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Foreign Policy

Managing Sino-American Dynamics at the Precipice

Aug 18, 2022
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

The Sino-American relationship is one that is as much determined by structural forces and mutual interests as it is by one-off incidents. Whether it be the Belgrade embassy bombing in 1999, the Hainan Island incident in 2001, or, indeed, the recent visit by the American Speaker of the House to Taiwan – an island over which China claims sovereignty – it is clear that those who believe great power rivalry can be reduced into questions of material and economic co-dependence are greatly mistaken. 

Grey rhinos and black swans – terms most familiar to those who are well versed in Chinese political parlance – evade structural logics. The former refers to risk factors that are clearly foreseeable, and that cannot be easily diffused or mitigated through pre-existing structural and institutional solutions. The latter denotes risk factors that are neither knowable nor knowably uncertain – e.g. they are, as Rumsfeld puts it, unknown unknowns. 

Action begets reaction. Pelosi’s recent visit to Taiwan may have been viewed by some as an act of symbolic defiance and valour – yet it has also indubitably accelerated the worsening of Sino-American relations. 

For decades, Beijing had been divided over the primary means of ‘resolution’ to the so-called ‘Taiwan Question’ – a unilateral framing that portrays the question of Taiwan as a matter of internal, domestic affairs, as well as of military and geopolitical security. To Beijing, should Taiwan exit its orbit of influence and the Chinese state, it would prove to be a devastating blow to both credibility and national unity. Over recent years, Taiwan’s geopolitical importance has only increased, with its rise as the leading semiconductor manufacturer in the world, and a lynchpin of America’s ‘pivot to Asia.’ 

Those who advocate for a more pacifist and peaceful resolution to the decades-long cross-straits tensions, have found themselves at loggerheads with those who favor a military solution to the crisis – even if the latter comes at the expense of regional stability and huge casualties to all parties. It is with these conflictual forces in mind that the upper echelons of the Chinese decision-making apparatus, throughout the past decade, have opted for the middle path: emphasize and prioritize peaceful ‘reunification,’ reserve – but make limited mention of – military action as a prospective solution. Western observers and strategists often cite the escalating tonality in rhetoric and threats from Beijing over recent years as signs that China is seeking a departure from the pacifist default – but such allegations hold little to no water; up until Pelosi’s visit, the primary approach advanced by Beijing remained ‘unification’ through economic means and political and social influence strategies. 

Pelosi’s visit triggered a precipitous cascade of ultranationalism, defensive militarism, and mass infuriation amongst Chinese netizens – it did not help, of course, that the visit occurred at a time when Beijing and Washington had barely recovered from a series of new nadirs reached in bilateral relations, with acrimonious exchanges over issues including the trade war, the alleged origins of the pandemic, and the Russian war in Ukraine. These mass attitudes in turn became ammunition and fodder for those who believe that a more aggressive, physically visceral ‘solution’ to the issues at hand is in order. 

The standard defence of Pelosi’s visit in some circles is that it purportedly showed that America was in a position of strength, which would then ostensibly deter Beijing. Such logic doesn’t square well with the fact that Beijing, in the aftermath of the visit, pursued one of the most expansive and pronounced military drills in the history of the Taiwan Straits as a signal of its resolve. The visit was less a show of strength than a public provocation that could have, had less restraint been exhibited on all sides, culminated at a genuine military confrontation. 

Managing Sino-American dynamics at the precipice of a hot war is by no means an easy task – but it is very much necessary. For many smaller and medium states in ASEAN, taking sides in the event of an U.S.-China military clash is neither an option nor a fair ask of them. For both mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, and American peoples, a showdown over Taiwan would be disastrous. Irrespective of where one stands on the sovereignty question, unbridled military altercation and violence ought to be avoided, for the sake of all: several steps must be undertaken. 

First, communication channels between Beijing and Washington must be strengthened, not further reduced. Prominent Chinese scholars ranging from Yan Xuetong to Wang Wen have made this point repeatedly and vocally. Recent announcements to cease high-level talks between the military and security apparatus, the climate change delegations, and other crucial areas of exchanges between Beijing and Washington are ill-advised – they render miscommunication and misinterpretation of signals more likely. The cessation of dialogue also undoes the laborious work conducted by thoughtful, pragmatic, and diplomatic leaders on both sides of the Pacific – e.g. John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua – to advance areas of common interests and mutual consensus between the two world powers. It is imperative that conversations and coordination – designed to prevent spill-over and undue escalation in military tensions – be resumed as swiftly as possible. Performative theatrics is one thing, preventing war is another. The latter surely comes first. 

Second, as highlighted by Kevin Rudd in his perceptive latest offering, establishing guardrails to prevent further descent into vitriol is in both parties’ interests. Accepting that there are unmovable and ‘hard’ constraints in the bilateral relationship, the contravention of which would lead to vastly heightened uncertainty, is in the interests of Washington – who could ill-afford to be dragged into another extensive military conflict, especially against a core trade, financial, and economic partner to itself. On the other hand, Beijing should – and indeed seems to – recognise that as much as the absence of guardrails may strengthen its momentary bargaining positioning vis-à-vis Washington, the elimination of any and all limits on military force deployed would only pave the way for an irrevocably devastating confrontation between it and not just America, but also other American allies in East Asia. 

Finally, trust building takes time – and requires some degree of tacit consent and coordination across the many parties involved. Beijing, Taipei, and Washington should engage in closed-door, bilateral, back-channel diplomacy ‘neutralisation’ talks with immediacy and urgency, to contain the fallout over this particular visit. These discussions should then be followed by the devising of a renewed agreement between all parties concerning how the status quo over the Taiwan Straits ought to be preserved – and organically evolve over time. Cajoling, coercion, and cacophonous calls for military action cannot and will not contribute towards a genuinely conducive resolution of the quandary. Patience, pragmatism, and some degree of empathy for different parties’ perspectives – these are core virtues that should be kept at heart. 

Sino-American relations stand at the brink of a potentially catastrophic decline – it is imperative that those who want peace speak out in favor of, and facilitate it. Say no to imperialism, jingoism, or, indeed, unbridled militarism. 

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