In an unlikely skirmish over a landing craft in the South China Sea, Joe Biden issued a message to China which Taiwan will hope is a rallying cry for American allies, writes Eliot Wilson
President Joe Biden walks a little stiffly because of his age, but it has seemed appropriate over the past few weeks as he has leaned into his temporary role as global US Marshal. First he talked as tough as could be when he aligned himself with Israel against the invasion by Hamas. Then, last week, seeming to have a taste for it, the president turned his fury on China as he gave Beijing an unambiguous warning.
“The United States defence commitment to the Philippines is ironclad. Any attack on Filipino aircraft, vessels or armed forces will invoke our mutual defence treaty with the Philippines.”
China had roused the ire of the US president by attempting to stop Filipino supply vessels from reaching a landing craft beached in the South China Sea. If this sounds farce-like, the truth is even more so, but essentially it represents one of China’s many micro-disputes over tiny parcels of land or border demarcations within the South China Sea. It is one of the ways in which China relentlessly and minutely exerts influence over the international community to assert or invent its “rights”.
The United States and the Philippines go a long way back. So-called “Manilamen” had settled in Louisiana by the 1760s, and the US governed the islands from 1898 until 1946. In 1951, the two countries signed a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which commits each to support the other if attacked by a third party. For obvious reasons, this is a larger part of Filipino security policy than it is for the US.
President Biden stressed that the US was “not looking for conflict” with China but that its fidelity to its allies was as unyielding as flint. The message will be scrutinised not just in Beijing, Manila and Washington, but also in capitals around South-East Asia. Nowhere will it be more closely examined, from every angle and perspective, than in Taipei.
Taiwan is a unique jurisdiction. Beijing claims it as a province, a possession which the US and Japan “acknowledge” and of which the UK and Canada “take note”, without any of them going so far as “recognising” China’s claim. But that claim is no idle boast; China wants to control Taiwan, Xi Jinping placed “reunification” at the heart of his third term as president earlier this year and UN intelligence has reported that Xi told his senior generals to be prepared to seize Taiwan by 2027, by force if necessary.
When people tell you who they are, you should believe them: so I side firmly with those who say we need to recognise China as a real, imminent and military threat to Taiwan. The United States is one of Taiwan’s most significant allies, and in 1979 Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act which governs their interaction and mutual obligations. The US has sold a substantial weight of weaponry and other systems over the years, including a $6.5bn fund last September. No-one doubts the fact of the threat from China, the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric used by the communist dictatorship or the ongoing need to maintain Taiwan’s military capability. In August 2023, for the first time, the US Congress approved an $80m equipment under the Foreign Military Financing.
This has provoked an outrage from Beijing, not least because the mechanism of transfer implies that Taiwan is a “foreign” country. But it also addresses an increasing recognition that this conflict could erupt very soon.
The Taiwan Relations Act is not the armour-plated commitment which the Philippines enjoy. Its terms specify that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defence articles and defence services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defence capability”, but there is no explicit guarantee that the US would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan’s status. That would be a matter of political will.
Leadership in Taipei may be reassured by President Biden’s current tough-guy mood, but they will also be nervous because they lack the treaty protections enjoyed by Manila. Biden is certainly expressing a harder line than in the past: he has promised a military response to an “unprecedented” attack. However, he has done this before, swaggering to Taiwan’s theoretical defence for the cameras before his officials have then had to walk back some of the more off-the-cuff remarks.
Biden’s punchy rhetoric has upped the game with China, and Beijing will have noted that, but if Cold War II suddenly turns hot, will Biden be willing to risk thousands of US casualties? The stakes are as high as they come.