The recent attempt by China’s President Xi Jinping to halt worsening relations with the US in San Francisco – and so help his ever-downward-spiraling economy – was widely celebrated by the financial press, which noted the standing ovation American business elites gave Xi in San Francisco, after he told them that China is a “big market” and a willing “partner and friend” of the US.
While the White House read out of the meeting between President Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC Summit was fairly circumspect in tone, noting the tension between “potential cooperation” and “areas of difference”, the overall feeling in the US is still one of deep concern over Chinese ambitions across the region and over the island-nation of Taiwan, set to hold elections in early January. And America and its allies have every reason to worry.
Despite the flurry of minute steps taken by Xi in the so-called “thaw” – cracking down on fentanyl precursor chemicals, encouraging foreign investment into China, and restoring US-China military ties – Xi has made the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” a central plank of his decade-long rule. In a major speech given to the Party and the nation in 2021, Xi said that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Communist Party of China”. And he has spent billions on the Chinese military, trying to create the ability to take the island nation by force if necessary. This year’s budget (2023) is more than double that of 10 years ago.
The business elites that wined and dined the Chinese leader, were, no doubt, oblivious to the Chinese J-10 and J-16 aircraft and helicopters operating off of central Taiwan and to the island’s southwest, crossing over the Taiwan Strait’s median line at will – this was once an unofficial barrier between the two sides – and pushing Taiwanese forces to respond. Monitoring these maneuvers, Taiwan’s military noted the increase in activities like this year-on-year since Xi came to power. As those American elites gave Xi a standing ovation, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said that the country faced “mounting military intimidation, gray-zone campaigns, cyber-attacks and information manipulation”, as it geared up for its elections.
The elections, set for January 13th, promise to enflame an already brittle peace, since the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – despised in Beijing as separatists – look more and more likely to make gains against opposition parties that have failed to band together to form a pro-China alliance, as was expected. President Tsai Ing-wen – barred from running again – is less and less relevant as her Vice President Lai Ching-te moves the DPP presidential bid forward as its nominee for 2024.
While he has already committed to maintain “peace in the Taiwan Straits” and continue Tsai’s careful approach towards Taiwanese-Chinese relations, Lai Ching-Te described himself as a “pragmatic Taiwan independence worker” this past August. His choice of running mate, Bi-khim Hsiao – until recently Taiwan’s lead envoy to Washington and also known for her pro-independence stance – is a remarkably adept move, intended to keep the United States close to Taiwan over coming years.
For Beijing, the DPP ticket is a disaster. A mainland spokesman has warned that any moves towards “Taiwan independence” would mean war.
While the US has long held a position of “strategic ambiguity” – uncertainty as to whether it would defend Taiwan in a war with China – it has become a hallmark of Joe Biden’s presidency that the United States would not stand idly by and permit any attempt to use military force by Beijing against Taiwan. Famously, he said this openly in October 2021, the year that Russia invaded Ukraine. This support for Taiwan is shared on both sides of the House in Congress, where recent years have seen an uptick in American lawmakers visiting and pledging their support for the democratic island.
There is also an uptick in bills or draft bills that mention Taiwan, many of which explicitly side with the island, such as the Taiwan Peace through Strength Act, the Stand with Taiwan Act, the Taiwan Protection and National Resilience Act, the Taiwan Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act, and the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, all of which were put forward in 2023. The Biden Administration’s success in transferring Taiwan to its foreign military financing program – normally reserved for sovereign nations – has already boosted the US’ ability to help the Taiwanese defend themselves.
So while American business elites in the San Francisco Hyatt Hotel fancied themselves as peace-makers-for-profit, applauding a leader that the UN has said is responsible for “serious human rights violations”, their efforts are irrelevant to whether there is peace or war in the Indo-Pacific between the world’s largest and second largest powers. The fact is the decisive factor over whether there is war in the Taiwan Strait may boil down to the way that the Taiwan election is fought, won, and lost. And that should make all of us very attentive, and frankly, nervous.