by Brian Garvey
The July trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel by President Joe Biden and August trips to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a delegation led by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey raise serious questions about US relations with both the Middle East and East Asia. President Biden’s visit to the Middle East has recommitted the United States to alliances with an apartheid government in Israel and governments in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that are perpetrating the world’s worst humanitarian disaster in Yemen. The Taiwan trips by Speaker Pelosi and Senator Ed Markey’s delegation risk escalating already strained tensions between the United States and China, the two largest economies, and militaries, in the world. Yielding few practical achievements, the three trips represent major steps backward for the Biden Administration and the Democratic Party in Congress, from a progressive foreign policy perspective.
Let’s take the most recent of these trips first. On August 14th Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey led a new Congressional delegation on an official visit to Taiwan, just 12 days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s own controversial visit to Taiwan, a move the Boston Globe’s Editorial Board described as “high-risk, low-reward.” The Chinese government’s response to Sen. Markey’s delegation, through one of their Consuls, was swift: “Ignoring China’s repeated protests & firm opposition, US lawmaker Ed Markey insisted on visiting China’s Taiwan region…it is an intrusion of China’s sovereignty & territorial integrity.”
This decision by Senator Markey to visit Taiwan, at this time, is especially concerning to his progressive supporters because the Senator should know better. In the wake of Pelosi’s visit the response from China was to cancel planned climate talks with the US, as well as accident-preventing military to military communication and cooperation on global issues like transnational crime. The Chinese also responded to the visit with military exercises that will only further escalate tensions. As a leader on both Climate Change and Nuclear Disarmament Senator Markey surely knows that cooperation and dialogue between US and China (the world’s two largest economies, carbon-emitters, and militaries) are absolutely essential if we are to deal with either of these existential threats to the human race.
Like the delegation led by Markey, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan less than two weeks earlier was clearly taken as an insult by the Chinese government. This is all occurring at a moment when US-China relations are extremely fraught. In her own words Speaker Pelosi set the stage for unthinkable conflict. She said, “today the world faces a choice between democracy and autocracy. America’s determination to preserve democracy here in Taiwan and around the world remains ironclad.”
This rhetoric further confuses an already murky “One China Policy,” an agreement made between the US and China 50 years ago that says the United States won’t officially recognize the de facto independence of Taiwan from mainland China. Pelosi’s ill-timed photo-op only puts the people of Taiwan at risk. The precedent of the war in Ukraine should be a warning for all of us. Actions have consequences and the last thing the world needs is another crisis in East Asia on the back of the crisis in Eastern Europe.
There’s clearly confusion, and in fact intentional strategic ambiguity, about the US position on Taiwan. The Biden Administration has undermined the One China policy, removing from the State Department website statements that the U.S. “does not support independence” for Taiwan and that “Taiwan is part of China.” The One China policy traditionally dictates that the United States does not have formal political relations with Taiwan, but only economic and cultural ties. What should be crystal clear is the common sense idea that repeatedly provoking China won’t lead anywhere good. The United States should not be a party to the issues between China and Taiwan. The only role the US should have is to insist that these problems be resolved peacefully. More US military exercises and bases close to China will make things worse.
President Biden’s July visit to the Middle East casts serious doubt on the “good vs. evil” and “democracy vs. autocracy” terms set by Speaker Pelosi’s framing and on the White House’s own framing, which portrays its foreign policy goal as maintaining an international rules-based order with human rights at its center.
In his first trip to the region as president, Biden met with questionable allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia. He met with the Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former PM, and famous Obama-antagonist, Benjamin Netanyahu. Both PMs have been hawks on the issue of Iran, which would seem to go against the stated policy of the Biden Administration to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal, secured by President Obama and his then Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015 then recklessly abandoned by President Trump in 2018. During Biden’s stay, he committed the US to never allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. It would seem that the easiest way to do so would be to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a deal that prevents Iran from acquiring these weapons and an agreement still supported by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran.
Biden then traveled to Saudi Arabia where he fist-bumped Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, a leader who is the architect of the brutal war in Yemen and was implicated in the murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, by US intelligence. Rumors, perhaps a trial balloon, about the potential resumption of offensive weapons sales by the United States for use in the war on Yemen preceded the trip. The suspension of these weapons, while insufficient to stop Saudi’s blockade on Yemen, was one of the positive early initiatives of the Biden administration and the partial fulfillment of a promise by Biden to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” The president was unable to receive a commitment from Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to ease high gasoline prices. What was gained by this shameful reversal?
The main reason why Biden visited the Middle East, according to Derek Davison who was recently interviewed by Massachusetts Peace Action, was to ensure the loyalty of countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia to the United States rather than China or Russia. Davison remarked that Biden’s trip was not only an effort to counter Iran but also an attempt to assure the Middle East that America has not forgotten about them, and that the US is a better political and economic ally than China.
Humanity can’t afford to divide the world into camps or to pursue another ideological Cold War. There is no room for this 20th century mindset in the 21st century. The world cannot defeat imminent climate catastrophe or prepare for health threats like the COVID-19 pandemic without cooperation between the US and China. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King from April 4th 1967 ring true in the Summer of 2022: “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.” Humanity can prepare to solve its greatest security threats: wildfires, floods, rampant disease, rising sea levels, deepening inequalities, and the scourge of nuclear weapons or it can prepare for a total war between the great powers. It cannot do both.
These trips, by President Biden to the Middle East and Congressional delegations to Taiwan, are the opposite of good diplomacy. They’re taking us in the wrong direction.