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No war for now but China’s Xi Jinping won’t stop until he knows the American red line on Taiwan

For his two years in office, US President Joe Biden has sought to prove wrong the prophecy that the Americans won't enter a third world war for a small territory.

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The colourful mural hung over the table where the fate of the world was being decided: Leading his barefoot soldiers through the gorges and jungles of Guizhou, commander Hsiao K’eh urged his troops to victory in the Long March, culminating in the triumph of the Red Army. Energised by the image, perhaps, the ageing prime minister Zhou Enlai “gave a very detailed and precise rendition of the military manoeuvres, describing the battle with great vigour and arm movements.”

“We hope we have no necessity of facing you in battle after hearing that description,” United States president Richard Nixon politely responded.

“Taiwan is the crucial issue,” Zhou had warned during secret talks the previous year, building up to the summit meeting. “Taiwan must be regarded as a part of China. Taiwan is a province of China.”

Five days after Nixon and Zhou met under the mural at the elegant Diaoyutai palace in Beijing—once the favourite fishing spot of the Emperor Zhangzong—their countries signed what has come to be known as the Shanghai communique. The United States conceded China’s demands to end its military presence in Taiwan and accepted that “Taiwan is a part of China.” All it hoped for was “a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question.”


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The crisis over Taiwan

At the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, earlier this week, presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping met face to face for the first time after taking office as leaders of their countries—hoping to manage a dangerous escalation of tensions over Taiwan. Even as the People’s Liberation Army simulated a military blockade of the island nation, with combat jets intruding across the so-called median line dividing the two countries, the congress of the Communist Party asserted that “the wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification.”

Admiral Michael Gilday, the chief of US naval operations, warned that Beijing was preparing to be able to attack the island as early as next year.

Facing economic stagnation, demographic decline and the bite of technology sanctions targeting its artificial intelligence and robotics sectors, scholars like Hal Brands have argued, Xi knows he must act to seize Taiwan now—or lose the opportunity forever. Xi’s aggressive posturing on Taiwan, it is also possible, was intended to intimidate Asian neighbours, in the hope America was too mired in the war in Ukraine to risk involvement in an Asian crisis.

Xi’s real intentions are known to no-one but himself—but he might also have gambled that Biden would be weakened by mid-term elections. That would have led American policy-makers to turn inward, and avoid a crisis that could hurt the economy.

For its part, the People’s Republic also has excellent reasons to avoid actual war over Taiwan. For one, a conflict would be costly. Taiwan is a major investor and market in China. A war, moreover, would sever China’s vital trade ties to countries like Japan and South Korea. Even if these economic shocks could be absorbed, Taiwan is militarily prepared to inflict severe losses on an invading force.

Even then, agreement on Taiwan is likely to prove elusive—involving as it does issues of ideology and regional influence. In his meeting with Xi, Biden underlined China’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan, which undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the broader region.” For his part, Xi called Taiwan “the first red line that must not be crossed.”

Like his predecessors, Xi will likely be asking himself: Exactly where does America’s red line on Taiwan lie?


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America’s China misjudgment

Leading up to his election in 1969, Nixon had written an article in the influential journal Foreign Affairs, laying out the foundations of his China policy.  Ever since the revolution of 1949, the United States had denied recognition to China, seeing communism as a threat to its interests in Asia. “The world cannot be safe until China changes,” Nixon argued. “Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. The way to do this is to persuade China that it must change.”

For president Nixon, the stakes were high: China appeared to hold the keys to a face-saving exit from Vietnam, and the potential to become an ally in the Cold War against the Soviet Union.

To do this, declassified documents show, Nixon was willing to offer a security guarantee to China against the Soviet Union—even as the PLA battled American troops in Vietnam. He pulled the US navy out of the Taiwan Straits, and committed to the progressive withdrawal stationed on the island under the US-Taiwan mutual defence treaty of 1954.

For the US, this marked a fundamental shift in posture. Ever since 1950, following the invasion of South Korea in 1950, US forces had repeatedly asserted their presence in the Taiwan Straits, signalling willingness to use military force to deter invasion.

The PLA tested US commitment to Taiwan in 1954, launching a series of raids on Taiwan’s offshore islands. Later that year, the PLA occupied islands in the Daichen chain. The US responded by sending in seven aircraft carriers at the head of a fleet. The showdown led President Dwight Eisenhower to sign the mutual defence treaty with Taiwan. Fear of war led China to end its shelling of Taiwan.

Again, in 1958, the PLA shelled the islands of Kinmen and Matsu. This time, the US sent in a fleet with four aircraft carriers, armed with atomic weapons. The Soviet Union, fearful the crisis could erupt into a major war, forced China to back down.

Following Nixon’s detente with China, though, the Taiwan-US mutual defence treaty ended. The Taiwan Relations Act now commits the US to “make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capabilities”.


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A bad bet?

Through the 1980s, scholar Chas Freeman has noted, the American gamble seemed to pay off, with China pulling back offensive military positions across the straits. Trade boomed, and in 1993, envoys from the two countries held talks in Singapore. Tensions, however, soon resurfaced. When Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui announced plans to hold the country’s first free and fair elections in 1995, the PLA fired rockets into waters north of the country, and moved troops into invasion staging areas.

The US moved two carrier battle groups into waters near Taiwan, allowing the elections to go ahead.

In his last years, Nixon developed doubts about the détente he had engineered, as post-Tiananmen Square China seemed to lurch deeper towards authoritarianism. The rise of Xi—and China’s increasingly aggressive postures on its peripheries across Asia—cemented those worries across a broad spectrum of American opinion.

To some in China, though, America’s commitment is paper-thin. “As regards the Americans,” North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung was told by Chinese leader Mao Zedong in 1950, on the eve of the invasion of the south, “there is no need to be afraid of them. The Americans will not enter a third world war for such a small territory.”

For his two years in office, President Biden has sought to prove that prophecy wrong. “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence,” he said in September, “that’s their decision.” The remark, a reversal of the deal hammered out at the Diaoyutai palace, startled many observers. Biden, though, seems to have concluded strategic competition with China cannot be averted—and means to ensure America wins.

Xi’s backed down for now—but a long grinding contestation likely lies ahead.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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