As a longtime Hawaii resident, I have always wondered how the former President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, was so ineffective when it came to foreign policy matters. His efforts to right the wrong of the unauthorized armed invasion and imprisonment of the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen Liliʻuokalani, in 1893 fell woefully short. Corporate and military forces influenced Congress to undermine Cleveland and, ultimately, successfully orchestrate the overthrow of the sovereign nation of Hawaii.
A similar betrayal took place recently when President Joe Biden called President Xi Jinping of China on September 9, 2021, to work toward rapprochement as tensions in the western Pacific had reached a fever pitch. The very next day, Biden’s call was undermined by inflammatory information provided on September 10 to the Financial Times by anonymous officials from his own administration. It drew immediate ire from Beijing.
By calling Xi, Biden’s goal had been to ratchet down the brinkmanship that has been accelerating tension in the region for years. His key offering to Xi was the reassurance that the U.S. would continue to respect the One China policy—the red line that Beijing has insisted must remain uncrossed.
The One China policy has been honored by the U.S. since 1972. It asserts that the U.S. acknowledges the Chinese position that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is part of it and is not a separate nation-state. The policy calls for the U.S. to officially recognize “the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole government of China, acknowledging the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.” But at the same time, the U.S. is free to continue a robust yet informal relationship with Taiwan, including the sales of limited non-sophisticated arms.
For all its ambiguity, the policy has helped maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait for half a century. However, that has changed in recent years as China’s influence in the world has grown at a rate that threatens the U.S. hegemony. The U.S. does not wish to lose its influence in the waters around Taiwan, through which trillions of dollars in trade pass every year. But that is what would happen if Taiwan were to eventually unify with China. To prevent this from happening, the U.S. has responded by steadily and dangerously amping up military maneuvers in the South China Sea. China has followed suit, and both the nations find themselves squarely in the middle of a new Cold War.
Mock battles over control of Taiwan are a recurrent scenario staged in frequent U.S. military exercises, which decimate sea life in the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, defending Taiwan was one of the featured maneuvers during the “Large Scale Exercise 2021,” when the U.S. Marines and Navy set up shop in Hawaii for two weeks in August. Needless to say, China finds these and many other similar military exercises highly provocative.
Given the strained relationship between the two nations, the world should’ve been able to breathe a sigh of relief when Biden picked up the phone to find a way to avert global war.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards. Appearing the very next day—on September 10—the article in the Financial Times with the leaked information was timed perfectly to overshadow Biden’s phone call with Xi. According to the article, “The Biden administration is moving towards allowing Taipei to change the name of its representative office in Washington to include the word ‘Taiwan,’ a move likely to trigger an angry response from Beijing.” This would lead to changing the name of Taiwan’s mission in Washington, D.C., from “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to “Taiwan Representative Office.” Needless to say, the Chinese government was outraged, as the new nomenclature bestows near-embassy status, a ranking reserved only for full-fledged nation-states.
The Financial Times article further stated that the name-change idea had been backed by White House Asia Advisor Kurt Campbell (colloquially known by the imperialist title of ‘Asia Czar’) and had the “support inside the National Security Council and from state department Asia officials.”
What’s in a Name? A Lot
Beijing expressed its opinion in the Global Times, an English newspaper published by the Chinese government. An editorial in the paper summed it up saying, “if the U.S. and the island of Taiwan do make the name change, it will mean Washington’s basic abandonment of its ‘one-China policy.’”
On September 13, another excoriating editorial in the Global Times implied that the duplicitousness of the U.S. is the reason that China must “firmly seize the strategic initiative of the regional situation.” The editorial continued, “Sending PLA fighter jets over the island of Taiwan is a step we must take.”
At the very least, the impact of fighter jets over Taiwan will send the commercial air industry reeling, as hundreds of routes would have to be adjusted to circumvent trouble. If Taiwan fires back, strategic escalation would be rapid and risky.
The language out of China is consistently measured. They don’t tend to bluff. The U.S. should take this very seriously. The Global Times editorial on September 13 forewarns, “Let us be fully prepared that there will be a showdown in the Taiwan Straits.”
If the leak to the Financial Times was intended to undermine any headway Biden might have made during his call with Xi, it was a raving success. China is now infuriated, and Biden’s credibility with China is dashed. Most tragically, this news has thwarted the American president’s desire to avert the perils of strategic war. Regional stability is spiraling downward once again.
Just as President Cleveland’s authority had been ignored in Washington to instead favor corporate and military interests, so it goes today. There’s big money in war with China. So much so that powerful people seem eager to risk the likelihood of mutually assured destruction.
Koohan Paik-Mander, who grew up in postwar Korea and on the U.S. colony of Guam, is a Hawaii-based journalist and media educator. She is a board member of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space and part of the CODEPINK working group “China is Not Our Enemy.” She formerly served as campaign director of the Asia-Pacific program at the International Forum on Globalization. She is the co-author of The Superferry Chronicles: Hawaii’s Uprising Against Militarism, Commercialism and the Desecration of the Earth, and has written on militarism in the Asia-Pacific for the Nation, Progressive, Foreign Policy in Focus, and other publications.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.