vast ambitions …”, the author asserts. The author’s key policy take-aways are: to drive a wedge into the CCP leadership; to divide it against itself; to mount a menu of pressure-point issues in order to impose costs on Xi and his allies (Taiwan features prominently at the top of the list); and specifies as the single greatest factor that could contribute to Xi’s fall: Economic failure.
All these identical policies that failed dismally in Iran – they never learn.
What is the point here? It is that following Beijing’s broadside at Ned Price’ statement, Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, urgently flew to Zurich to meet with Yang Jiechi, a Politburo Member and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission. Yang and Sullivan talked for nearly six hours, apparently. It seems they disagreed on all issues. Sullivan reportedly framed the talks as listing several issues of contention (Human Rights, Uyghurs, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the disputed Islands, etc.), which America wishes to pursue with Beijing. Yang, however, flatly refused to discuss any of them, saying they were all domestic issues.
Sullivan then insisted that Climate Change should be compartmentalised from these other points of contention – and treated as a separate area of co-operation. Sullivan also called for open channels of communication by which America’s intense ‘competition’ with China could be ‘managed’ and contained. Still, it seems they disagreed on all issues. The only ‘positive’ to emerge from the meeting was agreement – but only in principle – for there to be a virtual meeting between Biden and Xi before the end of the year.
The point here is that Sullivan’s script seems drawn straight from the Longer Telegramplaybook, whose flaws are very manifest: Firstly, it is rooted in the pure ideology of preserving U.S. supremacy “for the century ahead”; and secondly, it is rooted in fantasy to imagine that the U.S. can successfully change the decision-making of top Chinese officials of whose political culture they have no inkling. This strategy most likely will end in disaster, or even in catastrophic war.
It would be a mistake however to underestimate the Longer Telegram’s appeal. Part of the reason, as Ethan Paul notes, is that “the sharpest minds in Washington have been singularly focused on finding the best ways of maintaining American dominance, assuming it to be synonymous with American interests, and as the only way of organizing the world. Many authors of these arguments—Ely Ratner, Mira Rapp-Hooper, Kelly Magsamen, Melanie Hart, Tarun Chhabra and Lindsey Ford —have secured top jobs in the Biden administration. Together (and with their key theorist, Rush Doshi), they represent a new, rising generation of policymakers who seek to reorient American foreign policy – around competition with China … They will now get their chance to put their ideas to the test”.