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Artillery Row

America is divided on Taiwan

That might be a good thing

Joe Biden was powerless to stop Nancy Pelosi from visiting Taiwan. But the President cannot allow Pelosi and others in Congress to set US foreign policy on such a critical issue. He must do everything in his power to minimize the risk of a disastrous clash between the United States and China.

How can Biden respect the legislature’s independence without abdicating the responsibilities of his office? One option is to use Pelosi’s trip as an opportunity to admit something that too few US leaders have been willing to say openly until now: that the country’s political and military establishment is split on the question of Taiwanese security.

Of course, no President of the United States would ordinarily want to admit that their country is disunited on important questions of international security. In this case, however, amplifying the perception that the US political system is fractured over Taiwan might be the best way that Biden can contribute to stability across the Strait.

This is because America’s longstanding – and sensible – policy of “strategic ambiguity” depends upon audiences in China and Taiwan being unsure of whether US forces would join a war over the island’s fate. If Pelosi is intent on creating the image of a tight US-Taiwan relationship, then strategic ambiguity will only survive if others can provide evidence to the contrary.

Hopefully, this is already happening to a degree. While officials and opinion-leaders from across the political spectrum have rushed to support Pelosi, it will not have been missed in Beijing that powerful voices – including from inside the US military – have warned against doing anything that might risk a Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis.

Hope is not a strategy

But hope is not a strategy, and it now falls to Biden to ensure that Chinese leaders receive an accurate picture of elite opinion in the United States instead of accepting the dangerous fiction that Americans of all stripes are giddy at the prospect of a great-power showdown.

Biden must explain to Xi Jinping that, yes, there is a growing faction inside the United States that desires closer security relations with Taiwan. This group becomes stronger whenever Beijing engages in behavior that can be credibly portrayed as aggressive. Partly because of Chinese policies in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and elsewhere, America’s hawks are getting harder to restrain.

At the same time, however, the President must continue to emphasize that US policy toward Taiwan has not changed: Washington still opposes Taiwanese independence, encourages a bilateral resolution to the question of Taiwan’s status, and acknowledges China’s claim that the island of Taiwan is an integral part of the People’s Republic of China.

Biden should be clear that the reason these policies have not changed (and will not change) is because they still serve core US interests, chief among which is the avoidance of war across the Taiwan Strait. There is nothing the Speaker of the House can say or do that will change this.

Needless to say, Biden would pay a severe political price if he were to break publicly with the Speaker of the House on the question of Taiwan. Not only would he be guilty of creating a fissure within his own party, but he would open the door to charges of “weakness” on China – a heavy burden to bear in today’s Washington.

Biden would also have to square a defense of the status quo with his earlier statements in favor of defending Taiwan. It is hard to see how the President could do this without worsening perceptions that he is an indecisive, doddery, and ineffective leader.

But it is precisely because Biden could suffer visible political costs for breaking with Pelosi that leaders in China would take his intervention seriously. It would be a “costly signal” that at least some people in Washington – the President and military leaders among them – are willing to take political risks in favor of upholding the status quo. This is a message that urgently needs to be delivered to Beijing.

As Joshua Rovner has rightly argued, strategic ambiguity is a fact, not a policy. Nobody knows if a future president would choose to intercede militarily on Taiwan’s behalf. For decades, that uncertainty has contributed to stability across the Taiwan Strait. It must be maintained, not pushed aside in favor of bluff and bluster.

Biden cannot silence those in the United States who are loud and proud supporters of Taiwan. He can, however, amplify the voices of those within the US government who rightly blench at the suggestion that America is ready to fight and win a shooting war on China’s front doorstep. Only this will rescue strategic ambiguity – and, with it, hopes of preserving peace with China.

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