In Dire Straits

In early October, China deployed nearly 150 warplanes near Taiwan, breeching its air defense identification zone. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are ramping up, causing alarm in Taiwan and among its friends, including the United States. But first, a little historical context.

Back in Time

The animosity dates back to the years after World War II. Taiwan, a small, independent, and democratic island separated from China by the Taiwan Strait, came under the control of the Republic of China at this time. The civil war between Mao Zedong’s communist forces and the nationalist forces under the command of Chiang Kai-shek ended with Mao establishing the People’s Republic of China, a communist government based in Beijing.

The nationalist forces then fled to Taiwan, with the Republic of China government under Kai-shek setting up shop in in Taipei. Since then, Taiwan has operated with a degree of autonomy under a one country, two systems principle. In spite of the autonomy, though, China views Taiwan as a renegade province and Beijing’s ultimate goal is Taiwan’s reunification with China – by force, if necessary.

In Comes the United States

The third key actor in this dispute is the United States. After World War II, the Republic of China was a close and important U.S. ally, signing a mutual defense treaty – akin to the ones the U.S. signed with Japan and South Korea during that same decade – in 1954. At this time, the United States recognized Kai-shek’s government in Taipei as the official government of China. Subsequently, in 1979, the U.S. ditched the treaty and established diplomatic ties with Beijing’s Communist government. Since then, the United States has adhered to a One China policy, which recognizes that there is “only one China.” This recognition, however, comes with the understanding that Taiwan’s fate will not be decided by force.

The United States did not cease its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan entirely. Instead, that same year, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which governs U.S. relations with Taiwan and ensures that the United States will help the island defend itself against an attack from China. This Act outlines a policy of strategic ambiguity, a policy that essentially allows the United States to “remain deliberately ambiguous” about Taiwan’s defense. As a result, there are no guarantees that the United States will militarily defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from China. Though, the Act authorizes the United States to sell weapons to Taiwan to “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

What Do We Do Now?

The policy of strategic ambiguity became even more ambiguous during what may be considered a presidential gaff. When asked about the rising tensions between China and Taiwan at a recent CNN townhall in Baltimore, President Joe Biden reiterated the United States’ commitment to Taiwan. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he replied. This is not the case. White House staffers quickly raced to clarify that there was no change in U.S. policy despite the president’s statement, which garnered responses from both Beijing and Taipei.

The recent incursion and President Biden’s seemingly erroneous remarks have sparked debate in Washington over the depth of its commitment to Taiwan in the face of a Chinese invasion, raising the question of whether the United States should, in fact, defend Taiwan? If this scenario were to ever occur, the United States should maintain its strategic ambiguity policy as defending Taiwan would inevitably lead to war with China.

War Games

If the United States went to war with China, there is a possibility it could lose. At least according to a recent war games analysis published this week by the Center for a New American Security. According to the report, the United States has “few credible options” in responding to Beijing, as the war games anticipated that China would invade the Pratas islands in the South China Sea and capture the 500 Taiwanese troops stationed there. During the game, the United States and Taiwan were unable to persuade China to withdraw without escalating the crisis. Interestingly, the analysis found that multilateral cooperation – particularly with Japan – could help deter limited Chinese aggression against Taiwan.    

While the United States has arguably the world’s most powerful military, the scenario of defeat is not implausible. In the era of great power competition, China has been rapidly building up its military capabilities over the past few decades. A 2020 Pentagon report concluded that parts of China’s military surpassed that of the U.S. On top of that, China is a nuclear power and retains an expanding cache of nuclear weapons. Beijing is looking to expand its regional footprint by increasing its military capability. This is particularly true in the South China Sea, where Beijing continues to develop its artificial islands in the disputed waters.

Now, China’s latest focus appears to be Taiwan. Moreover, there is little belief in the fact that Taiwan could defeat the Chinese military, especially without the support of the United States. For that reason, the United States needs to maintain its strategic ambiguity policy as a way of helping Taiwan in light of China’s increasing military capabilities.

Thick as Thieves

Through its strategic ambiguity policy, the United States and Taiwan, while not sharing official diplomatic relations, enjoy remarkably close ties. This was further reiterated in a comment from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who noted in early October that the United States and Taiwan’s relationship is “rock solid.” As part of the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States sells weapons to Taiwan in an effort to help the tiny island ally.

The most important aspects of the U.S-Taiwan relationship is that the United States continue its efforts to ensure that Taiwan is able to properly defend itself without actually coming to Taiwan’s defense. The first part of this effort is the arms sales. For decades, the United States has sold arms to Taiwan, which totaled over $5.1 billion in 2020 alone, to help Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.  

Beyond the arms sales, the U.S. government and military experts believe that deepening ties between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries is the best course of action to combat any potential Chinese aggression. For the past year, as the Wall Street Journal reported, a U.S. special operations unit and U.S. Marine contingent are secretly operating in Taiwan to train its military forces.

While China reacted angrily, as expected, to the news of the U.S. military forces. Building up Taiwan’s military capabilities in the face of China’s increased military capabilities and the arms sales to Taiwan remain the most efficient and effective ways of ensuring Taiwan’s ability to defend itself in case of an invasion from China. And the only way for the United States to fulfill its promise to Taiwan is through the continuation of strategic ambiguity.  

Conclusion

Needless to say, relations between the United States, Taiwan, and China are complex. Through its policy of strategic ambiguity, the United States has tried to balance its need to balance its strained relationship with Beijing while also honoring its commitment to helping Taiwan defend itself by not really holding a definitive position. And, this is a policy the United States must maintain to avoid falling into war with China over Taiwan.

The United States Finally Lifts COVID-19 Travel Restrictions on Friends and Allies

The United States recently announced that it will lift COVID-19 travel restrictions for fully vaccinated foreign travelers on November 8. On that day, the United States will permit air travelers from the European Union and the United Kingdom, among other countries, as well as travelers from Canada and Mexico crossing the U.S. land borders to enter the U.S. with proof of vaccination. The illogical travel restrictions, which have been in place since early 2020, irritated America’s European allies, who were frustrated by the lack of reciprocity. Similarly, the restrictions caused tension with the governments of Mexico and Canada, who lobbied for the U.S. to remove the restrictions.

For many months, U.S. allies have been expecting this announcement. While the Biden administration looked into gradually relaxing the travel restrictions, the Delta variant “significantly changed the president’s calculus.” As more and more countries vaccinate their citizens, the United States finally decided to begin relaxing the restrictions. Yet, the administration’s decision to allow fully vaccinated citizens traveling by air from the European Union and United Kingdom and across the land border from Canada and Mexico – many of the United States’ closest friends – was long overdue.

Across the Pond

The United States announced in September that the travel ban would be lifted for fully vaccinated international travelers, including those coming from the European Union and United Kingdom, without specifying a date for the change in policy. The Trump administration instituted the ban in January 2020 in hopes of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 into the United States. The Biden administration continued the travel ban upon taking office, noting that the restrictions were necessary after the surge of the Delta variant.  

However, the continued ban was angered America’s European allies due to the lack of reciprocity. Many across Europe anticipated that the Biden administration would lift the ban shortly upon taking office. After all, the United Kingdom allows fully vaccinated Americans to enter. Similarly, in June, the European Union began admitting fully vaccinated U.S. citizens. However, the Biden administration did not take such steps until September, further straining transatlantic ties that are currently in turmoil after the recent AUKUS alliance announcement and the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan.

British and EU officials have long argued that the travel bans were not necessary based on the fact that COVID-19 vaccination rates in Europe are higher than those in the United States. Many European countries have more vaccinated citizens when compared to the United States. According to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project, nearly 65 percent of all adults in the European Union are fully vaccinated. Similarly, 67 percent of the United Kingdom’s population are fully vaccinated. This compares to 57 percent of Americans who are fully vaccinated. European and British vaccination totals surpass those of the United States. Thus, based on vaccination data alone, the United States should have lifted the travel ban on its European friends much earlier.

The Border Lands

For the first time since March 2020, vaccinated travelers from Mexico and Canada may enter the United States by crossing the land border, aligning the requirements for crossing the border by land with those of air travel. The Trump administration first implemented the travel restrictions on its land borders with Canada and Mexico in March 2020, just a week after placing travel restrictions on much of Europe. Since the restrictions went into place, those traveling to the U.S. by land were only permitted to enter for essential reasons.

The travel restrictions strained U.S. relations with its closest neighbors. One kicker for Canada was the fact that the Canadian government, much like the European Union, had reopened its border to the United States in August, allowing U.S. citizens to travel into Canada. Yet, much like in Europe, Canada’s vaccination rates are higher than those of the United States: approximately 74 percent of Canada’s population was fully vaccinated, compared to 57 percent of America’s population.

According to the Our World in Data project, 41 percent of the Mexican population are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. While Mexico’s total count of fully vaccinated citizens is lower than that of Canada and the United States, Mexico’s total percentage of citizens with at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot, 54 percent, is not much lower than the total of U.S. citizens with at least one shot, totaling 66 percent. The Biden administration can no longer use the rise of the Delta variant and lack of vaccinated populations as an excuse to maintain travel restrictions. In fact, the Biden administration should have opened cross-border travel of those coming from Canada and Mexico who are fully vaccinated months ago.

Conclusion

On November 8, fully vaccinated international travelers, coming by air or land, will be able to enter the United States for the first time in almost two years. Instituted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the United States by the Trump administration, the Biden administration continued these efforts. The continued travel restrictions on travelers coming from the European Union and the United Kingdom, as well as border closures to travelers coming to the U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico, frustrating some of its closest allies and causing tension with its only two neighbors, with whom the United States typically maintains close ties. The United States should have eased pandemic-implemented travel restrictions to fully vaccinated travelers from these countries much earlier.