Observations of an ex-pat – Disappointing Biden

President Joe Biden is a foreign policy disappointment. He entered the White House with more foreign affairs experience than almost any of his predecessors—23 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during which time he met 150 heads of government.

 The world had hoped—no, expected—that the new president would inject an ordered wisdom into America’s conduct of world affairs after the chaos of the Trump years. Instead, it has been presented with an increasingly disjointed and incoherent foreign policy which has fallen dangerously short of expectations.

 The latest example is the visit to Taiwan by Nancy Pelosi. The Speaker of the House of Representatives – who is second in line to the presidency– said her trip was meant to show strength of purpose. Instead it has exposed a confused, disjointed and divided policy towards the crucial issue of Taiwan which has repercussions on a wide range of world issues.

 It was obvious that the visit would infuriate Beijing. And it did. They have responded with a series of dangerous military exercises in the Taiwan Straits, ballistic missile firings, cyber attacks, Chinese fighter jet sorties into Taiwanese airspace and a ban on Taiwanese food imports. There is a fear that the Chinese reaction may drag on in the form of a de facto blockade of the island which Beijing claims as China’s 23rd province.

The Taiwan issue does not exist in its own bubble. China is a key player, if relatively quiet one, in the Ukraine War. Western victory in Ukraine is key to undermining autocracy in Moscow, Beijing and everywhere else that is opposed to the democratic system. Nancy Pelosi quite rightly told the Taiwanese parliament that “the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy.”

 But she is wrong in thinking that today’s frontline is in the Taiwan Straits. It is in Ukraine, and Washington needs Beijing to maintain its relatively neutral position to defeat Russian autocracy and delivery a body blow to autocratic governments everywhere else. So far President Xi Jinping has provided his friend Vladimir Putin with political support and some economic help, but he has stopped short of full-throated backing and has—for now—withheld military aid. A change in America’s Taiwan policy could result in change in China’s Ukraine policy.

 Part of the problem with the administration of American foreign policy is that there too many competing branches of government with their fingers in the global pie. The CIA, State Department, Pentagon, Homeland Security, FBI, National Security Council, The Treasury, Department of Commerce and National Security Agency all have a say and a different viewpoint. Then there is the Senate Foreign Relations committee, 50 Governors with presidential aspirations, and 535 members of the Senate and House of Representatives with similar ambitions.

 The problems of America’s foreign policy would be easier if there was bipartisan agreement. There isn’t. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (now 90 pounds lighter) is a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. He wants to drop America’s one China policy with its accompanying “strategic ambiguity” and replace it with official recognition of Taiwan as an independent state. Beijing has warned that this would be tantamount to a declaration of war.

 China does not want a war with the US; at least not now. It is not ready for it. The Chinese are practical people and wars are costly and involve politically dangerous leaps into the unknown. Beijing prefers certainties. The US does not want a war either, especially while it is heavily committed to Europe because of Russian aggression in Ukraine.

 The danger is that either Washington or Beijing will feel it is backed into a corner where military action is the only option. Pelosi’s visit comes two months before the Chinese Communist Party Congress at which Xi is expected to be confirmed in a third term. The recovery of Taiwan is the number one article of faith for the CCP and is heavily backed by the Chinese public. The leader who is seen as weak on the issue is unlikely to remain at the top of the political heap. Conversely, Taiwan is seen more and more in America as a frontline state in the war between autocracy and democracy.

 Ironically, the Taiwanese are not in total agreement with their American backers. They want US weapons and political and military support to deter an attack from mainland China. But, at the same time, Taipei is constantly seeking dialogue and compromise with Beijing. The last thing they want is a Sino-American conflict which would reduce their prosperous island to a pile of rubble.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • john oundle 6th Aug '22 - 11:01am

    Problem is that Pelosi always wants her five minutes in the spotlight whilst Biden battles with his health issues.

    Beyond belief that she wasn’t put out to grass 30 years ago, what has she ever achieved,gives a whole new meaning to bed blockers.

  • The Speaker of the House of Representatives – who is second in line to the presidency…

    Third in line, but only if both the president and vice-president are incapacitated such that neither is able to appoint a replacement vice-president who is approved by majority votes in both the House and Senate (25th. Amendment).

  • It would seem that the Chinese regime is deliberately taking mock offence and being provocative, the visit of anyone (including fishermen) outside of China to areas it considers to be part of China will provoke a disproportionate response.

    I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen Boris visiting Taiwan yet.

    At some point there i going to be a showdown, China needs to accept the post WWII borders it agree to.

  • Steve Trevethan 6th Aug '22 - 2:27pm

    What makes the author believe that the USA does not want another war/armed conflict?
    In its entire existence, the USA has not been at war extremely briefly.
    Do the wars against native Americans indicate a peaceful attitude?
    Are their police forces noticeably peaceful?
    Wars are are so superbly profitable.

  • David Warren 6th Aug '22 - 4:14pm

    Unfortunately Biden is already looking like a lame duck President. Conservatives in his own party mean he doesn’t really have the fifty votes he needs in the Senate. In November things will likely be worse with the Republicans set to make gains and control congress for the rest of his term.

    The best thing the Democrats can do is persuade him to announce his intention not to seek a second term and focus on finding a candidate who can defeat the GOP nominee who will almost certainly be on the right of that party.

    In the meantime pressure on China needs to be maintained. Roosevelts Arsenal Of Democracy is needed as much now as it was 70 years ago. The UK and all Liberal Democrats need to be on board.

  • The polling for the mid terms over the past month has not been unfavourable to the Democrats. The current surprise performance of Warnock in Georgia is an example.

  • CJ WILLIAMS 6th Aug '22 - 5:05pm

    Steve Trevethan. Thankfully for over 80 years the USA has sacrificed much treasure in the protection of freedom and democracy. If the USA reverts to it’s previous isolationist policies imagine where we would be in respect of the Ukraine and Taiwan.

  • Brad Barrows 6th Aug '22 - 5:31pm

    “Third in line…”
    Actually I agree with Tom arms: The Vice President is first in line to step up to the presidency should anything happen to the President. The Speaker of the House of Representatives is next in line to step up if something happens to both the President and Vice President. Therefore second in line to the presidency and third most important in the political hierarchy.

  • Tom Seelye Arms 6th Aug '22 - 6:38pm

    @jeff. I thought long and hard and doublechecked before writing that the Speaker was second in line in case of incapacitation of the president. So here is how it goes: The Vice President is first in line. The Speaker is second in line and the Secretary of State is third in line. A lot of people refer to the Speaker as third becomes the President as the incumbent is number one.

  • Tom Seelye Arms 6th Aug '22 - 6:39pm

    @Roland. In fact the the CCP is respecting agreed postwar borders with its claim to Taiwan. That is part of the problem. The Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 fled to Taiwan (part of China) and set up a government which it said was the government of ALL China. The CCP meanwhile said it was the legitimate government of ALL China including Taiwan. Of course, if we were discussing Tibet that would be a different case. The mountain Buddhist kingdom was part of China in the 18th century but not since. It was invaded and annexed in 1951. I believe that, however, is the only bit of postwar territory which China claims.
    I am not, by the way, opposed to maintaining pressure on China, especially on human rights, intellectual property rights and climate change. Neither do I favour their autocratic form of government. But when it comes to defending territory, I think the thrust of the West’s efforts should be focused on defending Ukraine against Russia. If Putin loses in Ukraine then this will undermine the Chinese political structures. To defeat Putin we need to keep China out of the Ukraine conflict. We won’t do that by annoying them about Taiwan.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 6th Aug '22 - 6:50pm

    I am afraid that I don’t entirely agree with you there Tom Arms.

    I feel that the West’s resolve is being tested in both Taiwan and Ukraine. We have to stand firm on both. Russia and China have to be shown that even by banding together, they will get nowhere on both fronts without great cost. So the only way open is diplomacy and respecting borders.

    This may require the US to mobilise arming efforts on a scale not seen since the “Arsenal of Democracy” days. But we sure need one now. At least the US won’t have to worry about unemployment under such an effort.

  • George Thomas 6th Aug '22 - 8:24pm

    “If Putin loses in Ukraine then this will undermine the Chinese political structures. ”

    It feels like we’re saying that Russia is the autocratic state we can successfully challenge in this moment, it will have a small positive effect on what’s happening in China – a large negative effect if Putin is successful – and therefore we shouldn’t try to challenge China unless we want to seriously risk losing the gains potentially on offer in Russia.

    It’s uncomfortable knowing that Vince Cable was saying we shouldn’t accuse China of meeting threshold for genocide, even though best information points that way, because we needed a positive relationship with the nation and now we’re declaring disappointment in Biden’s administration rather than Xi whose response was to walk back on commitments to climate change policy. Very much like this is our George Bush “Putin has a good soul” moment and at some point within next few decades we’ll be shaking our heads and wondering why so much was done to appease the nation who was always building up to crossing the line.

  • The issue here should be the right to self-determination of the indigenous Taiwanese people. Both the Peoples Republic of China in Beijing and the Republic of China in Taipei lay claim to be the rightful government of all China. Neither China nor Taiwan sees their relations as foreign. They prefer to use the term Cross-Strait relations in referring to their geographical separator, the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwanese and Chinese governments do no interact directly. In reality, Taiwan acts as an Independent state and this ambiguity has calmed the potential for armed conflict over the years.
    After World War II, the southern part of Mongolia was annexed by China, becoming the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Since that time, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has gradually eroded the culture and independence of the region’s ethnic Mongolian population. Similar programs are being carried out in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, home to the Tibetan and Uyghur ethnic groups respectively.
    Taiwan can perhaps expect similar treatment to that of Hong Kong should the Chinese Communist Party acquire suzerainty over the Island.
    With International reliance on Taiwan for leading-edge semi-conductor production the Island will remain a vital geopolitcal interest for the US and others and hence a potential hotspot Taiwan dominates the world’s supply of computer chips – no wonder the US is worried

  • @ George – What I take from Tom’s comment (other than the history) is reminder that we need to careful not either start a conflict with China or to give China a reason to get off the fence and fully support Russia wrt Ukraine. However, we do need to ensure that China doesn’t feel it can get away with actions against its neighbours just because the west is preoccupied with Ukraine. So we just need to be mindful of the delicate balance.

  • Tom Seelye Arms 7th Aug '22 - 12:44am

    Roland, you got it in one.

  • Yeow Hua Poon 7th Aug '22 - 1:02pm

    I wish that Western leaders, media and commentators stop using the term Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to name the Communist Party of China (CPC). CPC is the proper name, which identifies it as a political party in China. ‘Chinese’ denotes a people or an ethnicity and there are people of Chinese heritage everywhere around the world. CCP implies that we are all members or potential members. As tension between China and the West increases, the use of CCP will further impact on Sinophobia and racism against people of Chinese, East and Southeast heritage.

  • Peter Hirst 7th Aug '22 - 2:51pm

    Taiwan could remain as a political ambition and as such more useful to China in its present status than if it is amalgamated into the country. However the reality is that the longer this continues the more it will be integrated into the world order as an independent country at least de facto. China might look to use Taiwan to extract something from the world community in exchange for formalising that arrangement.

  • George Thomas 7th Aug '22 - 5:20pm

    “….Chinese’ denotes a people or an ethnicity and there are people of Chinese heritage everywhere around the world. CCP implies that we are all members or potential members. As tension between China and the West increases, the use of CCP will further impact on Sinophobia and racism against people of Chinese, East and Southeast heritage.”

    An important point, I think, by Yeow Hua Poon above on need to be more careful and accurate with phrasing going forward.

  • Linda Chung 7th Aug '22 - 6:15pm

    Good article by Tom Arms. It shows more insight than that of many westerners.

  • Julian Tisi 8th Aug '22 - 10:02am

    I’m going to disagree with you Tom. As you rightly say, the US doesn’t want a war with China and China is likely to want to avoid one unless they’re backed into a corner. On the other hand, you rightly support Nanci Pelosi when she tells the Taiwanese parliament that “the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy.”

    So doesn’t it show a good balancing act to send Nanci Pelosi to Taiwan, making the point that we have not forgotten Taiwan, that we maintain committed to protect democracy, but then pointedly Biden doesn’t openly give his full-fledged support to the visit? China have predictably thrown their toys out of the pram, but they have no excuse for war. Also, unlike Russia/Ukraine there’s no easy land border to cross; a war with Taiwan is far from an easy win for China; indeed, further western support for Taiwan could even prevent a war by making it an unwise prospect for China. My take on Biden is that he is cautious, perhaps overly so, but far from unwise. I think it was right to make a show of support for Taiwan, particularly in the light of our support for democracy in Ukraine.

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