The Precarious State of Cross-Strait Stability: Calibrating Risk and Averting Conflict
US-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century – A Great Power Competition
The relationship between the United States and China is categorized, in many respects, as the most significant bilateral relationship of the 21st century. Previous expectations that China would eventually undergo liberal democratic reforms, adopt market capitalism, and accept American hegemony in a unipolar world, have gone from winning support among U.S. officials to being nothing more than a delusion. Instead, a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington on rethinking America’s approach to China gained traction during the Trump administration, leading to an escalation of tensions and culminating in a downward spiral in bilateral relations. As US-China relations reach a historic low, multiple concerns have risen. These concerns include implications of China’s military and economic rise on the global balance of power and ineffectual U.S. policy to form robust coalitions to counter Chinese regional aggression amid a global leadership vacuum. In addition, there are fundamental uncertainties regarding the shift in power dynamics and U.S. commitment to upholding the rules-based international order in a post-pandemic world. These issues all coalesce to usher in a new era in Washington where policymakers have to prioritize America’s grand strategy towards China and strengthen America’s ability to defend its allies and advance its security interests globally against the backdrop of great power competition.
The U.S. resolve to tackle these challenges posed by China is conspicuously reflected in Biden’s blueprint of “Building Back Better.” During his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was “no doubt” China posed the most significant challenge to the United States . And again, in one of the many public comments he has given during his State Department speech, Blinken stated that “China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system – all the rules, values, and relationships that make the world work the way we want to because it ultimately serves the interests and reflects the values of the American people .” Intrinsically, this hardline, competition-based approach towards China reiterates the paradigm shift in U.S. policy from strategic ambiguity to coalition-driven competition – the prerequisite that President Biden says America needs to confront the generational challenge of managing China’s rise .
(Chinese President Xi Jinping with then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2013 in Beijing, China. From CNN)
There are primarily two theories that experts allude to when analyzing the current trajectory of US-China relations. The first and most referenced is the Thucydides Trap, a term coined by Harvard professor Graham Allison to describe a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one . In this scenario, a rising China, out to challenge and supplant the hegemonic U.S., is on course to a collision. The other concept, examined by scholars such as Hong Kong political scientist Simon Shen and Yuan Yang at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, argues that the U.S. and China are falling into the ‘Churchill Trap.’ This concept would result in being trapped in a long-term Cold War antagonism rather than directly engaging in a hegemonic war. It would also lead to geopolitical demarcation according to their respective spheres of influence and preponderance of financial, technological, and military might.
The Delicate Balance of Cross-Strait Relations and Indo-Pacific Security
The Biden administration has acknowledged the elements of the China challenge and largely maintained several Trump-era policies designed to hold accountable Beijing’s longstanding modus operandi concerning unfair trade practices, intellectual property theft and economic coercion in pursuit of geopolitical influence. However, it is unclear whether an equally effective security and defense policy is in place to avoid a military confrontation with China, especially an inadvertent confrontation on account of a strategic miscalculation by Beijing. Of all the regions globally, the Indo-Pacific harbors the most complex security challenges on issues ranging from increasingly volatile cross-strait relations to a potential third-party provocation that would draw significant powers from across the region. Despite the accurate interpretation that a Churchill-Trap-defined US-China bipolarity will subsist for the foreseeable future, the challenge of preserving the status quo of the Taiwan Strait and deterring a possible Chinese invasion of the self-governing island is the most conceivable powder keg capable of igniting a direct armed conflict, plunging the two great powers right into the Thucydides Trap.
Considering heightened tensions between the two powers over Taiwan, this article assesses China’s calculation and preparation for a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait – wherein the most significant latent risks and flashpoints exist in US-China relations – and proposes policy recommendations for U.S. action in the area.
Although the deeply intertwined economies and the means of mutually assured destruction make an all-out war between the U.S. and China highly unlikely, to ensure long-term peace and stability in the region would nevertheless behoove the Biden administration and those succeeding it to strengthen and maintain America’s role as the chief architect and guardian of a free and open Indo-Pacific. Navigating the turbulent waters of US-China relations in an age of competitive interdependence is a long and arduous journey. The ultimate objective should focus on restoring America’s leadership abroad while establishing a modus vivendi with Beijing.
Annexing Taiwan – Understanding China’s Grand Strategy
(Photo credit: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
Nearly five decades ago, the U.S. formally acknowledged the One-China Policy regarding the political status of Taiwan and paved the way for the normalization of US-China relations by the signing of the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué. This agreement has allowed Washington to navigate cross-strait relations with prudence and constructive ambiguity by maintaining semi-official dialogues with Taipei. Additionally, Washington has armored Taipei with the means to support its self-defense through critical treaties. Chief among these treaties is the Six Assurances and Taiwan Relations Act. This approach is underpinned by the conventional wisdom that any attempt to cross a redline by either Washington or Taipei would precipitate conflict. If Taiwan were to declare independence with or without U.S. support, China would undoubtedly use force to reverse the decision, possibly even seizing the opportunity to press for complete ‘reunification’ of the perceived breakaway province. This would be a crucial scheme of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” that Xi Jinping is hell-bent on accomplishing in his term.
For decades, ‘reunification’ has been a top priority for China’s grand strategy and its agenda towards resolving irredentist disputes. In a 2013 Defense White Paper issued by a group of Chinese military researchers, one of the four conflicts that China must prepare to face is “a relatively large-scale, relatively high-intensity anti-separatist war against Taiwan independence forces .” Under Xi, calls for ‘reunification’ to fulfill the “Chinese Dream” and end the century of humiliation have intensified. Xi has increasingly emphasized strengthening cross-strait relations through a “one-China framework” to realize ‘reunification’ during his presidency . At a reception at the Great Hall of the People last year, Xi again stressed the need to race against time to “reach the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation .” In case we needed to be reminded of what “realizing reunification” looks like in Chinese military strategy, following Biden’s first week in office, the Chinese Ministry of Defense went as far as explicitly threatening that “Taiwan independence means war .”
Worryingly, Beijing has been increasing its nationalistic rhetoric and behaving increasingly assertively in the Taiwan Strait, conducting multiple complex, large-scale military exercises with a structurally refined and modernized People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu has previously testified during a televised interview that PLA sorties were dispatched approximately 2,900 times last year in acts of military harassment . While U.S. strategists continue to hold the view that imminent clash is unlikely, such demonstrations of strength correspond with Beijing’s perception that China’s proximity to Taiwan and abundant access to coercive tools in conjunction with appropriate operational resources would diminish U.S. regional military superiority and make the local balance of power favorable to Beijing. America’s initial inability to control the pandemic amidst immense domestic civil-political disorder only embolden Beijing’s confidence and reaffirm Xi’s calculation that the PLA is well-prepared for a potential military confrontation with the U.S., potentially even initiating a conflict over Taiwan. Moreover, America during the Trump administration was indifferent about projecting global leadership or intervening in certain states to prevent democratic backsliding and had little political will or capital to ensure that states comply with existing international norms. Geopolitically, these phenomena might reinforce Xi’s premature calculation that the U.S. is in irreversible decline, and that China’s time has come that a Crimea-inspired fait accompli, a scenario that Beijing forcefully takes Taipei before Washington could act promptly and decisively, could be achieved.
The bottom line is that Xi is growing ever more confident in his calculation that he has at his disposal a military capable of delivering victories and forcing unification. In a testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Dr. Oriana Skylar Mastro stated that Chinese military leaders told her that during Xi’s first order to China’s armed forces in 2021, he stressed the importance of “full-time combat readiness” and the PLA’s capability to “act at any second .” Mastro argues that Xi has expressed in various ways that he is “more willing than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, to use force” because cross-Strait instability resulting from “the long-existing political discrepancy” cannot go on to generation. An ominous sign that Beijing is growing increasingly impatient with the cross-strait status quo and may act sooner than expected. Testifying on this supposition, a grim caution was given at the Senate Armed Services Committee by top U.S. Indo-Pacific Military Commander Admiral Philip Davidson when he stated, “China’s pace is quickening, and we need to be postured to prevent that quickening from happening .” Davidson reasoned that the expansion of China’s military assets in the region risked creating an “unfavorable” situation for the U.S., and he worries that the threat would manifest in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan “in the next six years ”.
Beyond the Situation Room – Improving Cross-Strait Deterrence
(Photo by MC3 Cheyenne Geletka/U.S. Navy)
On the selection of operational planning and mission execution for which China is preparing for a Taiwan invasion, there consist of four main military campaigns according to writings of the PLA National Defense University . They include Joint Firepower Strike Operations against Taiwan, Joint Blockade Operations against Taiwan, Joint Attack Operations against Taiwan, and Joint Anti-Air Raid Operations. In brief, these operations constitute a multi-pronged PLA strategy by first employing missiles and airstrikes against critical strategic infrastructure on the island to eliminate immediate targets. Next, the launching of a hybrid warfare from cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to periodic naval raids to seal off Taiwan from the vicinity and outside world. Finally, successful completion of the first two operations would involve amphibious warfare on the island and the deployment of anti-air missions through a subsidiary defense mechanism.
Military posturing aside, there is a set of preconditions that China would consider before waging a military campaign against Taiwan. The first and foremost question is how a conflict over Taiwan would force the U.S. to intervene physically and to what extent an escalation of military action would affect China’s success ratio and alter the outcome of the war. Still, the prospect of a conflict initiated by China is mainly dependent on its expectations of U.S. involvement since China would be “greatly deterred if its leaders thought use of force would spark US allies into forming a real, long-term countervailing coalition against them .” However, a scenario in which China does not expect U.S. intervention or timely military support for Taiwan would induce Beijing to initiate a conflict. This conflict would likely happen through a graduated coercive military approach allowing greater operational freedom to respond to international pressure. In this case, a successful Chinese military campaign would likely entail a collaboration among peripheral PLA forces, local underground PLA personnel in disguise, and embedded secret agents and defectors from within Taiwanese society. The latter two would play a crucial role in gathering intelligence, sowing disinformation and division in Taiwan, and pushing for large-scale defection from the state system. As transparent and robust as the Taiwanese government and its civil society are, an institutional defection involving pro-unification business elites and those from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is difficult to imagine but not entirely impossible. US Navy Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis, who argued recently that the “sleeper cells” in Taiwan would “link up with Chinese special forces … take control of airfields … flood the zone with ships and submarines on the far side of Taiwan,” is a strong supporter of this hypothesis .
Granted, this scenario of a Chinese invasion is ultimately predicated upon the expectation and reality of U.S. failure to intervene. If a proper deterrence and defense mechanism is in place and U.S. firepower nearby to deter China from contemplating asymmetric warfare, a Chinese-initiated conflict would be less likely to occur. In U.S. operational planning, the traditional deterrence apparatus needs to remain part and parcel of a baseline security umbrella. In practice, this means maintaining existing U.S. firepower and military presence in the region, establishing a no-invasion zone to fortify an additional layer of protection over Taiwan, and investing more in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) to provide U.S. wargaming with updated information. Simultaneously, the U.S. needs to demonstrate resolve by continuing to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), military surveys in China’s claimed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and routine military exercises in the Indo-Pacific with allies and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) to balance China’s grey-zone operations. The U.S. would also need to enhance and credibly reveal its operational plans and capabilities for deterrence purposes. In terms of Taiwan’s defense capabilities, policymakers should encourage Taiwan to invest in affordable, expendable, mass-produced weapons systems to form a primary defense layer in case the U.S. could not amass enough forces before China launches an invasion.
Instead of casting blame on the Trump administration for creating the interregnum, Washington should make the case for why defending Taiwan is not only a moral and American responsibility but also a strategic one against the global trend of autocratization. It is crucial Washingington maintains focus on strengthening partnerships with principal allies through NATO, the QUAD, and the Five Eyes to ensure they see eye to eye on sharing the burden of defending the island. Forgoing Taiwan, after all, would only erode America’s credibility to protect its allies, sabotage long-term U.S. foreign policy objectives, and lead to further degradation of a rules-based regional order.
On the other hand, implementing a combination of reward and punishment based on US-China trade deficiencies is another vital component of sustainable deterrence. This component would need the U.S. to first reform and replenish existing investment-review measures like the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). This interstate-agency body reviews foreign investments and acquisitions and can recommend that the president block deals if they threaten U.S. security interests. Ad hoc committees can also play a complementary role in further exposing Chinese state involvement or funding in international firms, particularly tech firms. The president needs to be prepared to ban all tech-related acquisitions by firms with Chinese ownership and impose sanctions on critical technologies. Additionally, an effective “carrot-and-stick” toolkit should be built around modifying existing tariffs and other trade remedies. Should U.S. intelligence reveal any Chinese action-planning of a preemptive strike, Washington would need to respond by extending and increasing tariffs to all remaining imports. The main objective is to thwart China’s intention to carry out a military takeover of Taiwan. To enhance these approaches diplomatically, U.S. interlocutors must unequivocally reiterate America’s commitment to defending Taiwan against an armed invasion. It must be understood that irrespective of other differences and disagreements in the bilateral relations, any Chinese attempt to seize the island by force would, in turn, cross America’s redline and amount to countermeasures from targeted sanctions to reciprocal counterattack.
Keeping the Dragon at Bay – US Role in Altering Xi’s Calculation
Fundamentally, a strategically sound policy of deterrence would require the Biden administration to alter Chinese perceptions of their ability to absorb Taiwan by force and effectively govern Taiwan by choice. In addition to the policies mentioned above, U.S. strategic thinking should also prioritize altering Xi’s own risk calculation that a Taiwan under Beijing’s orbit would be nothing more than a source of internal instability and a burden for Chinese governance. Furthermore, deterrence measures need to convey a message that a preemptive strike over Taiwan, if failed, could result in an upheaval within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), lead to infighting and the possible defection of the ruling elites.
In her testimony, Dr. Mastro argues that the Chinese public is increasingly hawkish and impatient with the cross-strait status quo. A recent Global Times survey reported that around 70 percent of mainlanders support war to unify Taiwan, and 37 percent of them want to see war occur in three to five years . The poll also shows that 64 percent of mainlanders anticipate a full-scale war on Taiwan, and 72 percent believe China will win. The main explanation for this inclination of populist nationalism, besides domestic policies centered around an ideology-driven patriotic campaign, is China’s aggressive wolf-warrior diplomacy in recent years, which became a centerpiece of Chinese diplomacy under Xi’s reign. As Chinese public sentiment towards Taiwan became further radicalized, so did Taiwanese impressions towards Beijing. A survey last year by Taiwanese research institute Academia Sinica found that 73 percent of Taiwan residents do not consider the Chinese government a friend – the highest figure since the poll started in 2012 . China’s oppression of Hong Kong’s democracy and the rule of law through the national security legislation alienated Taiwan further. This growing division damaged any remaining confidence in ‘reunification’ under a “One Country, Two Systems’ framework and contributed to increasing hostility within Taiwan’s younger generation – those born after Taiwan transitioned to democracy and have known nothing but the freedoms they currently enjoy.
Under these circumstances, a widening gap of the China-Taiwan division could irritate Beijing to become more impulsive, leading to its conclusion that a pathway to ‘peaceful unification’ is no longer viable and ‘unification by force’ is the only way forward. For these reasons, cross-strait stability is under increasing strain, as such a miscalculation by Beijing could end up being not a matter of if but when. Hence, U.S. projection of military strength, coupled with diplomacy, ought to convey a resounding message that military actions have military consequences and that a forced takeover of Taiwan is wishful thinking. American officials must also be willing to discuss the prospect of a failed Chinese invasion openly. This discussion includes how a failed Chinese invasion would be viewed, domestically and internationally, as an embarrassment for the Party and Xi’s growing yet unstable cult of personality that could lead to political infighting and even high-level defection.
In this proposition, another potential ingredient of cross-strait deterrence, contrary to what some believe, is strategizing an incremental plan to render Taiwan obsolete in the aftermath of a Chinese invasion. In policy terms, even though the U.S. has not formally concluded any comprehensive trade agreement with Taiwan, Washington would want to sever its economic ties with Taiwanese authorities. This includes terminating talks like the U.S.-Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) and sanctioning Taiwanese and Chinese personnel involved in the planning or executing of the invasion, and convincing others to follow suit. Such policy is premised on the fundamental understanding that Taiwan, unlike Hong Kong, is not an international financial center and is of less economic importance than strategic importance. Still, the U.S. remains Taiwan’s second-largest trading partner, accounting for 13.2 percent of
total trade and 12.2 percent of Taiwan imports in 2019 . Currently, aerospace and defense, education, and electric power and energy remain the top leading sectors for US Exports and Investments. On agricultural products, beef, cheese, coffee remain some of the best prospects for U.S. exports. Taiwan also retains well-developed due diligence procedures conducive to attracting foreign investment. Thus, terminating US-Taiwan trade ties and coalescing a trade blockage would undoubtedly devastate Taiwan’s economy and turn the island into a typical mainland city off the coast. As Beijing grapples with reality on the ground and crafts its integration policy, Taiwan may experience unprecedented isolation and alienation from the outside world. And as Beijing continues its dual-circulation economic strategy under sanctions and international pressure, an increasingly isolated and economically deprived Taiwan could see widespread protests and even a surge in domestic extremism. In this case, Taiwan could end up becoming a destabilizing factor for China’s statecraft and regime stability. Therefore, for Xi and the Party, unification with Taiwan may prove to have done more harm than good.
Avoiding the Thucydides Trap – A Roadmap for Competitive Coexistence
As both parties embrace competition, the foremost principle needs to avoid confrontation for sustainable cohabitation while strengthening America’s democracy at home and keeping U.S. foreign policy directions flexible. Just as the Chinese have been keen students of realpolitik, for a longer-term counterbalance to China’s growing geopolitical influence, Washington should draw lessons from the Nixon-era triangular diplomacy in navigating US-China relations. Without necessarily driving a wedge between Russia and China, Washington can develop plans to take advantage of the fissures that exist between Moscow and Beijing and fundamentally change Moscow’s calculus such that it considers some cooperation with the U.S. preferable to its increasing subservience to Beijing.
“It is often taken as an article of faith that as the U.S.-Chinese relationship becomes more competitive, the space for cooperation will shrink, if not disappear. But even as adversaries, the United States and the Soviet Union found ways to cooperate on a number of issues, including space exploration, contagious diseases, the environment, and the global commons. The need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing is far more acute, given the nature of contemporary challenges. Leaders in both countries should consider cooperation on such transnational challenges not as a concession by one party but as an essential need for both .” (Kurt M. Campbell and Jake Sullivan, Foreign Affairs)
The ongoing competition between the two great powers signals the end of the brief unipolar moment following the Cold War. While managing cross-strait relations is one of the challenges in US-China relations today, pressing issues from pandemic prevention to climate change remain opportunities for both powers to cooperate as responsible stakeholders in the international community.
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