In struggle between autocracy and democracy, Biden chooses Taiwan for his team

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Among all the participants in President Biden’s virtual summit on democracy this week, Taiwan holds a unique distinction: It is the only country the United States considers a democratic, but not its own, country.

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The island falls into a gray area of ​​US foreign policy as China treats Taiwan as a separate province and has vowed to reclaim it, while Taiwan acts autonomously, even though it formally gained independence. Not announced. For years, Washington’s attitude toward Taiwan has been guided by mysterious and sometimes contradictory policies designed to support the island without provoking Beijing.

Now Biden, by inviting Taiwan to its summits on Thursday and Friday, has taken a careful step toward describing Taiwan as a global conflict between autocracy and freely elected governments – and by extension, China. and between America


Taiwan brings a powerful story to the virtual conference, peacefully evolving into a strong democracy, while China cracks down on dissent and President Xi Jinping bolsters power.


A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s goals, said the island was “to counter the objectives of the convention, to fight against corruption and to advance respect for human rights at home and abroad.” can make a meaningful commitment to the objectives of the summit.”

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Not surprisingly, China reacted angrily when Taiwan got involved. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the US was using democracy “as a cover and a tool to advance its geopolitical objectives, to oppress other countries, to divide the world and to serve its own interests”. Used to be.” a government council issued a document Arguing over the weekend dubious that it is even a democracy, though “avoides the weakness of Western-style political party systems.”

Fang-Yu Chen, a professor of political science at Soocho University in Taiwan, said Beijing’s protests were difficult to take seriously because they seemed impossible to satisfy.

“China will become more and more provocateur, no matter what we do,” he said. “We shouldn’t think about when China will become more angry, because China will be more angry anyway.”

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the United States’ German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan think tank, said there was no doubt that Taiwan was being invited. However, she said, some of the details of its involvement were planned to avoid disturbing China more than necessary.

For example, Taiwan’s digital minister and its representatives in the US are attending the summit, but its president is not. China’s response is “calibrated on the basis of the United States,” Glaser said. “And I think America has carefully managed that.”

The ongoing dispute over Taiwan’s status is threatening war. Although China claims a desire for “peaceful reunification”, it has become more aggressive towards the island, building up its military forces and conducting assault exercises near the Taiwan Strait.

There is also growing concern of the Taiwanese public about a possible invasion. According to a poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, the percentage of people on the island who said they believed China used military force increased from 16% in November 2019 to 28% in October 2021.

It is unclear what the US will do in the event of an invasion, and it takes a stance known as “strategic ambiguity”. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently described Washington’s commitment to Taiwan as “rock solid,” but that doesn’t mean the US military will rush to help. When Biden said in October that “we have a commitment” to defending Taiwan, the administration made increasingly clear that the president was not announcing a change in policy.

American ships visit the Taiwan Strait on August 27.
(US Coast Guard via The Associated Press)

Ryan Hayes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously served on President Obama’s National Security Council, said direct communication between Washington and Beijing “has eroded over the years.”

“As a result, both sides have had to rely more heavily on military signals and public messaging to register their concerns about the other side’s actions,” he said. “The more visible the objections of one side, the more difficult it is for the other party, lest they be conscious of the demands of the other side.”

Haas said the dynamic raises the alarming possibility of a “growth spiral” leading to conflict on the island.

The current state of Taiwan dates back to World War II, when communist forces under Mao Zedong took control of China and forced Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist regime to flee the mainland to Taiwan.

An impasse developed as the Communists promised to regain control of the island and the Nationalists declared themselves the rightful leaders of China.

It was not until 1979 that the US formally recognized the government in Beijing and, in a controversial move, broke ties with the administration in Taiwan. Concerned that President Carter had left the island vulnerable, Congress responded by passing the Taiwan Relations Act, which formalized US support for the island and authorized arms sales to help it.

Today there is no US embassy on Taiwan, but American soldiers are training the Taiwanese army there.

During a briefing for reporters about Biden’s democracy summit, a question about Taiwan’s participation prompted an extended pause, then a discussion to which administration officials would respond.

One of them, speaking on condition of anonymity, ultimately said that Taiwan would attend the summit “in line with America’s ‘one-China’ policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, three joint communiqués, and six Assurance,” a rote phrase that sounded like a mantra to ward off international drama.

Hofstra University professor Julian Kuo, who specializes in China and international law, said it was the sort of “legal gobblygook” typical of statements involving the status of the island.

“Over the years, it has generated all these weird phrases that are used to signal to China where the US is on Taiwan,” he said. “The Chinese will read every last comma.”

Biden and Xi talked about Taiwan during a video conference that lasted more than three hours last month, and the two governments provided slightly different details of the conversation.

The White House said the US “strongly opposes unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Taiwan Straits or undermine peace and stability,” in a statement intended to show opposition to any aggression.

Meanwhile, Chinese state media insisted that Biden did not support independence for Taiwan, adding that Xi blamed the tension on Taiwanese officials who were “playing with fire.”

“We have the patience and are ready with the greatest sincerity and effort to fight for a future of peaceful reunification,” Xi reportedly said. “But if ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces instigate, force and even break the Red Line, we must take decisive steps.”

A reminder of how carefully the comments about Taiwan are scrutinized came the next day. After giving a speech in New Hampshire, Biden was asked by reporters if he had made any progress on the situation on the island.

He answered with certainty.

“It’s free,” he said. “It makes its own decisions.”

Less than two hours later, the president changed his phrase.

“We are not encouraging independence,” he said.

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