Several times over the past year, President Biden has made statements indicating that the U.S. would use military force to defend Taiwan if the island was attacked by the People’s Republic of China. At a news conference in Japan on May 23, Biden expressed a view that the U.S. would be willing to go further on behalf of Taiwan than he has in helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s invasion. Recognizing that this departed from long-held U.S. policy on Taiwan, White House staff quickly tried to walk back the statement.
China insists that Taiwan is a part of its territory and cannot exist as a sovereign nation. Since recognizing China under the One China Policy in 1979, Washington has acknowledged the Chinese position on Taiwan but under a policy called “Strategic Ambiguity,” left unanswered the question how the U.S. would respond if China were ever to attack Taiwan to reclaim the territory.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Chas Freeman, a former U.S. diplomat and a businessman who served as assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs from 1993-94, and was the principal U.S. interpreter during former President Richard Nixon’s landmark trip to China in 1972. Here he talks about his growing concern about President Biden’s provocative statements regarding possible U.S. military intervention if China should launch a future attack on Taiwan.
CHAS FREEMAN: Well, President Biden on three or four occasions had made similar statements, each of them walked back by his staff. There are two problems with these statements, really. One is a practical one that he is apparently committing the United States to go to war with a nuclear power over how to end the civil war in that country, China, which has never ended, and over where Chinese territory begins and ends.
Something on which is of interest certainly to the United States, but not a major concern, although it’s an existential issue for China. But second, there is a constitutional issue here and a legal issue. The president of the United States, according to the founding fathers, does not have the authority to send the United States to war. That is a power reserved exclusively to the U.S. Congress.
And now since the Korean War, the Congress has frequently — usually — rubber stamped presidential determinations to go to war. But the Constitution is still there. And — or perhaps it isn’t. The second problem is that when the United States and Beijing worked out a modus vivendi on the Taiwan issue, the United States and China agreed on a formula. And in the U.S., a law was passed called the Taiwan Relations Act, which directs the president to provide Taiwan with the weapons it needs to defend itself, but does not authorize the U.S. intervention in a possible war between the two parts of China — “island China” on Taiwan and China on the mainland.
SCOTT HARRIS: Ambassador Freeman, I did want to ask you about China’s reaction — Xi Jinping’s reaction to the statements or misstatements — however you want to characterize them by President Biden — related to the United States launching a war against China, if it should attack Taiwan?
CHAS FREEMAN: Well, the Chinese — despite the “strategic ambiguity” that we’ve adopted — namely, we have tried to deter China by implying we might come to the aid of Taiwan if it were attacked. This has played a role in keeping the peace. Chinese have always assumed that we would aid Taiwan. But the absence of a forthright commitment to do that has had the effect of not daring them to challenge us.
I’m reading commentary now in Beijing, which is very harsh against the United States. Polls show that the five years of U.S. confrontation with China that began in the Trump administration have turned a very large majority of the Chinese people against the United States. The Taiwan issue remains a matter of great fervor for Chinese nationalists, and there’s a lot of talk of war.
The problem now is that the last time we had a serious confrontation with China over Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military, didn’t really have the capability to take Taiwan. Now they do. So in response to popular pressure in the past, they could say, “Well, geez, we just can’t do it.” Now they have no such excuse.
So it looks to me, since there is no apparent further path to a peaceful resolution of the differences between the two sides of the strait. And since we seem to be inching toward a commitment to go to war with China, it looks to me like we’re going to have a war and there will be no peaceful resolution of this issue.
SCOTT HARRIS: Ambassador Freeman, just this past week on a Memorial Day, Meet the Press featured what they call “The War Game,” which discussed in some detail the war that might be fought over Taiwan involving the United States and Chinese forces. What’s the media’s role here, in your view, of averting such a war?
CHAS FREEMAN: We need to have a public discussion, a debate of what is at stake. We need educate ourselves on the history. You know, we care, I think, and we should about Taiwan’s democracy. But our level of concern is nothing like that of Chinese nationalists about removing what they see as an American sphere of influence on Chinese territory and unifying their country.
This is the objective of both Chinese revolutions — 1911, 1949 in the last century. And there is a balance of fervor on this issue which does not favor us. We need to restore a polite dialogue with China. This administration opened its relationship with Beijing at a meeting in Anchorage, Alaska at which Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan basically said to the Chinese, “You are moral reprobates. We don’t like you. We don’t want to do business with you. We want to oppose you. We will hold you down or push you back if we can. But, you know, there are a few things on which we need your help. Would you help us?”
This is not an effective approach to anybody on any subject, and it is insulting and it got the predictable rebuff from the Chinese.
So the first thing is, we need to restore civil dialogue with China. We need to focus not on confrontation, but on cooperation. We should emphasize cooperation in our own interests, recognizing that we will compete with China and that on some subjects we will have to confront them. But starting off as we do with emphasizing confrontation and then grudgingly saying, “Well, we might cooperate with you on a few things” is not an effective approach.
Taiwan issue needs to be put back in the box. It was in a box and it is now out of it. And as I said, it’s very dangerous.