May 5, 2021
By Peter Beinart
Mr. Beinart is a contributing Opinion writer who focuses on U.S. foreign policy.
“Media coverage of President Biden’s foreign policy tends to focus on his efforts to withdraw from Afghanistan, get tough on Russia and negotiate with Iran. But none of those may prove as consequential as Mr. Biden’s quiet, incremental, moves to establish official relations with Taiwan. Because only his policy toward Taiwan is meaningfully increasing the risk of world war.
He’s doing so by undoing a diplomatic fiction that for more than 40 years has served the United States, Taiwan and the world exceptionally well. In 1978, when the United States established diplomatic relations with Beijing, it agreed to pretend that there was only “one China.” The arrangement was absurd: Taiwan was, and is, effectively an independent country. But to Beijing, its de facto independence is the bitter fruit of imperialism — Japan stole away the island in 1895; America’s Seventh Fleet prevented the mainland from taking it back in 1950. By keeping U.S. relations with Taiwan unofficial, the “one China” fiction helped Beijing imagine that peaceful reunification remained possible. Which gave it an excuse not to invade.
Like the Trump administration before it, the Biden team is now progressively chipping away at this bargain. Last summer, Democrats removed the phrase “one China” from their platform. In January, Mr. Biden became the first American president since 1978 to host Taiwan’s envoy at his inauguration. In April, his administration announced it was easing decades-old limitations on official U.S. contacts with the Taiwanese government.
These policies are increasing the odds of a catastrophic war. The more the United States and Taiwan formally close the door on reunification, the more likely Beijing is to seek reunification by force. In 2005, China passed a law threatening war if Taiwan declares independence, and in recent years it has repeatedly greeted America’s moves away from the “one China” policy with displays of military force. As the Harvard political scientist Graham Allison has observed, “No Chinese national security official I have ever met, and no U.S. official who has examined the situation, doubts that China would choose war over losing territory it considers vital to its national interest.” “+