The US must better explain its China policy

Foto: Ceng Shou Yi /​ Imago Images

The tensions between Taipei and Beijing are also the result of an US non-commit­ment, according to Bonnie Glaser, Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Programme.

The Interview was conducted by Christina zur Nedden

In response to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei, China has launched the largest military manoeuvre off the island state’s coast since the last Taiwan crisis in 1996. What does the US think of the current situation?

US officials think China is over­re­acting. They share the view of the G7 foreign ministers that lawmakers should be able to travel freely without China threat­ening stability in the region because of the free travel. The US is now trying to prevent China from esca­lating the situation. Last week, for example, a US nuclear weapons test was postponed ensuring that China will not misin­ter­pret it.

In other words, China’s aggres­sive­ness is being reacted to with caution?

The US has played out various scenarios of how Beijing might react to Pelosi’s visit. China acted aggres­sively, but not outside the bounds of what was expected. However, it is new that missiles were fired over Taiwan and drones flew over the island. The fact that at least five of the missiles landed in Japanese waters can also be taken as a warning. Wash­ington will continue to monitor the situation closely.

China is taking revenge on the small island state by means of ongoing military manoeu­vres and economic sanctions. Was Pelosi’s short visit worth it?

In my opinion, Taiwan has become more insecure as a result of the visit. In the long run, it will become clear to Wash­ington and Taipei that the costs of this trip outweigh the benefits. This can already be noticed. China is imposing sanctions on Taiwanese companies and sanctions have also been imposed on the Taiwanese government’s Devel­op­ment Assis­tance Foun­da­tion and the Taiwan Foun­da­tion for Democracy. Companies that finan­cially support these foun­da­tions are now no longer allowed to do business with China. By means of these measures, Beijing is delib­er­ately trying to weaken insti­tu­tions and people who advocate democracy. In addition, many foreign companies in Taiwan are now drawing up an evac­u­a­tion plan in case of a Chinese attack. If these companies leave the country because the situation becomes too dangerous for them, it will be a loss for Taiwan.

The status quo between China, Taiwan, and the US, which has lasted for years, seems to have become fragile as a result of Pelosi’s visit. Is China one step closer to uniting Taiwan with the mainland?

Beijing’s goal is to change the status quo in its favour. In the past, China has already used crises to do so. In 2012, for example, the Chinese coast guard was sent into the waters of the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan, and Chinese ships are still there today. Similarly, China has also changed the status quo on its land border with India, where violent incidents continue to occur. With this approach, China wants to create a “New Normal” – a status quo that is primarily bene­fi­cial for its own country. This is what we are now observing in Taiwan.

And there is no way to prevent this?

China invaded Taiwan’s airspace during the military exercises at the weekend. And although they were supposed to end on Sunday, the missions have now been extended. This shows that China will continue to put pressure on Taiwan so that people lose confi­dence in their govern­ment and become more open to unifi­ca­tion with China.

How likely is it that China will invade Taiwan soon?

If Taipei were to declare inde­pen­dence tomorrow, an invasion would be certain. Xi Jinping’s cred­i­bility is tied too strongly to China’s claim to Taiwan. He has stoked nation­alism on the Taiwan issue, which has led to growing public pressure to respond force­fully. Beijing would certainly rather use targeted disin­for­ma­tion and psycho­log­ical warfare to create a sense of defeat among Taiwanese than attack offen­sively. The people should see no option but to comply. But if China deter­mines that peaceful unifi­ca­tion seems impos­sible, they will try to use military force.

To what extent do you think the US strategy to be a risk?

There is a gap between words and deeds of the US with regard to Taiwan. US President Biden tells Xi Jinping that he does not support Taiwan’s “inde­pen­dence” and that the US is sticking to the One China policy. But then the State Depart­ment revises its website on the issue of Taiwan to remove that very phrase. Biden has also repeat­edly said that the US is obliged to intervene mili­tarily in the event of a Chinese attack – even though the Taiwan Relations Act only provides for US arms deliv­eries for Taiwan’s self-defence.

How could the US improve is commu­ni­ca­tion with China?

We should explain to US citizens , but also to China and Taiwan, what our One China policy means. Nobody really under­stands it. Our One China policy today must no longer be static, it must be able to evolve to respond to changes in China’s policy. And there are things we should never do, such as recog­nising Taiwan as a sovereign, inde­pen­dent state or sending our President and Secretary of State to Taiwan. We must prevent war and keep peace in the Taiwan Strait. This includes training Taiwanese soldiers so that they can better defend themselves.

Does the Taiwanese military have any chance at all against the Chinese?

Glaser: No one should under­es­ti­mate how difficult it is to cross 110 kilo­me­tres of water with more than 100,000 soldiers. Taiwan must have the right weapons to prevent China from landing at one of the few places on the coast where this is even possible. Taiwan would also have to hold out for weeks or months before the US could mobilise forces to help defend it. The Taiwanese would first have to defend them­selves on their own, just as the Ukrainians are doing right now.

High-ranking European politi­cians, such as German Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, have been very critical of China’s threat­ening gestures. But how realistic is a turn­around in Europe’s China policy?

The way the European Union is now posi­tioning itself vis-à-vis China is new and has surprised the Chinese govern­ment. It remains to be seen whether this will also have an influence on Beijing’s policy. So far, Europe has not been willing to pay an economic price. However, it is now paying this price by putting pressure on Russia in the Ukraine war.

Why should Europe also get involved in the conflict in the Taiwan Strait?

There is a lot at stake for Europe in case of a war with China. The more countries are willing to contribute to a stronger deterrent against China, the more possi­bil­i­ties we have to influence Xi Jinping’s policy. The US cannot do it alone. We must unite as many countries as possible to oppose China’s aggres­sion against Taiwan. In the end, Xi Jinping will have his own cost-benefit calcu­la­tion on a possible attack. We want him to wake up every day and think to himself: today is too risky.


Bonnie Glaser is Director of the Asia Programme of the German Marshall Fund and advises the US govern­ment on China and East Asia.

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