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How China could force Biden’s hand on defending Taiwan

No American president has had to choose whether to go to war to defend Taiwan against a Chinese military invasion. President Joe Biden might have the decision thrust upon him.

The outgoing commander of US forces in the Indo-Pacific region, Navy Adm. Philip Davidson, told US lawmakers in March that he believes Beijing will attempt a takeover of the neighboring democratic island — which it considers part of mainland China — within the next six years. Davidson’s successor, Navy Adm. John Aquilino, expressed a similar concern days later.

“This problem is much closer to us than most think,” he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We ought to be prepared today.”

The four-stars’ predictions aren’t wholly shared by everyone in the administration. “I’m not aware of any specific timeline that the Chinese have for being able to try and seize Taiwan,” said one senior US defense official, who, like others in the administration, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive foreign policy issue.

“I’m not concerned that in the near term we’re going to see a significant escalation,” a senior administration official told me, though they added that “any unilateral move to change the status quo, as well as a move to change the status quo by force, would be unacceptable regardless when it happens.”

Experts I spoke to also felt Davidson and Aquilino’s claims are too alarmist and may be in service of trying to boost defense spending for operations in Asia.

But all agree that China is a more credible threat to Taiwan today than in the past. Beijing flaunts it, too. In recent weeks, China sent 25 warplanes through the island’s airspace, the largest reported incursion to date, and had an aircraft carrier lead a large naval exercise near Taiwan.

These and other moves have some worried that Chinese President Xi Jinping might launch a bloody war for Taiwan. He hasn’t been subtle about it, either. “We do not promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option to use all necessary measures,” Xi said two years ago.

Should Xi follow through with an all-out assault, Biden would face one of the toughest decisions ever presented to an American president.

It’s therefore worth understanding the history behind this perennial issue, how the US got into this predicament, and whether the worst-case scenario — a US-China war over Taiwan — may come to pass.

The inescapable tension at the heart of US policy toward Taiwan

The roots of the current predicament were seeded in the Chinese civil war between the communists and the nationalists.

When World War II ended in 1945, the longtime rival factions raced to control territory in China ceded by Japan after its surrender. The communists, led by Mao Zedong, won that brutal conflict, forcing Chiang Kai-shek’s US-backed nationalists in 1949 to flee to the island of Taiwan (then called Formosa) off the mainland’s southeastern coast.

Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing, China, in September 1945, toasting the victory over Japan.
Agence France Presse/Getty Images

Initially, the US was resigned to the idea that Taiwan would eventually fall under communist China’s control, and President Harry Truman even refused to send military aid to support the nationalists.

The Korean War, launched in 1950, raised Taiwan’s importance to the United States. The Truman administration abhorred that a communist nation, North Korea, could invade a sovereign state like South Korea. Worried Taiwan might meet a similar fate, the US president quickly sent the 7th Fleet toward the island as a protective and deterrent…

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