US China relations have moved to the front page as a result of the Chinese reaction to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s bid to Taiwan. There are two intertwined main subjects:
- The threat to Taiwan and what the Chinese reaction to Pelosi’s visit.
- The overall US China relationship
There should be no doubt that the Communist Chinese leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is angry at the United States, and especially House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for her visit to Taiwan. And then to add injury to insult there was a follow-on Congressional visit last week. China reacted with a barrage of “signals”. At the center of these signals have been has been extensive military exercises meant to maintain tension on the island and in the surrounding areas. Another has been the cancellation of US-Chinese dialogues, exchanges, and cooperation in selected areas. These include:
Canceling China-U.S. Theater Commanders Talk.
Canceling China-U.S. Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT).
Canceling China-U.S. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) meetings.
Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on the repatriation of illegal immigrants.
Suspending China-U.S. cooperation on legal assistance in criminal matters.
Suspending China-U.S. cooperation against transnational crimes.
Suspending China-U.S. counternarcotics cooperation.
Suspending China-U.S. talks on climate change.
This highlights how the Pelosi visit and US Chinese relations are intertwined. While some see China as over-reacting, probably a better explanation is that it thinks that it can act in a belligerent way and get away with it. For Beijing, Pelosi’s visit was emblematic of all that is going wrong in US-PRC relations. Some analysts suggest that from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) perspective, the trip was a betrayal of the foundations of the US-China rapprochement. Beijing’s willingness to pursue a more harmonious relationship with the U.S. was grounded, in part, in the idea that Washington accepted that the CCP was the legitimate government over all of China.
Over the last several decades American ambivalence and wandering policy—ranging from the formulation of “The US One-China Policy which acknowledges the PRC’s One-China Principle,” to arms sales to Taiwan, to the Taiwan Relations Act—were grudgingly accepted, mainly because China did not have the power to really alter American decisions. But as China’s power has grown and the US’s power is perceived to have been reduced, China now perceives that it can act as if its patience and tolerance of these formulations has dropped. That the United States, with its decline in relative power, still does not align itself with the Chinese order of things makes China behave as if it is infuriated.
Driving this is that the Chinese truly believe that Taiwan belongs, indeed is part of, China. This is not merely the result of CCP propaganda. Chinese nationalism predates the CCP. Chinese claims to Taiwan are linked to the exploitation of China by a variety of states (especially Japan) during the 19th and early 20th century. Taiwan is recognized as an independent state by only a handful of states—and the United States is not among them. For the CCP, but also for Chinese nationalists more broadly, American support for Taiwan is seen as a stalking horse for pushing the fragmentation of China.
This deep suspicion of American intentions is further colored by the ideological concerns of the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders are concerned not only with attacks on China, but on the CCP, including eroding its legitimacy. They view talk of “peaceful evolution” as simply a kinder, gentler way of discussing the fall of the CCP. The 1990s Russian example serves as a stark reminder of what the West would like to happen.
Consequently, the CCP leadership believes that it must make clear, to both Taiwan and the United States, that not only will China not surrender its claim to Taiwan, but that American “meddling” will only have negative consequences. This takes on greater urgency when Beijing sees President Biden repeatedly stating that the United States will come to the aid and defense of Taiwan. The presence of the Speaker of the House in Taipei, when she is third in line of succession, only underscored perceived American intentions.
The Pelosi visit, moreover, occurred at an awkward moment for the Chinese. The Chinese leadership is preparing to adjourn to the resort of Beidaihe to engage in the backroom politics that will be ratified at the Party congress later this fall. A variety of issues are likely to be under discussion, including the ongoing COVID crisis in China (and the associated lockdowns that are unpopular and economically disruptive), the economic slowdown, and ongoing internal unhappiness and unrest.
Taiwan continues to play a key role in the global microchip market, eclipsing China in both volume and quality of its chips. The backwards nature of China’s own microchip capacity has been spotlighted with the apparent reprisals against those associated with Tsinghua Unigroup. Meanwhile, several officials linked with China’s chip infrastructure investment fund, the China Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund, are also reportedly under investigation. China’s inability to make substantial gains in semiconductor production means it will remain heavily dependent on Taiwanese manufacturers for advanced logic chips to power its information sector. It is not this anger that should be troubling, however, but the response. Taiwan produces 75% of the chips used in the US. Further interruptions in the flow of chips could do great damage to the US economy. If it were not for China’s dependence on these chips the US could be experiencing this worrisome disruption in chip flow.
Western and Soviet leaders throughout the Cold War worried about misperceptions, miscommunications, and inadvertent conflict. The two sides inaugurated a “hotline” that allowed for communications between the two sides in time of crisis. For both sides, confidence-building measures, exchanges of data, and the creation of communications forums and mechanisms, were in their own self-interest. Recognizing the potential for miscalculation and inadvertent escalation, Soviet (and later Russian) leaders, as well as Western ones saw these systems as helping both sides maintain stability. By contrast, there are no such misperception communication protocols in place and in the near term no prospects for the negotiation of such protocols.
As we look ahead
China’s response to the Pelosi visit included unprecedented missile overflights of Taiwan. Such flights could have gone terribly wrong. Had a missile malfunctioned and landed on Taiwan, the consequences might have been catastrophic. Even worse is that now the Chinese may well consider they have established a precedent for future exercises, suggesting that they may conduct such overflights again in the future. They obviously felt emboldened by the weak US and allied response. The Chinese also do not seem to see a need for stability enhancing protocols.
As noted, and importantly, Beijing has chosen to suspend a variety of dialogues with the United States. Some, such as climate change, are clearly aimed at the Biden administration’s priorities. Given the Biden administration’s emphasis on climate change as the greatest threat confronting the United States and the regular inclusion of climate change in Xi-Biden dialogues (including the one just before the Pelosi visit), Chinese leaders are most likely correct in thinking this is a potentially powerful pressure point against the Biden administration. This obvious misplaced pressure point certainly reduces the US ability to influence China. Was trying to influence China what the 6 million barrel of oil sale was all about?
Similarly, given the opioid crisis in the US, and the reality that China is a major source of fentanyl and associated compounds, curtailing discussions in countering narcotics is another strike against a major issue confronting American leaders. However, a firm and resolute attack on the supply chain from China to the Mexican cartels might have overwhelming advantageous results. But this would mean closing the border.
Three of the eight agreements listed above are military dialogues. These include the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, which is intended to address incidents at sea, as well as defense ministry talks and discussions between respective military theater commanders. The decision to suspend these talks reflects the CCP view that such interactions, are not of mutual benefit, but are a favor to outsiders. Like Chinese emperors of old, exchanges are not between equals, but a courtesy or indulgence given to reflect favor—or taken away to reflect displeasure.
The combination of both overflights and reduced interactions creates real potential for greater misunderstanding. Indeed, in both cases, missile overflights and suspension of military dialogues, the Chinese logic is strikingly at odds with Western concepts of crisis stability. The PRC seems to believe that crises are, ultimately, under the control of the participants. That a crisis may take on a momentum of its own, apart from the intended actions of the participants, seems to not be of major concern. What would have happened if the Taiwanese had engaged the Chinese air threat or missile threat? Would China have backed down or escalated into true attacks. This question leads to an obvious potential turning point in the situation. If the Taiwanese were to respond massively to such belligerent Chinese actions and launch preemptive attacks on the mainland, could they momentarily disarm the Chinese? Creating such a pause might be what it is required to defuse the situation. Conversely, and extremely worrisome, is the potential global reactions of the Chinese.
The Chinese appear to almost be exploiting Western concerns with the above mentioned intentional or inadvertent escalation and unintended consequences. They seem to have adopted the view that, if their counterparts want more stability and less risk, then they should concede to China. If Taiwan doesn’t want to worry about missile overflights, then it should promptly enter talks about reunification. If the United States doesn’t want to risk inadvertent crises, it should stay out of the western Pacific, halt arms sales to Taiwan, and press Taipei to engage in reunification talks. As the CCP sees it, crisis stability is the problem of the other side. And, of course this is the problem. Weakness, may breed further emboldening of China.
Following the COVID pandemic, when Americans realized that most of the critical drugs to US medical needs are manufactured in China. There are many other items’ supply chains that China can control. Conversely, the Chinese economy is in a down turn and thus showing its vulnerability. Much of this is the result of the Chinese birth control policies that have created a steadily aging population with more retirees and fewer workers. This will take decades to resolve.
The containment policy that was initiated in 1947 and resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union 45 years later suggests that the long run view adoption of a similar strategy might be successful in a much shorter period of time. Could economic isolation by reducing dependence on Chinese goods accelerate the modification of Chinese behavior? Probably, but US and European dependence on Chinese goods in the short term will be expensive and socially disruptive. So, the conundrum is there, it is visible to those who will look, but solving it the Chinese hope will be too painful.
Taiwan and the US escaped the immediate reaction to the Pelosi visit. But the long-term relationship with China has not returned to normal (whatever that is) and possibly now is the time to adopt a new policy that applies economic containment with relaxation based upon Chinese behavior.
What do you think?