China just substantially reduced a three-day no-fly zone it had declared northeast of Taiwan. The zone, originally scheduled to run from the 16th to the 18th of this month, was scaled back to just 27 minutes on the 16th.
China's Maritime Safety Administration said the closure was due to "aerospace activities." Apparently, the initial stage of a Chinese space launch vehicle will be falling back to earth at that time.
Taiwan said it had objected to the duration of the Chinese zone as initially announced. Others, including aviation authorities, complained to Beijing as well.
The substantial reduction in duration shows that China, despite protestations to the contrary, reacts to pressure. Can the international community pressure China into abandoning its push to absorb the Republic of China, as the island is formally known?
Beijing says it is unmovable on Taiwan. As China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared last August, "There is but one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory, and the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China."
Beijing is certainly movable, and, contrary to assertions, its foreign policy is not "principled." Throughout the history of the People's Republic, the country's external policies have been tightly bound to internal political intrigue and have changed accordingly. At the moment, President Xi Jinping's favored form of diplomacy is intimidation, so he tries to make it appear that he will never change his positions.
He can change, even on Taiwan. Given the right American policies, China's regime can be deterred.
Does Washington now have the right policies? For decades, the United States has tried to manage the situation across the Taiwan Strait by not angering Beijing. Washington has maintained a policy of "strategic ambiguity," in other words, not telling either China or Taiwan what America would do in the case of imminent conflict.
Strategic ambiguity was developed in part to prevent Taiwan from invading China, but after the democratization of the island that has not been a concern. Despite the change in circumstances, Washington has kept the policy in place.
Defenders point out that strategic ambiguity has in fact kept the peace across the Taiwan Strait, but the policy has worked in a generally benign period. Unfortunately, Xi Jinping's almost constant threats make it clear that the current era is anything but benign.
Now, many call for "strategic clarity," telling Chinese leaders in no uncertain terms that the United States will defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack.
President Joe Biden on four occasions ditched ambiguity and clearly stated the United States would fight. On "60 Minutes" last September, for instance, Biden responded to a question from Scott Pelley by declaring the United States would send troops to defend Taiwan "if in fact there was an unprecedented attack."
The administration, unfortunately, immediately walked back the president's clear statement. "After the interview, a White House official said U.S. policy on Taiwan has not changed," CBS News reported. Biden's unambiguous words were in fact a stark change from America's decades-old policy of strategic ambiguity.
White House and administration officials, both anonymously and on the record, contradicted the president on all four occasions. The Chinese certainly do not see firmness in the Biden administration but disarray.
This disarray has almost certainly emboldened Beijing to act even more aggressively.
So, what must Biden do at this late date to reestablish deterrence?
Washington should offer to recognize Taipei as the legitimate government of "Taiwan" if it wants America to do so, offer a mutual defense treaty to Taipei, on an emergency basis begin moving weapons and supplies to the island, and base troops there as a tripwire.
Many will say these steps—similar ones on the Korean peninsula have worked—are risky. Yes, they are, but Biden has allowed the situation to deteriorate across the Taiwan Strait, so he has to consider policies once considered extreme.
In any event, saying something is risky is not a meaningful objection these days. Three decades of misguided Taiwan and China policies have left Washington with no risk-free options. Everything is risky, everything is dangerous, and the most risky and dangerous option is to continue with policies that created this situation in the first place.
What would China do in response to these recommended steps? Beijing always says, "Taiwan independence means war."
That statement, in substance, is silly. The Republic of China is already an independent state according to the standards established in the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. Beijing is really saying that any declaration by Taipei formally abandoning claims to China is "independence" as that would be tantamount to declaring there are two separate states, one "China" and the other "Taiwan."
Would the Chinese actually go to war over such a declaration? Beijing claims that its "casualty-tolerance" is "China's decisive advantage in any fight with the U.S."
On the night of June 15, 2020, the People's Liberation Army launched a surprise attack on Indian forces in Ladakh, south of the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas. India immediately announced that 20 of its soldiers had been killed, but Beijing said nothing about casualties until February 19 of the following year, when it reported four troopers had died. Indian sources believe about 45 Chinese had in fact been killed, and TASS, the Russian news agency, issued a release agreeing with India's assessment of the Chinese death toll.
Beijing's long delay in reporting Ladakh casualties suggests the Communist Party would be hesitant to fight to take Taiwan. China, in short, can be deterred by the prospect of massive casualties—or maybe even just a few of them.
Ultimately, the Biden administration, to establish deterrence, must possess the forces in the field to inflict casualties on China. "The U.S. failed to keep pace with China's burgeoning conventional threat to Taiwan, so the United States has no choice but to initiate a crash program to rebuild a regional/tactical nuclear deterrent, from nuclear artillery shells to short-, medium-, and intermediate-range nuclear-tipped missiles," Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center told Gatestone.
History can repeat itself. In the Cold War in Europe, America deterred a militarily superior Soviet Union with its announced willingness to use nuclear weapons, and Ronald Reagan's deployment of the nuclear-tipped Pershing II missile held back an aggressive Moscow. Biden, however, has made it clear that he abhors nukes.
Biden, therefore, better come up with a plan quick. "Look at the military exercises, and also their rhetoric, they seem to be trying to get ready to launch a war against Taiwan," said Taiwan's Foreign Minister Joseph Wu to CNN this month. Taiwan evidently thinks there is not much time before China launches an attack.
The Eastern Theater Command of China's People's Liberation Army just declared it is now "ready to fight." Biden, on the other hand, does not appear ready to reestablish deterrence in an era of Chinese aggression and belligerence.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, a Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, and a member of its Advisory Board.