In Japan on Monday, President Joe Biden seemingly departed from previous American policy regarding Taiwan, announcing that the U.S. would militarily defend the tiny island nation if China were to invade.
Walter Lohman, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, says Biden’s statement was a huge mistake.
“We want to keep the Chinese guessing about what the United States would do,” he says of the long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity.”
Lohman joins the show to discuss what the implications of this seeming shift in policy would be, and what Beijing’s aims are regarding Taiwan.
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Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Walter Lohman, Director of the Asian Studies Center here at the Heritage Foundation. Walter, welcome to the show.
Walter Lohman: Glad to be here. Thank you.
Blair: We just heard from President Biden, who announced while he was on a trip to Japan, that the U.S. would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan if it was to come to that. Is this in line with previous American policy towards Taiwan, as the White House later tried to claim?
Lohman: No, it’s not. I mean, I think what the White House was trying to do was to contain the damage from what the President said. No, our policy for the last 40 years has been one of ambiguity. That is what Donald Trump the best, actually, was, “The Chinese know what I will do.” Without spelling it out, to hold out there the possibility that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense, but not to say it explicitly.
No, it wasn’t in keeping with current policy. It wasn’t keeping with previous policy. It was the White House trying to correct the record.
Blair: Now, you used the word damage, so clearly this doesn’t seem to be a good announcement from the Biden administration.
Lohman: No, because we want to keep the Chinese guessing about what the United States would do. We want to keep Taiwan guessing to some extent also, because as much as we love Taiwan, and personally I would like to see us defend Taiwan if ever came to that. I think there would be a case for that, and we’d have to make that case. We don’t want a foreign power, whether it’s Taiwan or Japan or the UK or our best friends in the world, we don’t want them to be the ones to be able to pull the trigger on the use of American force. We decide.
If we put it in their hands to create the conditions under which we might go to war, we’re essentially ceding our authority to go to war.
Blair: It might be helpful, then, as we reference the fact that this is a departure from general American policy towards Taiwan, what has been traditionally America’s view towards Taiwan?
Lohman: Well, since 1979, when we recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China … represented in the United Nations, et cetera, our policy has been an unofficial one with Taiwan. We recognize that the Chinese think that Taiwan is a part of China, but we don’t recognize that Taiwan is a part of China.
It’s a very complicated kind of formula we came up with, but it was one that allowed us to reconcile with China, move forward and do some cooperative things. At the same time, continue to protect Taiwan. We never want to be in a position of making that too clear, for fear of roiling the atmosphere in the region.
Blair: We started out with, obviously, if I know my history, we tried to acknowledge the Republic of China, which was Taiwan, as the sole authority for the Chinese government. Then, that sort of evolved into recognizing the People’s Republic. Has it evolved since then, where we’ve …
Lohman: Right. Essentially, no. I mean, so, Jimmy Carter made the decision in 1979 to drop Taiwan, to no longer recognize Taiwan or the Republic of China. No longer recognize that as the sole representative China. Instead, recognize that the People’s Republic of China, Communist China. He made that decision to do that. That was the big break.
Since then, our policy has really been … really guided by something called the Taiwan Relations Act, which is that we will maintain unofficial relationship with Taiwan. Closest that Taiwan has with any important country in the world, really. We’ll sell it the arms that it needs to defend itself.
Along with that comes a tentative commitment, or not really a commitment, but we want to give the impression we would come to Taiwan’s aid if we needed. We’re never overly explicit about it, again, because to be overly explicit about it gives the Taiwanese, who as great as they are and however as much we want to protect their freedom, we don’t want them to decide the circumstances under which we go to war.
Blair: Given that we know the American position, or at least what it’s traditionally been towards Taiwan, what is China’s position towards Taiwan?
Lohman: Well, from China’s perspective, Taiwan is a part of China. Not just part of China, but part of the People’s Republic of China. That it doesn’t have its own independent basis. Our position is that it’s practically speaking independent. It is. For all intents and purposes, Taiwan is independent.
China wants to change that and make it sort of legally, operationally a part of China in a real way. Our effort is to prevent that from ever happening.
Blair: Now, I guess one of the things that we keep hearing is a comparison from the administration that this is a very similar situation to what we’re seeing in Ukraine, where a larger power, in this case Russia, would be invading the smaller power, Ukraine. Flip that with China and Taiwan. Is that accurate?
Lohman: I don’t think it’s accurate. I think just the task of it is very, very different. You’ve got a body of water between Taiwan and China. We used to call it, in the old days before China developed such a sophisticated military, the Million Man Swim, because the Chinese would have no way of getting across the straits.
Now, they have more capability to get across the straits, but still an extraordinarily complicated legal maneuver. It would be the equivalent of Hannibal crossing the Alps, for the Chinese to land an invasion force the size that it would need to take Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait. I think it’s a very different sort of situation than what the Ukrainians are facing in Russia.
The other difference is that the Taiwanese are very well equipped, well trained military. They have a constant supplier already from the United States. I think Donald Trump finished his term having given them, I think 16 billion dollars in arms. Important to say, not given them, sold them. They buy the weapons that we give them. They buy very sophisticated weapons. That’s 16 fighter jets, for example. Abram’s Tanks. They buy real stuff, and they know how to operate it.
Blair: Actually, that’s another point of comparison, then. If, let’s say that the Chinese do plan to invade Taiwan, is the strategy that the U.S. adopts similar to what we’re doing in Ukraine, where we provide them with arms and sanctions? No?
Lohman: No. No, I think … our policy would be to come to Taiwan’s defense, but it’s different to have that policy and to know that that’s what’s going to happen than to say it. You know? That was the problem that Biden made. Again, the President that got this the clearest, and he wasn’t a man known for his clarity, in fact, but Donald Trump really nailed this in the summer of 2020. When he was asked what would you do if this happened, if China made a move on Taiwan, he said, “China knows what I would do.”
He was pressed to, “Can you be more specific?” He said, “I don’t want to be more specific. China knows what I would do.” It’s the perfect summary and the clearest language of what our policy on Taiwan and the prospects of us going to war there is.
Blair: Given that it seems like it would be very difficult for a Chinese invasion to successfully conquer Taiwan, it seems like you mentioned that even with the technology that they’re have now, there are still a lot of logistical issues. Is there a possibility that a separate way of conquering the island? Maybe through subterfuge, economically-
Lohman: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, that’s the Chinese preferred route. They’ve been working on that for 70 years, ever since the Republic of China found refuge on that island. They have been working to get it back. In modern times, let’s say within the last, especially within the last 10, 15 years, they have used all kinds of technology to do these things. To infiltrate social networks, to infiltrate the media, to constantly be streaming messages about Taiwan’s eventual collapse. About how the U.S. can’t be trusted. All these sorts of things to affect the political environment in Taiwan.
Taiwan itself is a divided society. Half of Taiwan wants to be independent. The other half wants some kind of reconciliation with the mainland. The Chinese effort is to benefit the reconcilable part of that and to get them elected to office and eventually bring Taiwan in that way. They can do that by using, like I said, the subterfuge that you referenced and the social media and all sorts of things.
Also through intimidation. That’s what this flights that they conduct near Taiwan are all about. Hundreds of flights, you know, hundreds of planes at a time. Military planes at a time, trying to intimidate Taiwan, to create this atmosphere of inevitability that Taiwan will become a part of China.
Blair: You said it’s about 50/50, where some of the people want to reconcile with China and some of them want to be independent. Have we seen those numbers shift in the years since?
Lohman: Not really. By 50/50, I mean sort of as reflected in the political environment. You have two main camps. They call them blue and green. Blue is more conciliatory to China, and green is more in favor of independence. In opinion polls, the vast majority of Taiwanese just want to continue like things are. Independent, practically speaking, and just continuing to run their lives. Not part of China, not being conquered by China, but also not provoking China.
The President of Taiwan always says that, when she’s asked about Taiwan independence, she always … She’s an independence advocate, or that’s what she made her career on before she became president. The point she always makes is, Taiwan already is independent. It is … For all practical purposes, it is independent. What would they gain from demanding that China recognize them as independent, or that the U.S. recognize them, or anyone else?
In fact, it would provoke China. The vast majority of Taiwanese just want to continue forever in this sort of status quo situation.
Blair: I have a bit of a longterm question here. There’s a couple different levels to it, so, what would the consequences of a Chinese takeover of Taiwan first off be for Taiwan?
Lohman: Oh, it would be terrible for Taiwan. I mean, look at what’s unfolding in Hong Kong. You would have the same thing in Taiwan. Taiwan is a very vibrant democracy, and a liberal democracy at that. I mean, lots of liberal freedoms, all the same liberal freedoms anyone in Europe or United States has.
That would all end. I mean, it’s freer than Hong Kong was three years ago, 10 years ago. It would be a complete shutdown of that for Taiwan. No more competitive elections, no more freedom of speech, no more freedom of the press, no more freedom of religion. It would be a catastrophe for Taiwan.
Blair: Then, to sort of expand on that, what would the consequences be for the U.S.?
Lohman: For the U.S. it’s a big strategic issue, beyond the moral cause. There’s a moral cause here, but as a big strategic problem because the Chinese would control the whole island chain that goes down the east coast of China and would then be able to project power out from there, deep into the Pacific all the way to the U.S. Pacific Coast.
As it is now, China’s kind of blocked in by this island chain. They call it the First Island Chain. There’s also this issue of Taiwan’s place in international supply chains. They make a majority of the world’s semiconductors. We’re in a bind right now in semiconductor supplies, but even when this supply shortage resolves itself in the next 18 months or so, still going to need a lot of chips. We don’t need the Chinese coming in and destroying capacity. It’s strategic in that sense, too.
Blair: I guess that does kind of lead me to another question where, is this still about an ancestral claim to Taiwan and a sort of postwar, Civil War claim to “We need to have all of China” or is it now more about the economics?
Lohman: Well, I think it’s more the former. I mean, just in that the Communists, anyway, have always maintained that Taiwan is a part of China and that it’s a part of China going back for centuries, millennia. That they’re in their right to take it back. I mean, you know, there’s a lot of sort of concocted history around these things.
You can debate that. You can dispute it, but that’s the official line of the Chinese Communist Party, and they will maintain that. I think the economic side of it is a new facet, but think about what would be involved of an invasion of Taiwan. It’s not like seizing an oil field. Seizing of a chip fabrication facility, okay. You ever seen the people working in there with the suits on? You know, the completely hazmat-type thing. I mean, you’re not going to be able to take over a semiconductor facility and then run it under the point of a gun.
It’s really not in China’s interest, either, to see that capacity destroyed. They can’t effectively seize it. You know? You can’t force people to do this kind of high technology, highly skilled labor under the point of a gun.
Blair: Cat’s out of the bag. This is the, sort of as we wrap up, since we know that Biden has said this and the White House is going to try and change it. I think the world has sort of seen what the position is. Where do we go from here?
Lohman: Well, I think we have to just understand the context that the President made those comments. It’s not ideal, but our best bet here is to go with the clarification and not with what President Biden said himself. You know, again, I want to sort of make clear that personally, I am for the United States defending Taiwan, if it ever came to that. I make that point a lot, and I have made it for 20 years that the U.S. should come to the defense of Taiwan. I’ve been all for selling them arms over the years.
Again, selling them arms that they buy. They spend over two percent of their GDP on defense, so they’re doing their part to arm themselves. But me saying all that, especially saying that the U.S. should defend Taiwan is different than the President of the United States saying that, because he’s the one that commands the troops. He’s the Commander in Chief, and when he says it, it is a commitment.
I think we need to try to facilitate the White House’s effort to walk back those comments. Sort of, it’s a famous, “Well, what the President meant to say,” type of situation. He actually said the same thing back in October, almost in exactly the same words. I think it’d be giving them too much credit to think that it was a strategy of some sort. I think he just misspoke, and he misspoke twice the exact same way.
I think we have to continue doing everything we can for Taiwan to keep them safe and prosperous for the reasons that we just talked about … That we have strategic interest in that, but also for moral cause on behalf of the Taiwanese. We have to continue to stay close to that, even as we criticize the President for not choosing his words as carefully as he should have, to avoid conflict.
Because, you know, I want to keep Taiwan free and prosperous and secure. I’d rather not go to war, and so, the President’s comments actually make war more likely, not make it less likely.
Blair: That was Walter Lohman, Director of the Asian Studies Center here at the Heritage Foundation. Walter, thank you so much for your time.
Lohman: Sure. Yeah, glad to be here. Thank you.
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