We are witnessing the gradual dismantling of strategic ambiguity in favor of the clarity urged by Trump’s belligerent secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News
Watching President Joe Biden’s stunningly clumsy performance in Tokyo last week, during which he committed the U.S. to defending Taiwan militarily, my mind went to the old adage, “All politics is local.” I am sure it is, but we are called upon to extend the thought: “All foreign policy is local” is our late-imperial reality.
The rest of the world is mere proscenium for our purported leaders, to put this point another way. No one with a hand in American foreign policy, so far as I can make out, is the slightest bit interested in the one thing, above all others, that the 21st century requires of competent statecraft. This is the desire and ability to understand the perspectives of others.
Have you ever heard anyone in the Washington policy cliques state, or even wonder, what China’s legitimate interests are in East Asia, first of all on the question of sovereignty over Taiwan? I haven’t either.
You can run a foreign policy in this manner, but any successes it achieves will be sheer happenstance. In the Taiwan case, these people can’t even count on a fluke.
What we saw during Biden’s appearance in Tokyo was the latest installment of a Taiwan policy, and by extension a trans–Pacific policy, fashioned to satisfy various constituencies at home. The voiceless American public does not count among them. Like all policies of this kind, this one is poorly conceived, miscalculated, out of touch — in other words, doomed to failure as our new century unfolds.
“You didn’t want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily for obvious reasons. Are you willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” This was the question a broadcast correspondent posed as Biden stood with the prime ministers of Japan, India, and Australia at the conclusion of a security summit last Monday.
“Yes,” our addled president replied without elaboration.
“You are?” the correspondent persisted.
“That’s the commitment we made,” Biden said, again with no further comment.
Parse the exchange carefully. The president of the United States told Taiwan, China and the rest of Asia that America would commit troops and matériel — its own, not the weaponry it sells Taiwan in quantity — to a defense of the island in the event of a conflict with the People’s Republic. Given the reference to Ukraine, there is simply no other way to interpret Biden’s remarks.
This was a significant, openly provocative departure from the longstanding policy known as “strategic ambiguity,” a flimsy (as it has always seemed) concept whereby Washington does not say what it will do should China attempt to reassert sovereignty over its breakaway province.
Instantly, Biden’s many minders, who serve as nursing-home attendants more than department secretaries and advisers in these cases, began explaining to a very disturbed world that what their president said was not what their president said. “As the president said, our policy has not changed,” the White House explained in a rushed statement to the press.
A day later, even Biden was mouthing the approved language: “The policy has not changed at all,” saith Joe last Tuesday and on several occasions since.
Come again, please? Yes, I announced a dramatic change in our Taiwan policy, but no, we’re not changing our Taiwan policy?
We cannot mark down what happened in the Japanese capital a week ago to the grim reality that our 46th president suffers a creeping senility. He does, but this will not do as an explanation of what amounts to a bad-cop, good-cop routine wherein the bad cop suddenly becomes one of the good cops after being bad.
The government-supervised New York Times went for the “gaffe-prone pol” theory, and who is not familiar with the … let us say simplicity of our president’s intellect? But neither will Biden’s evident dimness get us to clarity.
I see design in these weird events.
What is it, then, we appear to have witnessed? Given Taiwan is the eastern front in our new, two-front Cold War — the one we’re nicely on the way to losing — we had better understand what we are in for.
Here I will speculate briefly.
The journalist posing the fateful question was Nancy Cordes, a longtime television correspondent who now covers the White House for CBS News. Given CBS’s long, many-decades-long record of collaborating with the national-security state, could her exchange with Biden have been prearranged to allow the response she precipitated?
We will never have an answer to this, but I must say I found the staginess of the occasion odd from the first, and I will take this thought no further.
As many news reports noted last week, the Tokyo presser was the third time Biden, as president, has sailed the American ship of state near these rocks. Last summer he equated Taiwan with Japan and South Korea, two nations with which the U.S. has security alliances providing for mutual defense. Taiwan is not a nation, however many times The New York Times errs in calling it one, and has no such treaty with Washington.
A couple of months later a CNN correspondent asked Biden if the U.S. is committed to defending Taiwan against an attack from the mainland. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he replied.
I must remind readers here that, in consequence to Biden’s diminished mental capacities, it has been a matter of record since his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva last year that the time he spends in front of journalists is strictly controlled, the journalists are carefully chosen and what will be said during their exchanges is vetted beforehand. You know, Soviet-style.
Some context is in order here.
It has been clear since the Biden regime’s earliest months that it has no idea how to address China or what a sound China policy would look like. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s calamitous encounter with Chinese counterparts in Alaska in March 2021 was the first indication of this, though hardly the last.
By default, I would say, Biden and his national security people inherited the policy shaped by Mike Pompeo because they didn’t know what else to do. Remember the McCarthyesque speech the Trump administration’s secretary of state gave at the Nixon Library two summers ago? Fifty years of engagement with China have failed, so it is time to confront the evil Chinese Communist Party, good must destroy evil, etc.?
One prominent feature of the Pompeo policy was its vigorous determination to refute the One China policy, which acknowledges Taiwan as part of China, and scrub strategic ambiguity in favor of “strategic clarity,” as in, We’re on for a war, body bags and all, and will wage it to defend Taiwan when the time comes.
The Biden regime has done nothing more than slow down this policy while altering it in style and tone. Having nothing to say for itself, it has no choice but to mollify the warmongering hawks whose position Pompeo articulated. These factions extend from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon to the defense-industry lobbies to the think tanks, some conservative, others “liberal.”
What happened in Tokyo last week is called “salami-slicing,” incremental moves such that a major policy shift is executed little by little by little. It follows naturally that Washington commonly accuses China of salami-slicing, given it is exactly what the U.S. is doing in the Taiwan case. Hence the contradictions noted above: We aren’t changing policy except that we are changing it.
It was obvious within days of the Tokyo press conference that the discourse on Taiwan has taken a decisive turn of the kind Biden appears to have intended to prompt. We are witnessing the gradual dismantling of strategic ambiguity in favor of strategic clarity just as the dangerously belligerent Pompeo urged.
One day after Biden’s remarks The New York Times quoted none other than Harry Harris urging this shift. Harris, some readers may recall, was commander of the Pacific fleet during the Obama years and liked nothing better than grandstanding on the decks of his aircraft carriers while huffing and puffing about America’s naval superiority in the Pacific.
China, the retired admiral asserted, “isn’t holding back its preparations for whatever it decides it wants to do simply because we’re ambiguous about our position.” This appeared in a piece explaining how the Biden regime is all of a sudden “trying to walk a fine line between deterrence and provocation.”
Nice. Nuanced. This is what I call subtle statecraft, diplomacy at its most evolved. Let’s come as close as we can to starting a conflict with China while avoiding the appearance of starting one.
A day later Bret Stephens, the Times columnist who is admittedly not to be taken seriously, urged “a more open military relationship with Taiwan.” Biden needs to forget his FDR fantasies, our Bret thinks, and “find his inner Truman,” referencing the first Cold War’s premier Cold Warrior.
We read regularly now of the policy cliques war-gaming a military conflict with China over the Taiwan question. NBC recently broadcast “War Games: The Battle for Taiwan,” a 27–minute Meet the Press segment. Such a program, lest readers lose track of the time, would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. But a salami slice at a time, Washington and its clerks in the media prepare us for Cold War II’s second front.
NBC, I remind readers, has a history as long as CBS’s of collaborating with the State and Defense departments — very, very directly — in the production of broadcast propaganda.
There is one great, big saving grace in all of this. At the horizon, it is nonsense — America preening before its mirrors of self-regard.
Anyone with a head on his or her shoulders — and I have it from confidential sources there are a few such people in Washington — knows that a hot war with China over Taiwan is utterly out of the question. There is absolutely no way the U.S. could win one against the people’s Liberation Army, the P.L.A. Navy and the P.L.A. Air Force.
The Times had the good sense to run an opinion piece in Sunday’s editions precisely to this effect. “Defending Taiwan Would Be a Mistake,” is the headline and a good summary of Oriana Skylar Mastro’s argument. She writes:
“Simply put, the United States is outgunned. At the very least a confrontation with China would be an enormous drain on the U.S. military without any assured outcome that America could repel all of China’s forces.”
Mastro is a fellow in Chinese security studies at Stanford and a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This is what we’re seeing these days on the Taiwan question: What grounded thinking there is to be found is as often as not coming from conservatives as against the liberal “antiwar” warmongers who crowd our national discourse.
The Skylar Mastro column was an implicit defense of strategic ambiguity, which is the question on which the policy debate now turns. I have always considered it a weak policy, a sophisticated name for either indecision and paralysis or for an unstated knowledge that the U.S. cannot win this one and can do no more than put off the inevitable on the Taiwan issue. The island is Chinese real estate and sooner or later this will be the reality.
But ambiguity is better than clarity in the way the hawks use the term.
China reacted predictably to the Biden statements. “On issues that bear on China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and other core interests,” Wang Wenbin, a foreign ministry spokesman, said, “no one shall expect China to make any compromise or trade-offs.”
There is no salami-slicing here. Anyone who knows Chinese history understands that questions of territorial integrity and sovereignty are the hottest buttons on Beijing’s console.
But Wang’s statement — the statement of a spokesman, not a senior official — seemed to me notably low-key. And since this official reaction, Beijing appears to have let the incident fade.
It seems to me the Chinese understand: Biden’s Taiwan policy is all posture in the service of several purposes. It mollifies the hawkish factions mentioned above and will keep the weapons manufacturers in contracts more or less indefinitely. As previously argued in this space, Washington doesn’t need a hot war across the Pacific: An open-ended cold one will do.
A third purpose is to me the most interesting. Escalating tensions across the Taiwan Strait, given there is no real intention of engaging the Chinese militarily, is the doing of a nervous, declining power profoundly unsure of itself in a changing world order it can do nothing to stop. In this the preening and pretending is all about reassuring you and me that our leaders are not completely, abjectly blowing the 21st century.
An astute Financial Times writer published a piece over the weekend noting that Biden’s performance — good word for it — in Tokyo coincided with the opening of Top Gun: Maverick, a sequel to the triumphalist Tom Cruise film of 1986. “Curiously, James Crabtree writes, ‘it turns out that Top Gun: Maverick is actually a rather anxious kind of blockbuster, filled with doubts about the durability of U.S. power, and functioning in many ways as an elegy for relative American decline.’”
The head on Crabtree’s piece is “Still Top Gun? What Tom Cruise’s New Movie Tells Us about American Power.” It tells us a lot. It tells us it is starting to come down to theater now, spectacle without substance.
What we are going to see in Taiwan is likely to prove exactly what we already see in Ukraine. We will salami-slice increasing support for the independence-minded government in Taipei, arm the island to its very teeth, provoke China as we have Russia, and hope the mess escalates.
Then we will watch, as true heroes do.
Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.