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Foreign Policy

Parsing the New Sino-American Crisis

Aug 18, 2022

The last few weeks have seen the most severe crisis between Beijing and Washington in years. Yet, though the visit by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, to Taiwan precipitated the current confrontation, Sino-U.S. relations regarding Taiwan were primed for conflict.   

In many respects, this month’s military exercises by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Taiwan’s vicinity represent a continuation of recent trends. During the last few years, PLA ships and planes have undertaken more patrols near the island. Furthermore, the United States and its partners—including Australia, Canada, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam—have recorded an increasing number of dangerous intercepts with PLA warships and warplanes. They have concluded that these incidents “look like a pattern and policy” rather than random occurrences. 

Yet, the recent drills have broken with precedent. They look like a rehearsal for a comprehensive blockade or invasion of Taiwan. For the first time, the PLA’s air, sea, and missile operations surrounded the island with firepower, disrupting Taiwanese commercial connections with the world. Some missiles overflew the island, while others landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The Global Times published a revealing commentary describing a “Peking model," in which the PLA would, as it encircled Peking in 1949 to coerce the Kuomintang forces in the capital to surrender, now induce the Taiwanese to accept Chinese Communist Party control without the PLA’s having to invade the island. 

Though the large-scale post-Pelosi exercises near Taiwan have ended, the PLA seems prepared to conduct regular drills east of the Median Line, which the PRC now terms “imaginary.” The Chinese government has exploited the Pelosi incident to establish the precedent of conducting expansive military drills near Taiwan—presenting a fait accompli as it has done in the South China Sea and other disputed territories. Through assertive actions, the PLA aims to reshape the political-military environment that has constrained the PRC since its founding in 1949. 

The recent drills coincided with, and supported, Beijing’s more demanding conditions regarding cross-strait unification. China’s response to Pelosi’s visit has included imposing more than one hundred economic sanctions on Taiwanese entities and personnel sanctions on Pelosi’s delegation. Other measures include the suspension of some China-U.S. legal cooperation, including regarding illicit migration and drug trafficking, and of the bilateral dialogue on maritime safety and climate change. 

The Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council and the State Council Information Office also released a new white paper on Taiwan. The first such text since 2000, its wording is emblematic of the sterner line of Chinese diplomacy that now applies to its international disputes. Though reaffirming the “one country, two systems” framework and asserting positive incentives for unification—enhanced peace and prosperity—the white paper warns more sternly than previous versions that resistance to Cross-Strait unification is futile given Beijing’s readiness to employ all necessary means to secure it. Of note, the previous pledge not to deploy military forces and political administrators on the island after unification is absent in the latest white paper. 

The Chinese leadership seemingly believes that these newly assertive policies will weaken Taiwanese resistance to unification, discourage other countries from supporting the island’s autonomy, and demonstrate commitment to Chinese nationalists. By deliberately manipulating risks, PRC policymakers hope to secure concessions such as reduced U.S. arms transfers to Taiwan, decreased representation of Taipei in multinational institutions, and other diminished contacts with foreign officials. Making such concessions would alienate the United States from Taiwan from each other and other regional partners. 

But Beijing’s recent moves also intend to challenge the U.S. network of alliances and partners in Asia, specifically by undermining my belief in the credibility of U.S. defense guarantees. They want to make Taiwanese, Japanese, and other audiences doubt that U.S. forces would fight on their behalf in a military confrontation with Beijing. PRC representatives have observed that, unlike during the 1995-96 crisis, when the U.S. Navy sent two carrier battle groups into the Taiwan Strait, on this occasion the U.S. military response was much more limited. The administration even postponed a planned intercontinental ballistic missile test and has not met Taiwanese requests for some advanced U.S. defense equipment. 

Still, the thinking in Washington is that the PLA would not attempt an invasion for a few more years due to the many uncertainties and risks that option would entail. For now, the most immediate fallout from the crisis has been to negate whatever gains might have accrued from last month’s lengthy phone call between Presidents Xi and Biden. Though the talk lasted more than two hours, it failed to avert the present crisis, suggesting that there was an exchange of talking points but no concessions on central issues dividing the parties. Xi may have urged Biden to discard the view that China was “the primary rival and the most serious long-term challenge” to the United States, but the latest Taiwan crisis has only strengthened that perception. 

In practical terms, the Chinese countermeasures made clear that the two sides will find it difficult to compartmentalize collaboration on climate change and other issues from their tensions over Taiwan. For example, the Biden administration will find it harder to rescind the higher tariffs on Chinese imports adopted by the Trump administration or make other policy decisions that appear as concessions to Beijing. Recent developments have highlighted how standing up for Taiwan and against the PRC has become a rare bipartisan issue in Congress. Furthermore, this assertive policy will likely strengthen the very networked defensive ties among the United States and its Asian allies that worry Beijing policymakers. 

Additionally, the crisis has decreased expectations that the two countries will soon adapt new transparency and confidence-building measures to avert inadvertent military clashes. With increasing urgency this summer, U.S. officials have called for such “guardrails,” which could include dialogues on novel security issues and advanced notification of military activities. Yet, stronger hotlines and other confidence and security building measures cannot help if the existing ones are unused. During the current crisis, the Chinese side has refused to respond to U.S. government outreach made through these mechanisms. On August 5, the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs canceled some of the most important dialogues, including the China-U.S. Theater Commanders Talk, the bilateral Defense Policy Coordination Talks, and the meetings occurring within the framework of the China-U.S. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement. 

The current Sino-American defense communication networks may be undeveloped, but they are also underutilized and vulnerable to disruption, reflecting the deep differences over power, status, and values dividing China and the United States. 

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