Deterring China: The Magic of Kissinger’s Demise

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It’s been 10 days since US President Joe Biden’s apparent gaffe when asked if the United States would be prepared to intervene militarily to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack. “Yes,” he replied. “That’s the commitment we made.”

Ever since a US president’s first visit to communist China in 1972 by Richard Nixon, the US has been ambiguous about military intervention in any conflict between the mainland and Taiwan. Domestic and foreign opinion is divided on whether Mr Biden’s statement is a change of strategy.

However, what is certain is that the “magic” of maintaining the status quo in Taiwan, proposed by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was the driving force behind Nixon’s visit to China, has begun to work. Let’s start with the relevant statements.

President Biden on May 23: “That’s the commitment we made,” he said in response to a reporter’s question about a hypothetical attack on Taiwan.

On the same day, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said he brokered the U.S. agreement with China in which:

  1. The United States “would now be [from 1972] exist on a two-China solution,”
  2. The Western world would be “prepared to live with a long period during which this process would take place on its own”, and
  3. “It was always understood that the United States was opposed to a military solution to the problem.”

The United States must not break with these principles, Dr. Kissinger told those gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and China must continue to be patient.

US-China experts give their opinion

Comments from President Biden and Dr. Kissinger immediately grabbed attention, followed by comments from Chinese-American experts in the United States during the next 24-48 hour news cycle for May 24-25. Among them:

  1. “We must avoid ambiguity and be clear, both in our recognition of Taiwan’s independence and in our intention to assist it militarily. Confusion will only invite a CCP attack, not deter it. (Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.)
  1. Embracing strategic clarity rather than ambiguity will enhance deterrence. This is a new US approach to maintaining the “one China” policy. (Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haas.)
  1. “The Biden administration should give a full speech on US policy toward Taiwan. Confusion and misrepresentation are more likely to undermine deterrence than to strengthen it. » (Bonnie GlaserChina specialist.)

Comments from Secretary Blinken

A few days later, on May 26, Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered such a speech at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

“The United States remains committed to our ‘one China’ policy,” he said, before explaining how it is interpreted by the US State Department. It’s a policy, he says:

  1. “Who is guided by the law on relations with Taiwan, the three joint communiqués, [and] the Six Assurances.
  2. “We oppose any unilateral change to the status quo on either side;
  3. “[W]We do not support Taiwan independence; and
  4. “[W]We expect disputes across the strait to be resolved through peaceful means.

“While our [United States] the policy has not changed,” he claimed, “what has changed is the increasing coercion from Beijing.”

Then he added bluntly that “China’s words and actions are deeply destabilizing; they risk a miscalculation and threaten the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (February 11, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

No change in US policy on Taiwan

Some in Japan seem to believe that the US State Department has changed its policy on Taiwan, but that is a mistake. The Secretary of State reiterated that America “does not support Taiwan independence.”

More importantly, the magic of deterring a Taiwanese eventuality through ambiguity, which has been in place since 1972, may no longer be effective due to China’s dramatic advance in military power.

At 99, Dr. Kissinger is still a lucid intellectual. But it cannot undo the sweeping changes in the geopolitical environment in East Asia over the past half century. Moreover, his view on the US-China deal is closer to China’s.

In contrast, for the United States, one China is a policy, but not a principle. The US One China Policy recognizes China’s “principle” that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China, but does not endorse it.

And while the United States “does not support Taiwan independence” and remains vague on specific steps to take should it arise, it calls for cross-Strait disputes to be resolved through peaceful means.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Japan in November 2011 (Sankei)

Minor “strategic ambiguity” fix

The purpose of Mr. Biden’s May 23 remark was perhaps to communicate a minor correction in US policy, toward less ambiguous “strategic ambiguity.” Assuming that the United States would be militarily involved in a Taiwan event, this would create a new deterrence mechanism with China that would make the degree of any military involvement ambiguous.

The conflict in Ukraine has given the United States new options to consider. Even without direct military intervention, it is possible to maintain the status quo in Taiwan.

The United States may have begun to believe that the most effective way to deter China at this point is to leave open the various possibilities for military intervention in an emergency. US responses could range from indirect involvement, such as providing arms, intelligence and military training to Taiwan, to direct engagement, including the deployment of US military units.

In this light, the attempts of the United States to refine its policy of strategic ambiguity in recent months are perhaps not unreasonable. It is understandable for China to protest, but as the Kissinger magic of 1972 wears off, a new deterrent mechanism is needed between the United States and China.

How China responds to US invitations will likely determine the future of the Indo-Pacific region.

(Read the column in Japanese at this link.)

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Author: Kunihiko Miyake

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