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Whisky Tango Foxtrot: One China

Great Game Theory


When attempting to clarify Washington’s “One China” policy its best to start by managing expectations: The policy is logically incoherent. When the White House talks of “strategic ambiguity” it’s not being coy or cryptic – it’s the only option One China allows. That’s by design. Although it’s not entirely clear that President Biden understands the core concept.


In a nutshell: Back in January of 1950 – about three months after the communist victory in the China’s civil war – President Harry Truman declared that he would not help the Chinese nationalist under Chiang Kai-shek then holed up on the island of Taiwan. That would have been that if we hadn’t found ourselves on opposite sides of the Korean War with Russia and China, our World War II allies a few months later. In June the US Seventh Fleet was sent to defend the Taiwan from Chinese invasion. Korea, though, wasn’t a naval war, and never really ended either, so the policy – or more to the point the precedent – just lingered. The US didn’t even recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) until 1979.


It was from that nebulous situation that the United States “One China” policy was formed. Although “formed” seems like too strong a word. The United States recognizes the PRC as China’s sole legal government and that Taiwan is a part of China. And yet, Washington does not recognize the PRC’s sovereignty over Taiwan, despite it being part of state over which the PRC is the sole legal government. You start carrying on with a policy like that, and “strategy ambiguity” really is the only option.


Until recently, it worked fairly well because one party didn’t want to think about it, and the other thought about it enough to know they couldn’t conceivably force the issue. As happenes in these thoings, that second party got large enough that itcould conceivably force the issue. China got so large, in fact, that that it didn’t feel it had to operate within the established global order. China, with its collective “memory” glinting of a glorious past, wants to stake out a closed market empire of its own. While President Xi Jinping appears to want to avoid a direct war with the United States, CIA Director David Cohen recently confirmed that Xi has asked the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to be about to take Taiwan by force by 2027. Which would be at the end of his third term in power.


For our part, the US has increased relations with Taipei to Beijing’s fury. Taiwan is a “major non-NATO ally” which sounds iron-clad, but is in reality just an arms sales agreement. And having seen how Beijing trounced on Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” they are going to need all the help they can get. The onion is that no one, Beijing, Taipei or Washington, seems to know what form that help may or may not take.


For the fourth time, President Biden has said that America will defend Taiwan if attacked by China. And for the fourth time the White House has had to walk back the comments into comfortably ambiguity as Beijing fumes. The policy is so incoherent that a president prone to the odd gaff could be forgiven making the mistake once. The fourth time it looks like President Biden might have ideas of his own.