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Secretary Antony Blinken's Trip to Beijing:  Doing Taiwan No Favors

After Antony Blinken's trip, the PRC just might smell confusion and think the US won't respond when Beijing calls its bluff, even if that assessment is wrong.



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

Secretary of State Antony Blinken's trip to Beijing recently was only a success if one believes that dialogue is a good thing in its own right. And the more of it the better. 

Even before the trip, United States officials were attempting to manage expectations. They warned not to expect much in terms of concrete outcomes. And they were right on that score.

But on one point, Taiwan, Secretary Blinken drew considerable criticism over his comments. During the visit, he said that the US does not support Taiwan's independence.  Some observers claim he 'threw Taiwan under the bus' or even made a Chinese attack on Taiwan more likely.

An acquaintance asked for this writer's take on the matter, so I'll offer it:

Blinken's statements accurately stated the US position on Taiwan and the broader "One-China" policy.  But one ought to consider the context in which they were said. 

He'd just finished meetings with Chinese officials and Xi Jinping in which he apparently got a good lecturing without landing any punches. He even refused to confront China on the China-origin fentanyl that killed 70,000 Americans in 2022 (about 190 dead each day). 

Blinken noted that he hoped the Chinese would show a cooperative attitude in dealing with it.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People on June 19, 2023. Beijing, China. (©REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool)

An Air of No-Confidence

The optics for the meeting with Xi were terrible as well – no matter what Blinken might have said in private. Appearances matter and Blinken looked timid. Whichever Foreign Service Officer agreed to the meeting arrangements and seating configuration – with Xi looking like a CEO at the head of the table instructing his junior executives – should be encouraged to find other work.

So when Secretary Blinken used the line "The US does not support Taiwan independence" it's possible that all the Chinese communists heard is: "The US does not support Taiwan very much."

Chinese warship Luyang III sails nearand crosses in front of the US destroyer USS Chung-Hoon. This image is taken from the deck of US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait on June 3, 2023. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andre T. Richard/Handout via REUTERS)

It's China's Intimidation that's the Issue

One wishes US officials would not overemphasize the "Taiwan independence" language — which really isn't a huge risk anyway. Almost nobody – and nobody who matters – in Taiwan is calling for independence. Americans warning off Taiwan has become a rote statement intended to placate the Chinese communists. All it does is suggest a lack of resolve.  

US government officials should focus instead on the PRC's daily physical, political, and psychological intimidation of Taiwan. And our nearby allies, Japan and the Philippines as well. That's where the real dangerous behavior is taking place. 


One imagines a future scenario in which the PRC attacks Taiwan (or even puts on a tight blockade) and says something like: 

"Independence forces on Taiwan are planning to declare independence. This is our red line and our core interest. We have no choice but to prevent Taiwan's secession. And you Americans have said you agree with us. You said you do not support Taiwan's independence. And you've said it many times. So America...stand back. This is a domestic matter. If you don't it will be nuclear war."

US President Joe Biden speaks at the White House on June 15. (© Getty via Kyodo)

Factoring In President Biden's Langauge

My acquaintance also noted that President Joe Biden has previously (and more than once) stated that the US would defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion. He asked if Blinken's statement contradicts that.

Not according to a precise reading of Blinken's language.  And I think there are many, if not most, people in the US government who genuinely want to defend Taiwan. 

But the PRC just might smell confusion. And they might see an administration that is so invested in legalisms and the purposely vague language of the "One-China" policy that it will be unable or unwilling to respond forcefully when Beijing calls its bluff.  

The PRC anticipates the US State Department's likely response to a Chinese move against Taiwan as follows: "We had an agreement with the People's Republic of China that any change to the status quo would be made 'peacefully'. We are deeply concerned with this irresponsible behavior and are monitoring the situation."  

US President Joe Biden, Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hold a Quad meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, May 20, 2023. (© REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool)

How the Rest of the Region Would Read It

Meanwhile, Taiwan goes under and Asia turns Red overnight – as regional nations note: 

The US military couldn't protect Taiwan. US economic and financial power couldn't prevent it. And US nuclear weapons couldn't either.  

So cut the best deal you can with Beijing. 

Japan and Australia might try to hold out, but they'll be rattled, too, and will know their time will come.

Blinken's visit was a net loss for the United States – confusing our friends as much as it encouraged Beijing. It is what too often happens when Americans are too eager to "engage."

If our contest with China was a debating society or a battle of essays in Foreign Affairs (or a similar journal), we'd probably win.  If it's a battle of power and will and clear-cut objectives, the Chinese communists might like their chances.  



Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

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