North Korean and conservative U.S. commentators saw Blinken’s visit and statements as a display of weakness and a disaster for Taiwan, while liberal analysts saw it as a relative success
The world’s marketplace of diverse opinions, Twitter, this week saw some outrage about statements made by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the end of his trip to China. One of the sentences uttered by Blinken in the U.S. embassy in Beijing on Monday was “We do not support Taiwan independence.” The video clip of Blinken saying only these six words was posted by multiple conservative accounts on Twitter, with many of these personalities saying that Blinken’s words meant that the Biden administration was throwing Taiwan under the bus.
Republican Congressman Ben Cline was one of these personalities. Cline posted on Twitter that the statement meant “the Biden admin is giving China a green light to increase its intimidation of our ally, Taiwan.” He added: “This is a dangerous display of weakness towards our adversaries on the world stage.” This sentiment was echoed by many accounts, with thousands of commenters expressing their disgust with Blinken’s statement, believing that it gave China the green light to invade Taiwan. Cline’s post alone got more than 43,000 views and 437 likes.
However, for those who follow Taiwan’s issues closely, Blinken’s words were not a big surprise, as they simply echo the position that the U.S. had taken years ago on the China-Taiwan issue. The U.S. stance — as stipulated in the U.S. One China Policy and the Taiwan Relations Act — is that it will not support Taiwanese moves to declare independence, but that it is also opposed to the non-peaceful and unilateral changing of “the status quo,” and that it will arm Taiwan with defensive weapons so that it can defend itself if China does try to unilaterally change the status quo.
Blinken’s words also become even less outrageous from a pro-Taiwan perspective when viewed in the broader context of the speech. Blinken’s actual words were: “On Taiwan, I reiterated the longstanding U.S. One China policy. That policy has not changed. It’s guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Joint Communiques, the Six Assurances. We do not support Taiwan independence. We remain opposed to any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side. We continue to expect the peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences. We remain committed to continuing our responsibilities under the Taiwan Relations Act including making sure Taiwan has the ability to defend itself.”
Blinken then added: “At the same time, we and many others have deep concerns about some of the provocative actions that China has taken in recent years going back to 2016. And the reason that this is a concern for so many countries, not just the United States, is that were there to be a crisis over Taiwan, the likelihood is that it could produce an economic crisis that could affect quite literally the entire world.”
So, to those who thought Blinken threw Taiwan under the bus, it might be a relief to know that his words at least did not portray that sentiment when viewed in their actual context. Even Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted positively to Blinken’s statement, saying it “welcomes and appreciates that the U.S. has again publicly reaffirmed its staunch support for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. U.S. administrations over the years have adhered to the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances in order to honor related U.S. commitments to Taiwan.”
Other Twitter commentators also pointed out some unflattering body-language moments when Blinken met Xi for the traditional photo-op handshake. One photo shared by critics showed Blinken, who is shorter than Xi, bending over awkwardly and looking ruffled while shaking Xi’s hand. These photos were shared widely in a mocking fashion by both U.S.-based critics of the Biden administration, as well as external critics of the U.S. in general. Another “diplomacy optics” issue that was raised on Twitter was how Xi’s team positioned Blinken compared to his two predecessors, Mike Pompeo and John Kerry. During those earlier visits the U.S. officials were placed on equal footing with Xi, but during Blinken’s visit he was seated in positions that made him look subordinate to Xi, who was seated in a dominant position.
North Korea agreed with those that said Blinken’s visit was a sign of weakness, but for a very different reason. In a commentary published by Pyongyang’s KCNA news agency, a government-sponsored analyst said the rare visit was aimed at “begging” for the relaxation of tensions “as the attempt to press and restrain China may become a boomerang striking a fatal blow to the U.S. economy.” The North Korean analyst said the trip “can never be judged otherwise than a disgraceful begging trip of the provoker admitting the failure of the policy of putting pressure on China.”
The U.S.’s ubiquitous liberal news outlets took a much more positive view of Blinken’s visit. The New York Times admitted that the optics made it look like Blinken was in a position of weakness, saying that for China’s nationalistic-leaning audience “especially on social media” it seemed that “Blinken arrived only after months of pleading for an invitation, and during his visit he was schooled on respecting China’s interests and played supplicant to Xi.”
However the media outlet defended Blinken’s trip by saying that Xi also wanted the visit because of his party’s need to “stabilize the Chinese economy, which has been struggling to maintain a recovery after coming out of three years of punishing pandemic restrictions.” The article added that Xi needed to have this rare meeting because Chinese exports have declined noticeably and U.S. and Western companies are moving their production bases away from China.
Bloomberg’s Iain Marlow concluded that “the U.S. didn’t get the one thing it really wanted: restored communications between the two countries’ militaries that China severed after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last August.”
The New York Times echoed this opinion, ending its article with the words “U.S. officials went into the meetings in Beijing hoping to get China to reopen direct channels of military-to-military communications, including ones between the U.S. defense secretary, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of the Indo-Pacific Command and their Chinese counterparts. Chinese officials meeting with Blinken rejected the request.”
The above conclusions by Bloomberg and The New York Times highlight the difficulty that lies ahead for anyone who tries to defuse the escalating tensions between China and the U.S. because of the Taiwan issue. As China builds its military’s capacity to invade Taiwan, the U.S. is compelled by its Taiwan Relations Act legislation to increase Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against a Chinese invasion.
In the past, the U.S. could simply have used its own massive navy to force China to accept the “status quo” — with the “status quo” meaning the current condition where Taiwan’s people can rule themselves and decide for themselves when they’re ready to become part of China. During the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, the U.S. only needed to sail a large armada that included two of its supercarriers through the Taiwan Strait. Back then, the overwhelming firepower of these two carriers was enough to force China to stop threatening Taiwan with invasion. These days, China’s military has been expanded and modernized to the point where it might be impossible for any U.S. ships to come within hundreds of kilometers of Taiwan, if a war started.
The fact that China refuses to reopen direct channels of military communications hints at the possibility that Xi has set the country irrevocably on a course toward forcibly taking Taiwan. This would mean that in the eyes of Beijing, the only decision the U.S. can make is whether it will defend Taiwan militarily or stand down. In light of these ominous signs, it is important to note that the U.S. military has recently started the process of buying a large number of very expensive but very deadly long-range guided missiles that can destroy an invasion fleet from very far away. These missiles can skim the ocean’s surface and are stealthy enough to avoid radar detection, while also being smart enough to maneuver around naval defense systems. But more about that next Tuesday.
Image: U.S. Department of State, Public Domain