Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Neither Democratic nor Republican political conventions talked about foreign policy except the U.S. should be tough with China on trade. But what might a president Joe Biden's or Donald Trump's response be if China makes an issue of Taiwan in coming months?

Taiwan, with 24 million people, lies a hundred miles off the Chinese coast in the Taiwan Strait. It is a flourishing democracy and boasts one of the world's most productive economies. It also administers several small islands; the Kinmens with only 130,000 people, that are located just one mile off the mainland.

China claims Taiwan as a province of China but has not gone beyond isolating it from international organizations. American experts speculate on how long Beijing will permit this situation to continue before testing Washington's support for Taiwan. Conservative Robert Kagan addressed the issue under the headline "What if China calls America's bluff on Taiwan?" (Wash. Post, Aug.18) In an editorial August 15 titled, "Trump, Biden, and Taiwan," the Wall Street Journal warned: "The Island is at the center of a great power rivalry, and voters deserve to hear how the next president would handle it."

China claimed Taiwan as part of the Peoples Republic of China after Mao Zedong's Communist troops took control of the mainland in 1949. Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek quickly fled to Taiwan and set up their own government. Until 1979, Washington recognized Taiwan, not Mao's regime, as the government of all China.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, passed by Congress with large majorities, changed that: The U.S. now recognized the regime in Beijing as the government of China and downgraded relations with Taiwan to non-diplomatic consular status. But the act also permitted the U.S. to sell arms to Taiwan to defend itself.

Until now, Beijing chose not to test this U.S. arrangement but protested vigorously when Washington sold F-16s and other military arms to Taiwan. Last month the U.S. increased tensions when it sent Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, to Taiwan to discuss health issues with its officials. He is the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the island since diplomatic relations were downgraded in 1979. In effect, was President Trump signaling President Xi that Washington may upgrade Taiwan's status?

Pessimists on U.S.-China relations assume China is determined to bring Taiwan under its control, as it has Hong Kong. These hardliners argue that Washington should confront Beijing now, not engage in appeasement of China's territorial demands in East Asia. Optimists, who call themselves realistic, believe China doesn't want war with the United States. They think quiet diplomatic talks are essential to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to armed clashes, in Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. The president must decide between confrontation and accommodator in coming months.

A crucial questing in any negotiation with China is: What does Beijing want and how far is it prepared to go the achieve it? If China considers Taiwan a vital national interest, will it risk war to bring it under control?

It's unlikely, in my view, that China will launch an invasion of Taiwan. It would be costly, turn the world against it, and precipitate a U.N. Resolution condemning its use of force. Beijing would veto it. More likely, China will seize the tiny Kinmen Islands off its coast and claim they present a national security threat caused by U.S. arms. The world might consider this "reasonable" even though it entailed the use of force.

A far more dangerous move by Beijing would be a declaration that Taiwan Strait is its territorial waters and deploys its navy to patrol its waters and search commercial ships for "prohibited materials." How would President Trump or a President Biden respond to this blatant challenge to international law?

Hard-liners in the Trump administration are convinced Beijing is getting ready for a showdown with Washington over its claims in the South China Sea, and Taiwan. Beijing, they argue, fears the U.S. is moving toward recognition of Taiwan as a separate state and is determined to prevent it, by war if necessary.

If President Biden occupies the Oval Office in January, will he find ways to calm China's fears without abandoning Taiwan? And what would he offer President Xi that would satisfy his long-term goal to replace the United States as the major power in East Asia?

File last modified on Monday, 07-SEP-2020 02:51 PM EST

Feedback to Author