Media coverage of President Joe 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 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 U.S. 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, 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 U.S. 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."
When it comes to defending Taiwan from a Chinese attack, Washington's official policy is "strategic ambiguity": The U.S. won't say how it would respond. Nonetheless, the Biden administration has said that America's support for Taiwan is "rock solid," and calls for a more formal commitment to the island's defense are growing. But whether or not the U.S. officially pledges to come to Taiwan's defense, it is deeply reckless to believe that it can both provoke Beijing by undoing the "one China" compact and deter it with the threat of military force.
It's reckless because deterrence requires power and will, and when it comes to Taiwan, the U.S. is deficient in both. According to Fareed Zakaria, "The Pentagon has reportedly enacted 18 war games against China over Taiwan, and China has prevailed in every one."
One reason is geography. Taiwan is roughly 100 miles from mainland China but 5,000 miles from Honolulu. Within 500 miles of the island, mainland China boasts 39 air bases. The U.S. possesses two. To come to Taiwan's aid, U.S. forces would need to cover huge distances, and China has built an arsenal of advanced anti-ship missiles, sometimes called "carrier-killers," which are designed to make such a rescue mission hideously costly.
In the opening phase of a war over Taiwan, "the command and control networks that manage the critical flow of information to U.S. forces in combat would be broken apart and shattered by electronic attacks," writes Christian Brose, former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in his book "The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare." To make matters worse, Brose writes, American bases in Japan and Guam would be "inundated with waves of precise ballistic and cruise missiles" while U.S. aircraft carriers would be highly vulnerable to China's "carrier-killers." Timothy Heath, a former China analyst at U.S. Pacific Command who now works as a defense researcher at RAND, has warned that U.S. casualties "could be staggering."
There's another reason deterrence alone won't work: China cares more. In 2017, mainland Chinese said that Taiwan topped their list of "concerns about the U.S.-China relationship." Among Americans, by contrast, Taiwan didn't make the top seven.
In fact, polling suggests that while foreign policy elites in Washington overwhelmingly endorse going to war for Taiwan, ordinary Americans are deeply skeptical. A recent report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that while 85% of Republican leaders support sending U.S. troops to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack, only 43% of Republicans among the public agree. I suspect that figure would be even lower if respondents knew that some of America's most experienced China experts — including former ambassador to Beijing J. Stapleton Roy and Chas Freeman, who served as Richard Nixon's interpreter on his 1972 trip to China — believe such a conflict would risk nuclear war.
Recognizing the limits of America's ability to deter Beijing does not mean abandoning Taiwan. The island is an inspiring democratic success story; for it to suffer Hong Kong's fate would be a colossal tragedy. In an ideal world, Taiwan would of course enjoy all the prerogatives of independence. But smaller countries that sit in the shadow of superpowers often accept limitations on their external behavior. The U.S. would never allow Mexico to join a military alliance with Beijing.
What's crucial is that the Taiwanese people preserve their individual freedom and the planet does not endure a third world war. The best way for the U.S. to pursue those goals is by maintaining America's military support for Taiwan while also maintaining the "one China" framework that for more than four decades has helped keep the peace in one of the most dangerous places on earth.
Hawks will call this appeasement. So be it. Ask them how many American lives they're willing to risk so the U.S. can have official diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Peter Beinart is professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He is also editor-at-large of Jewish Currents and writes the Beinart Notebook, a weekly newsletter. He wrote this article for the New York Times.