The Taiwan Imbroglio
by Mel Gurtov
What’s Going On?
I’ve reported on the worrying signs of a large gap in communications between the US and China. But I’ve also noted the apparent turnaround in May, signaled by President Biden’s comment that a “thaw” was in the wind and ties with China would be improving “very soon.”
Now the wind is again blowing in the opposite direction. Beijing is unwilling to have its defense ministry head meet with the US defense secretary.
The visits to China of Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, postponed after the spy balloon incident, have not been rescheduled. Biden and Xi Jinping have not spoken since their Bali summit.
The national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, did have a long and supposedly substantive meeting in Vienna with Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official. But China’s welcome mat is not out for American visitors. What’s going on?
In my view, several things are going on.
One is that the US remains fixed on its hostile course with China: the bipartisan consensus in Congress that is intent on decoupling from China economically, academically, and militarily; and the determined efforts of the Biden administration to deny China access to semiconductor technology and the latest computer chips. At the just-concluded meeting of the G7 at Hiroshima, Biden convinced the members to join the decoupling policy, now re-labeled “derisking.” Predictably, China condemned the policy as amounting to containment and attempts to thwart China’s development.
Then there are all the longstanding issues in US-China relations that add to the tensions, such as human rights in China; the trade imbalance; and the US-led security groups, such as the Quad (US-India-Japan-Australia), aligned to deter China.
And then there’s Taiwan, the most important matter that I think is preventing a thaw. Taiwan is the “core of China’s core interests,” Xi Jinping told Biden at their last meeting in Bali. Xi understands that the US is not going to abandon Taiwan. But he and other Chinese leaders believe the US is making the prospect of unification with Taiwan more distant than ever. Here’s their thinking.
The View from Beijing
On May 19, one of China’s most eminent America watchers, Professor Jia Qingguo of Beijing University, gave a talk in the US that listed all the areas of Chinese government concern about US policy. US interference (as the Chinese see it) in Taiwan occupies center stage, Jia said.
He pointed to three US pledges on Taiwan, going back to the Nixon era, that the US has violated: to regard Taiwan as part of China, to terminate a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan, and to withdraw troops from Taiwan. His reference is to visits to Taiwan by senior US officials (such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), thus upgrading Taiwan’s independent status; to recent statements by Biden promising defense of Taiwan if China attacked it, despite the defense treaty’s abrogation; and to expanded US military aid to Taiwan that includes training of Taiwanese forces.
Jia mainly blames the US Congress for these provocative moves. “So under these circumstances,” Jia says, “China is rethinking its strategy of peaceful reunification.”
US officials deny these Chinese charges. They insist the US still upholds the One China principle, still adheres to “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to the question of defending Taiwan, and still provides only defensive aid to Taiwan.
But Jia Qingguo’s words are ominous, especially because they come from a longtime advocate of US-China engagement. He is suggesting that in the view of some influential Chinese, the US is drifting toward endorsement of Taiwanese independence. That would be crossing China’s red line.
China has never foresworn the use of force to take over Taiwan, but until now it has always proclaimed that peaceful reunification is Chinese policy. Now, says Jia, there is a “rethinking.”
Equally ominous is Jia’s caution that China’s nuclear policy, which has relied on a minimal force for retaliation in line with the doctrine of no first use of nuclear weapons, might change if the pressure on Taiwan continues. He pointed to “some Chinese” who are now advocating a policy change that would, among other things, support providing nuclear weapons or delivery systems to friendly countries, in the same way that the US has promised to provide nuclear submarines to Australia.
We are already aware that China will be adding to its nuclear weapon arsenal, moving from the current 400 or so weapons to over 1,000. A recent study by scholars at Harvard’s Belfer Center is in line with Jia’s points. These scholars find that China’s nuclear weapons policy is becoming more offense minded, like the US’s, in part out of concern about a shift in US policy that emphasizes low-yield nuclear weapons.
That shift, to the Chinese, makes actual use of a nuclear weapon more likely than previously.
War with China?
These two potential Chinese policy changes—toward unification with Taiwan by force, and toward a more offensive nuclear posture—would dramatically increase tensions with the US, putting us squarely in a new Cold War. As Professor Jia pointed out, the US emphasis on “strategic competition” with China omits the possibilities for cooperation.
And those are right before us—issues of paramount concern to each country and to the planet, and issues that can be the building blocks of positive relations: climate change, pandemic research, military-to-military relations, robust people-to-people exchanges, and—yes—nuclear weapons reductions.
China’s rejection of military-to-military talks comes at a time when incidents at sea and close calls in the air between US and Chinese ships and planes are becoming more frequent. For those talks to resume, a Chinese defense ministry spokesman said, requires that the US “show its sincerity and correct its wrong practices.”
He was obviously referring to Taiwan. Defense secretary Lloyd Austin said at a conference in Singapore, which his opposite number, General Li Shangfu, attended: “The whole world has a stake in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The security of commercial shipping lanes and global supply chains depends on it. And so does freedom of navigation worldwide. Make no mistake: conflict in the Taiwan Strait would be devastating.”
Austin deplored China’s unwillingness to “to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management.” But he and the Biden administration are missing the central message that Beijing is sending to Washington: Fruitful dialogue to promote cooperation depends most of all on US respect for the One China principle, demonstrated by actions and not simply rhetoric.
To make the message abundantly clear, China’s military capabilities to threaten Taiwan are expanding. Should China’s leaders become convinced that US policy aims at securing Taiwan’s independence, they will choose war. Nuclear weapons will be on the table.
The US needs to hear Beijing’s message and stick to its promises. So doing, it will avoid a war over Taiwan, yet still protect Taiwan’s autonomy.