The textbook dilemma traps the United States and China in a spiral of war
In international politics, two states that distrust each other are often trapped in what theorists call the “security dilemma.”
Each of the two states believes itself to be in favor of the status quo, but thinks that the other state is aggressive. Accordingly, each state regards its own actions as defensive and those of the other as threatening. The bilateral relationship descends into the negative spiral for the action of each State does not increase its own security but, on the contrary, brings the situation closer to war.
This dynamic applies to Sino-American tensions over Taiwan. Beijing and Washington portray the other side as an aggressor trying to change the status quo in its favor. Each attempts deterrence by military means. Everyone reacts to military moves on the other side with concern and believes they must respond with a show of determination. The result: heightened tensions.
The problem starts with conflicting worldviews.
The United States views the status quo as Taiwan’s de facto independence unless and until the people of Taiwan decide, without coercion, to unite politically with mainland China.
Although Washington does not officially consider Taiwan an independent state, it also does not take a position on the legitimate sovereignty of the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) or the Republic of China over Taiwan.
The US government reacted with alarm to China’s recent military pressure on Taiwan, which mainly consists of a sharp increase in the sorties of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warplanes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) since 2020.
The US response includes reinforcement Taiwan’s ability to to defend oneself against a PRC attack and reiterating – under the policy of “strategic ambiguity” – the strong possibility that America will intervene militarily to protect Taiwan.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that if China challenges the US-sponsored liberal rules-based regional order, “we will rise up and defend it“, and that a war across the strait would have “terrible consequences… starting with China.”
President Joe Biden even briefly strayed into “strategic clarity” in October 2021 when he answered “yes” to the question of whether the United States would intervene to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.
The stated goal is to convince Beijing that unification by military means is not feasible – as advised by US national security adviser Jake Sullivan. the dish, “avoiding any type of scenario where China chooses to invade”.
From Beijing’s perspective, the status quo is that Taiwan is part of China, and the United States is challenging this status quo by legitimizing the Taipei government through closer relations, treating Taiwan as a de facto state. and making Taiwan more defensible against a potential PRC takeover attempt.
The US government has taken several steps in recent years that play into the PRC’s fears about Taiwan. Congress has enacted laws to deepen U.S.-Taiwanese cooperation, including the Taiwan Travel Act (2018), the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act (2019), and the Taiwan Assurance Act (2020).
In 2020, exceptionally high-ranking U.S. officials — the Under Secretary of State and the Secretary of Health and Human Services — visited Taiwan. The outgoing Trump administration lifted previous restrictions on US-Taiwanese government contact in January 2021.
Publicized United States Navy transits of the Taiwan Strait has increased to almost every month in 2021. Throughout this year, some analysts in the United States have publicly advocated changing American policy to explicit policy. commitment to defend Taiwan.
In addition to offering to sell in Taiwan a large weapon pack, the Biden administration has would have approved the sale of three high-tech pieces of equipment vital to Taiwan’s submarine construction program.
According to a September 2021 report, the US government was “seriously considering” changing the name of Taiwan’s quasi-embassy in Washington from “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to “Taiwan Representative Office”.
If that sounds minor, note that a similar move by Lithuania prompted a Chinese attempt to destroy Lithuania’s international trade.
In November of the same year, two US congressional delegations visited Taiwan.
Recently, the US government has not only recognized but increased the presence of American troops In Taiwan. Although the number remains low, the Chinese government has in the past singled out foreign soldiers in Taiwan as one of the triggers for a cross-strait war.
Any sign that America is committed to keeping Taiwan out of the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is particularly distressing for Chinese people. Such events have appeared in the Trump and Biden administrations. A declassified 2018 strategic framework document noted an American intent to “defend the First Nations of the Island Chain, including Taiwan”.
In 2021, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner Recount a Senate committee that a Taiwan outside of PRC control is “a critical node within the first island chain…anchoring a web of U.S. allies and partners”, and is “essential to the defense of vital United States interests in the Indo-Pacific.
These statements and events support a story in the PRC that the goal of the United States is to “use Taiwan to contain Chinaby preventing unification and incorporating Taiwan into a strategy of military encirclement of China.
Beijing is surely aware by now that Taiwan does not naturally gravitate toward voluntary unification. The anti-unification Democratic Progress Party (DPP) now controls the presidency and legislature. The DPP refuses to characterize Taiwan as part of China, a point that Beijing considers non-negotiable.
Opinion polls show a steady increase “Taiwanese” identity to the detriment of the “Chinese” identity and a decline of interest to unite politically with the PRC. The “one country, two systems” offer has never had much appeal in Taiwan. Unsurprisingly, recent events in Hong Kong alone increased distrust of the CCP across the Taiwan Strait.
To prevent Taiwan from drifting into permanent and de jure independence, the PRC government is increasingly relying on coercion because softer, gentler means have failed. Hence the military signaling via PLA planes ostensibly flying near Taiwan.
According to Chinese government media, the purpose of these flights is to prevent independence: to “deter Taiwanese secessionist provocations and attempts at foreign interference” by demonstrating that “the PLA has a overwhelming advantage on the armed forces on the island…even if foreign forces interfere,” i.e. Taipei should not declare de jure independence from China because the PRC could and would overthrow militarily.
Both tragic aspects of the security dilemma are apparent in the case of US-China tensions over Taiwan. The first is that neither side wants a military conflict. US policy has long been to set aside a definitive solution to Taiwan’s status and promote “stability” instead.
Beijing, for its part, doesn’t seem to have a time limit to take back Taiwan, either in the short term or in the medium term. Attempting a military conquest of Taiwan is a extremely difficult and risky proposal to the leadership of the PRC.
Enduring a de facto but not de jure independent Taiwan is far preferable to a war that could create such economic and social disruption inside China that it threatens Xi Jinping’s leadership position. It is highly plausible that China’s recent military activity near Taiwan is, as Chinese media say, a warning against independence, not an indication that Xi has already decided to settle the issue by force.
The second tragic aspect is that the extra efforts to strengthen and show determination do not reassure the players.
Instead of ruling out the scenario of Taiwan independence, which Beijing calls a threat to China’s security, the PLA fighter jet incursions and other military exercises near Taiwan have not only generated renewed support from the United States for the government in Taipei but, more broadly, helped galvanize America to maintain its strategic position in Asia by setting its posture to respond torhythm challenge” from China.
Likewise, US assurances in Taiwan and warnings in Beijing have not made the PRC back down. On the contrary, China reiterated the argument that US support for Taiwan is war Following probable and has repeated threats of “attack American troops coming to the aid of Taiwan” and to inflict a “unbearable price” about the United States.
There is a way out of the negative spiral. China’s continued prosperity and security do not depend on Taiwan’s incorporation as a province of the PRC, and the Party’s legitimacy at home does not depend on immediately solving the problem. Nor is a de jure independent Taiwan essential for the United States to remain the preeminent strategic power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Beijing and Washington should be able to agree that a decisive war can wait.
Denny Roy is a senior researcher at the East-West Center. Follow him on Twitter: @Denny_Roy808