Recent failures to manage deep bilateral differences risk taking Sino-American relations into dangerous new territory. As the superpower rivalry intensifies, earlier hopes of effective cooperation on tackling issues such as climate change and pandemic preparedness have given way to increasing fears of a possible war over Taiwan.
In this Big Question, we ask Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Minxin Pei, Kevin Rudd and Brahma Chellaney whether the United States and China can avoid a potentially catastrophic military confrontation.
JOSEPH S. NYE, JR.
China has responded to Pelosi's visit to Taiwan with vitriol, live-fire missile tests off the island's coast, and the cancellation of meetings such as military-to-military contacts. Optimists point out that China did the same in 1996 and things did not "boil over." Pessimists note that China has invested heavily in its military since then and the local balance of forces has changed.
In addition, policymakers must be alert to the rise of nationalism in China as well as to populist nationalism in the US. In The Sleepwalkers, the historian Christopher Clark described Europe in 1914. The future was still open, but Austria was fed up with upstart Serbia's nationalism, and the German Kaiser decided to try to deter a rising Russia by backing his Austrian ally.
The US hopes to deter the use of force by China and preserve the legal limbo of Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province. For years, US policy has aimed to dissuade both Taiwan from declaring de jure independence and China from using force against the island. Some analysts now argue that the double deterrence policy is outdated, but others fear that an outright US guarantee to Taiwan or a continuing stream of high-level visits would provoke a nationalistic China to act.
Even if China eschews a full-scale invasion and merely tries to coerce Taiwan by imposing a blockade or seizing an offshore island, all bets will be off if a ship or aircraft collision leads to significant loss of life. If the US reacts by freezing assets or invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act, the two countries could slip quite quickly into a real rather than a metaphorical cold or even hot war. The lesson of history is to be wary of sleepwalking.
When the dust settles on Pelosi's recent visit to Taiwan, China's strategic resolve regarding the use of armed force will have increased. China was handed a convenient excuse to conduct what was effectively its first large-scale blockade of the island, and it was satisfied with the degree of maritime and air-traffic compliance it forced. It also simulated an attack on Taiwan's eminently seizable offshore islands and lobbed five missiles into Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for good measure, without provoking a military response. Disturbingly, China's self-confidence about pulling off an actual military operation against Taiwan has been boosted, reducing its inhibitions.
The core problem is that, for China, it now appears that the US is determined to shift its policy from "One China" to "One China, One Taiwan." This is not an accurate conclusion, but it's the one that China is reaching, which explains its unequivocal signaling of its readiness to react militarily.
And, as the risks of war over Taiwan have increased, China has unilaterally canceled the security "stabilization" machinery of the Sino-American relationship just when it is needed most. Four separate military-to-military channels have been abolished, while six other channels (including on climate collaboration) have been suspended indefinitely. We are now effectively back at square one in terms of stemming the downward spiral of the US-China relationship.
Meanwhile, key political events are looming. In the US, midterm and presidential election campaigns will drive candidates to outflank each other in hawkishness. Taiwan is heading for presidential elections of its own. And in China, Xi will enter the 20th Party Congress seeking a third term in power as a strong leader presiding over a weakening economy, making increasingly nationalistic foreign policy even more likely. The challenge will be to prepare for what some of us have been arguing is an "avoidable war," without bringing us closer to the edge of it.
The trigger for a complete breakdown of US-China relations and a direct military conflict is Taiwan. Other sources of bilateral tension do not have the potential to cause a catastrophic collision.
Unfortunately, the current trajectory is alarming. In the past, America and China had a shared interest in maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait. Now the Taiwan issue is fast developing into a test of national will between two great powers, with each viewing the other as an existential threat.
There may be a narrow window to slow down the dangerous momentum generated by the fallout from Pelosi's recent visit to Taiwan. If China ceases escalation and the US responds in a measured way to China's intimidation of Taiwan, and if US and Chinese policymakers decide that they are better off cooperating now to prevent a worse crisis later, then there is some hope.
But if this window closes, there are three likely paths to a complete rupture. The first is accelerated economic decoupling. This process was well underway before the most recent Taiwan crisis, but it could speed up if both sides implement new measures. Two economically decoupled adversaries will be less constrained in choosing how to confront each other.
The second danger is a breakdown of diplomatic ties. If Congress passes legislation such as the Taiwan Policy Act, which would make Taiwan a US "non-NATO ally," China could respond by downgrading diplomatic relations with the US.
The third path leads to a military confrontation. If China escalates its gray-zone coercion against Taiwan to show its resolve and the US responds forcefully, another Cuban Missile Crisis will result. Such a scenario is far likelier than an unprovoked Chinese attack on Taiwan.
China's strategy has been to advance its foreign-policy objectives largely through bluff, bluster, and bullying. Without sparking direct armed conflict, China's leaders have sought to intimidate and coerce neighboring countries into yielding to their demands.
In contrast to Russia's frontal assaults on Ukraine, China's expansionism in Asia – from the South China Sea to the Himalayas – has been pursued incrementally. For example, China's ongoing military standoff with India along the two countries' disputed Himalayan border was triggered by its stealthy land grabs in Indian Ladakh in April 2020.
The last thing China wants is to get into an armed conflict with the United States, a superior military power, because this would expose chinks in its armor. By going to Taipei recently, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called China's bluff. But her visit also served as a pretext for Chinese President Xi Jinping's regime to step up coercive pressure on Taiwan by carrying out provocative military drills in a dress rehearsal for a blockade. Long before Pelosi considered visiting Taipei, China had been ramping up its campaign of intimidation, with its warplanes regularly crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait.
Xi's increasing troubles at home, including economic growth slowing almost to a halt, amplify the risk that he will resort to nationalist brinkmanship as a distraction. The odds are increasing that he will move against Taiwan in the two-year period between securing a norm-breaking third term as Communist Party chairman this November and the 2024 US presidential election.
But, rather than order a full-scale invasion, Xi is more likely to throttle Taiwan slowly. That will leave US President Joe Biden with difficult choices, with inaction likely to prove fatal for the island. A Taiwan fiasco on Biden's watch, after his Afghanistan debacle and failure to deter Russia's invasion of Ukraine, would gravely undermine America's global power.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author of Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.
Minxin Pei, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College, is a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Kevin Rudd, twice prime minister of Australia, is President of the Asia Society and the author of The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping's China.
Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Project Syndicate, and is published by special syndication arrangement.