Dr. Michael D. Swaine is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. In the following interview with James Chau of China-US Focus, Swaine, an expert in China and East Asian security studies, explains why the two governments need to acknowledge their own contributions to mutual mistrust and the decline in bilateral relations. He also sees China as a key player on the world stage that needs to exercise its influence more directly. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Crisis management between the U.S. and China is critical for all aspects of global stability. With that in mind, what would you tell Washington and Beijing about the areas they need to focus on to keep the world level?
I think there needs to be a really top-level, presidential-level signal to both militaries that they need to resume their crisis dialogue. And they need to focus on both crisis management and crisis prevention. The big sticking point has been that the Chinese are more interested in the latter — crisis prevention. Which means, how do you change policies to make sure crises don’t occur in the first place? The Americans, on the other hand, are focused more on what happen at the point of crisis — how do we avoid it escalating into conflict? The Chinese seem to think that crisis management is really just a way of allowing the United States to continue pushing the envelope. And so for them, it’s not as attractive a kind of dialogue as it would be to have crisis prevention.
But I think there’s a way to overcome that with certain types of changes in the formatting and the definition of the kinds of behavior. That should be done with a boost from a high level, from the presidential level, and it needs to be a sustained effort. Crisis management is not just a military-to-military issue. It’s a much bigger issue that has to do with the underlying assumptions and perceptions of both sides, and how they look at the other and themselves to a certain extent in managing or avoiding a crisis. There are certain attitudes or perceptions to which both sides fall prey and that really make it much more difficult to manage a crisis.
So they need to talk about those issues as well, not just mechanisms for having early contact. They need to really get into what is it that causes escalation in a crisis. How do we best avoid some of the pitfalls of that? I think that’s important to do.
What would you tell the U.S. now about minimizing the risk of conflict with China, especially around Taiwan?
Well, I think to minimize the risk of conflict, especially around Taiwan, there needs to be a revitalization, as I call it, of the original understanding that was established between the United States and China at the time of normalization and diplomatic recognition in the 1970s. And that was a one-China policy, not the one-China principle of Beijing but the U.S. one-China policy, and Beijing’s commitment to pursuing peaceful unification as a top priority. Even though it doesn’t disavow the possibility of force, it still has adhered to the preference to try to have a peaceful negotiated resolution.
Both of these policies have eroded considerably over recent years. The United States needs to place very clear limits on the level of interaction with Taiwan. The U.S. has to reaffirm its view very clearly that it’s open to a peaceful, uncoerced resolution of the issue, regardless. Whether it’s unification or independence, the U.S. position has always been that it doesn’t care what the outcome is. It cares about the process. It doesn’t want a violent resolution. It doesn’t want coercion. It wants a peaceful negotiated settlement, whatever that might be. The U.S. doesn’t say that anymore; it looks like it’s giving Beijing too much license. And I think that’s wrong. It really does undermine the one-China policy.
Another thing U.S. officials need to do much more clearly is to state that Taiwan is not a strategic asset, a strategic node, as it was called by a senior U.S. defense department official in congressional testimony. That, again, is contradictory to the one-China policy. The U.S. should also stop trying to push different countries to not change their recognition of China or their diplomatic relationship. The United States changed its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan, from the Republic of China, to Beijing back in 1979. And yet here we are telling other countries they shouldn’t be doing this.
I think the Chinese themselves need to do certain things as well. I think they need to be much clearer that they have no deadline for unification. President Xi Jinping has connected the rejuvenation of China by mid-century with Taiwan unification, and that has put in many people’s minds the idea that there is a deadline, there is a timeline. But China seems willing to exercise patience as long as there is not some radical shift in the current situation — that it won’t use force against Taiwan unless it is backed into a corner.
Beijing also needs to be willing to reduce its military activities around the island and reduce the level of military intimidation that it’s currently carrying out if tensions abate between the two sides. It needs to start developing an idea for possible future unification that goes beyond the “one country, two systems" formula that it continues to tout, which really rings hollow now in Taiwan. Very few if any Chinese in Taiwan want to see any version of one country, two systems as defined by Beijing applied to Taiwan. So I think Beijing needs to seriously reconsider that whole formula and come up with something that’s much more attractive to Taiwan.
Is there a workable way forward that meets both Taiwan security needs and U.S. interests? On top of that, is Beijing really contributing to peace and stability in that region and around the world?
I don’t think there is a radical strategy, or a new strategy, vis-a-vis Taiwan itself, that is going to alter the dynamic here of the basic level of tension over the issue between the United States and China. But I think in order to make this possible, what we need to do is improve the larger relationship. It’s really the deepening of suspicion, the deepening of worst-casing, in terms of intentions and motives by both sides, the deepening of these zero-sum types of approaches to a whole range of issues, that is really the source of so many of the problems that we’re facing with Taiwan and other issues with Beijing.
Both sides need to recognize that there’s an interactive dynamic here in which they both enact policies and take actions that really do make the situation worse, and yet each side completely ignores this. You don’t have any recognition even on a private level, it seems, in Track 1 discussions that each side is doing or saying things that, at least potentially, that could make the problem worse in the relationship. Each side points the finger at the other.
The Chinese, in particular, are very vocal about this, saying that everything would be fine if the United States would start treating China in a more balanced way, more reasonably, more realistically. And the Americans have the same kind of posture. But of course governments are not going to come out and say, “We're contributing to the problem,” but there are ways to recognize and acknowledge that there’s an interactive dynamic going on, and that both sides contribute. Therefore, you need to have a dialogue that seriously addresses that dynamic and that talks about what can be said or done to reassure the other side that its worst-case assumptions, in fact, are not going to happen, or not true. And I think that does require a sustained, meaningful, strategic dialogue.
You’ve said that a game-changer would be getting the two men who lead China and the U.S. together. And there is a potential opportunity in San Francisco, at the APEC leaders meeting. What shape and form could a meeting between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping look like? What are the consequences if that meeting doesn’t happen?
We need to have another high-level presidential meeting. But such a meeting requires thorough preparation. Often, these meetings, even at the presidential level, tend to just exchange talking points, and we need to get beyond that. As I said before, there needs to be a clear signal sent by both presidents about the importance of establishing a meaningful and ongoing dialogue to be able to deal with the issues of crisis management and prevention. But there also needs to be some very clear statements by both presidents that on the issues that really divide them right now there needs to be a middle ground found where possible. [That means] trade, finance questions, global finance, cyber issues, the tech problem and, I daresay, even a combination by both sides to try to reach some sort of middle ground and talk about this in terms of real substance — concrete things that the two sides might be able to do. If they set up that kind of a dialogue between the two presidents and they’re able to have buy-in for doing certain things, that I would regard as a very successful meeting and could lead to more effective, detailed meetings at lower levels. But they need to set up that framework in advance of the meeting in San Francisco.
Now, if it doesn’t occur for whatever reason, if Xi Jinping refuses the meeting or they just decide there’s too much danger or risk of negative blowback if they have these meetings, then it really is extremely unfortunate. And it really does set back the relationship again. It makes it seem as if people are really going through the motions of trying to reestablish stability in the relationship, but there's no real support behind it at senior levels. And that will just make the situation worse. People will then reinforce the kind of negative rhetoric and other things that we’ve been hearing from people in Washington and Beijing. So people will begin to then assume, well, this relationship really is deeply confrontational and we have to behave accordingly. And I think that is a path that’s going to lead us to crisis and possibly even conflict over something like Taiwan.
The state of U.S.-China relations is a global challenge in itself. But just when you think the world couldn’t get more complicated, we now have this problem with Israel and the Palestinian people. Does China have a real role to play in these global issues — especially when people like Chuck Schumer say they’re very disappointed with Beijing’s initial statements on the problems occurring there?
Absolutely. Beijing is a key player in many ways. It has brokered some interactions between other countries. It has made statements that (if it follows through on them) would be very positive for a host of different issues that affect the global community. There’s a strong feeling that Beijing says one thing and then does something else. It needs to be more consistent in doing things that are more positive and trying to reach some kind of positive middle ground, not just with the United States but with other countries — not necessarily viewing its relations with other countries around the world as part of the larger U.S.-China strategic competition. And the same holds true for the United States.
Everything now is being pushed through a security lens, so that many issues are viewed in terms of U.S.-China strategic competition and security competition. I think that needs to be pushed back against, and Beijing needs to really show that it is sincere in a lot of its desire for establishing greater peace and stability in various areas. And here, in terms of the issue regarding Israel and Hamas, China’s view has been to try to duck the basic issue at the moment, which is the horrendous attack by Hamas on Israel, the murdering of women, children, innocent civilians, just indiscriminately by Hamas. And that kind of behavior has no justification to it, and China really should be coming out and saying that sort of behavior is reprehensible and they’re against it. And they could also say that they’re against all indiscriminate, violent actions taken against civilians, Palestinians, as well.
Well, I share your cautious optimism, if only because in the time we’ve had together you’ve really shared practical ideas and potential solutions that could break the stalemate on multiple levels at different points. Dr. Michael Swaine, thank you very much for your time.
You’re welcome. Thank you very much. I really enjoyed it.