Let’s start with a confession: I’m one of the numerous viewers and listeners who has no idea what President Biden meant when he ended his State of the Union address last night with an ad-libbed “Go get him!” right after his usual closing, “May God protect our troops.”
This seemingly provocative placement notwithstanding, it probably wasn’t a suggestion that the U.S. military would be roaring into action to help Ukraine win its war with Russia – which segues nicely into today’s theme of what message China probably gleaned from the speech.
The subject matters greatly because Chinese leaders have been eyeing a takeover of Taiwan and threatening the island’s independence even longer than Vladimir Putin has been eyeing a takeover of Ukaine, and for similar stated reasons. Just as Putin insists that Ukraine historically has been part of Russia, Beijing views Taiwan as a renegade province of China. And although there’s no important connection I can see between Ukraine’s fate and America’s own security and prosperity, Taiwan is the world leader in semiconductor manufacturing technology – which is crucial to U.S. military power and economic well-being.
That’s why I’m concerned that too much of the Biden speech signaled to China that its increasingly aggressive moves against the island can continue and even intensify with impunity.
For not only did the President once again vow that “our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine.” He added that “I’m taking robust action to make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at Russia’s economy. And I will use every tool at our disposal to protect American businesses and consumers.”
In other words, although “we the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people,” that’s only true as long as Americans themselves don’t run any significant risks or pay any significant price.
Nor is this Biden qualification limited to words. It’s precisely to avoid boosting already lofty U.S. inflation rates even higher than the President has excluded energy from his anti-Russia sanctions package so far – even though Putin’s massive earnings from oil and gas exports clearly help finance his Ukraine war.
Mr. Biden did repeat his pledge that “the United States and our Allies will defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power.” But like Ukraine, which is not a member of that North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Taiwan is not an official ally. Therefore, China could well conclude that the United States would stay out of a Taiwan conflict for similar reasons.
The State Department has warned that “We have an array of tools that we can deploy if we see foreign companies, including those in China, doing their best to backfill U.S. export control actions, to evade them, to get around them.”
But if the administration’s top Ukraine sanctions priority to date has been shielding the U.S. economy from their impact, you couldn’t blame Xi Jinping’s regime for not taking seriously the notion that Washington would punish China for propping up Putin.
After all, the United States (unforgivably) has become highly dependent on his economy for a wide range of products. China’s markets for U.S. goods and services simply dwarf Russia’s. And indeed, these links have become so broad and deep that nearly the entire American big business community has become an ardent and highly effective lobby for preventing any boat-rocking. .
None of the above is to say that U.S. rhetoric and moves on the Ukraine, or any other foreign policy fronts, will be the sole or even the main determinants of China’s Taiwan strategy. After all, Beijing has been ramping up pressure on the island long befor the conflict in Eastern Europe broke out – for reasons ranging from concerns about Taiwan declaring its formal independence and potentially exposing China as a paper tiger in the process to Xi’s decision to link “reunification” to his legacy.
But just as American leaders should never make threats they can’t or won’t back up (or make commitments that create many more dangers than they can prevent, which I believe to be the case with NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and years of talk about adding Ukraine and other Russian neighbors), they need to be careful about signaling weakness or timidity. And I fear that’s exactly what was conveyed to China by the sharp contrast between President Biden’s apocalyptic warnings about the need to resist Putin’s aggression and the tight limits he revealed to his willingness to do so.