By Yuqun Shao*
Pessimism surrounds the future of China–US relations and the possibility of conflict between the two nuclear powers. The Taiwan Strait has become the most likely flashpoint for conflict amid US strategic competition with China and growing disagreement over the Taiwan question.
Though the United States’ One China policy is different from China’s One China principle, there is consensus between the two powers that ‘both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan belong to one China’ and that the United States does not support ‘Taiwan independence’ or ‘one China, one Taiwan’. But the Chinese strategic community is losing confidence in US policy and is anxious that China–US relations will be shaken by the erosion of this political foundation.
To further complicate matters, Taiwan’s position on cross-Strait political relations is unacceptable on the Chinese mainland, where Taiwan is seen as promoting a ‘one China, one Taiwan’ policy. For China, the US engagement of Taiwan for competitive purposes is effectively viewed as support for a ‘one China, one Taiwan’ policy.
An important part of US President Joe Biden’s strategy centres on competition for geostrategic influence. In December 2021, US Assistant Secretary of Defence Ely Ratner testified before Congress that ‘Taiwan is located at a critical node within the first island chain…that is critical to the defence of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific’.
His testimony sparked widespread debate in Chinese and US policy circles, with many Chinese scholars arguing that the Biden administration may have violated the US One China policy by the perception of Taiwan as a strategic asset of the United States. The US government has denied that Ratner’s statements represented any change in its policy.
After the outbreak of the Russia–Ukraine conflict, the Biden administration and the US strategic community believes that the United States has greater reason to strengthen its ‘unofficial relationship’ with Taiwan, especially its military relationship. Since the Biden administration has failed to deter Russia, it cannot make the same mistake in the Taiwan Strait. The United States believes it must increase deterrence to prevent China from invading Taiwan and that the Chinese mainland has a timeline for resolving the Taiwan question.
In China’s view, it is the Taiwanese authorities that are changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait with the support of the United States. China’s military operations in the Taiwan Strait are designed to deter such changes. Beijing has vigorously promoted cross-Strait integration and development in recent years and has made Fujian Province — the nearest mainland province to Taiwan — a demonstration zone for this objective. Some argue that if China was preparing for conflict, it would not be promoting economic development in Fujian. Nonetheless, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022
China feels that US deterrence in the name of ‘strategic ambiguity’ is increasing, while US assurances that it will not support a unilateral change of the status quo by Taiwan are becoming less credible. Some in the US strategic community believe that ‘strategic ambiguity’ should be replaced with ‘strategic clarity’. This is reinforcing China’s conviction that the United States will attempt to keep Taiwan separate from the Chinese mainland to prevent China’s geostrategic influence from overtaking that of the United States.
Taiwan has an important role in the United States’ strategic competition with China in the domains of critical technology and ideology. In October 2021 the Biden administration launched extensive export controls on computer chips to China, while attempting to create a ‘democratic semiconductor supply chain’ that included Taiwan. For China, this policy has two implications. It means that the United States will prevent China from developing into a first-class power. It also blurs the nature of the Taiwan question by including Taiwan in the realm of US–China ideological competition.
Recent leadership elections for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party ahead of Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election, a looming 2024 US presidential election and a possible visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have elevated uncertainty around China–US and cross-Strait relations. Against this backdrop there is less room to seek common ground while preserving differences. The February 2023 ‘balloon incident’ and the subsequent postponement of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s scheduled trip to Beijing reveals that current crisis prevention and management mechanisms are insufficient when the mutual trust deficit is so large.
Given the importance of the Taiwan question, China and the United States should conduct a strategic stability dialogue and a crisis prevention and management dialogue. If the politics of initiating such official dialogues prove difficult, both nations should actively promote ‘second track’ dialogues to eliminate misunderstanding, avoid miscalculations and better inform government decisionmaking.
*About the author: Yuqun Shao is Senior Fellow of the Center for American Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
Source: This article is published by East Asia Forum and appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘China Now’, Vol 15, No 1.