In the waning days of the Trump administration, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, worked quietly behind the scenes to allay the fears of Chinese officials that a defeated President Donald Trump might lash out and attack China. Now, with Trump out of office, it’s not a volatile American president that threatens to destabilize the U.S.-China relationship. It’s China.
Tensions are escalating over Beijing’s provocative actions toward Taiwan this month, sending a record number of military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone. The Biden administration is reassessing U.S. policy toward China, and experts fear that a showdown over Taiwan is coming in the years ahead, maybe sooner rather than later.
A rising China could well be the most serious threat the U.S. faces today. The “wag the dog” conflict scenario feared by the Chinese shows concern on both sides about hair-trigger reactions that could spark hostilities between the two nuclear superpowers. These peer competitors have giant economies that dominate a globalizing world. A military clash could disrupt trade, shipping, and supply chains globally—or worse.
The Trump era—with an escalating trade war and Trump’s bellicose rhetoric on the COVID-19 pandemic, harping on what he called “the China virus”—deepened divisions between the two countries and set the relationship on edge. Taiwan could be the flashpoint for miscalculation and conflict. But are Americans ready to see our soldiers and sailors come home in body bags to defend the island from a hostile invasion?
Two days after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Milley contacted his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, to reassure the chief of the Joint Staff of the People’s Liberation Army that America was “100 percent steady” despite the dangerous attempt to overturn the U.S. election. In their recent book, Peril, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa revealed the conversation and wrote that the Chinese were already on high alert in the days before the November 3 election. Milley had called Li then as well, on October 30, when intelligence showed the Chinese feared that America was planning a secret attack against China—possibly to create a crisis, portray Trump as best able to protect the U.S., and increase his chances of winning reelection. The Chinese were understandably shaken further by the insurrection. “Democracy can be sloppy sometimes,” Milley told Li on January 8, according to Peril.
That was an understatement. The chaos in America’s democracy, with Trump and his GOP supporters questioning the results of a free and fair election, and the U.S. failure to stop COVID effectively have only increased the perception among U.S. rivals that our nation is unstable and our democracy may be unraveling.
Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping plan to hold a virtual summit by year’s end, and the tension over Taiwan and those earlier incidents underscore the dangerous stakes in the bilateral relationship. Political predictability and steady communication are vital in preventing inadvertent crises between the two powers. Their focus must be to avoid violence. The escalating saber rattling around Taiwan, China’s economic coercion against the island, and the increasingly aggressive posture of the Chinese military in the Taiwan Strait present Biden with a formidable challenge. He must navigate these dire straits prudently.
“The China threat is so clear and so obvious,” says John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. “We’re in a new, deadly serious game now: how to contain China.” Mearsheimer told me he worries that Biden, under fire from the Washington policy establishment for the chaotic execution of the Afghanistan pullout, might overcompensate and shower even stronger U.S. support on Taiwan, prompting outrage from Beijing, which could lead to conflict. It’s a fair concern.
China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province and part of “one China.” Reuniting it with mainland China is a strategic priority for Xi. But Taiwan, an island of 24 million people, is a democracy, and it has no interest in being part of the Communist nation.
The Biden team is absolutely right to declare its “rock solid” support for Taiwan and to bolster the island’s defenses to avert the need for U.S. military intervention. Biden told Xi that both nations should abide by their previous Taiwan agreement. The U.S. has not taken a position on Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, nor has it supported Taiwan sovereignty. America has offered support but has not explicitly promised to go to war to defend Taiwan. This so-called strategic ambiguity has kept the peace between the three parties for decades. Still, since Biden took office, the Pentagon has repeatedly sent warships into the Taiwan Strait to signal American support for Taipei.
In the past, that might have been sufficient to get China to back off. But in recent years the country has achieved a higher level of military power. After decades with antiquated armaments, China has either reached parity with or exceeds the U.S. in several military modernization areas, such as shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles, and integrated air defense systems, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 report on Chinese military power.
The U.S. defense strategy still focuses on ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Increasingly, though, China “may challenge U.S. access to air, space, cyberspace and maritime domains,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office observed in a recent report.
That’s a potential game-changer. If the U.S. went to war over Taiwan, it could lose—or, at the least, suffer substantial blowbacks. To be sure, Biden has made it a priority to end American wars, not start them. The U.S. Navy still has 11 aircraft carriers to China’s two, but recent war games suggest that the U.S. would struggle against an increasingly capable Chinese military in such a conflict.
Michael Mazarr, a senior political scientist for the Rand Corporation, estimates that in a future war over Taiwan, it is “entirely possible the United States would lose a third to a half of its Air Force and Navy in this war. The risk of nuclear escalation is very real.”
Mazarr argues that the U.S. should stay the course and keep the policy of strategic ambiguity, but he acknowledges that this approach is now being strained. In a recent podcast debate organized by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. Navy Commander Michele Lowe disagreed with Mazarr and argued that the policy should be revised to one of clarity, not ambiguity—the U.S. should promise in no uncertain terms that it would defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression if necessary. “Deterrence works,” Lowe said, “and the biggest deterrence is the threat of U.S. force to any sort of a Chinese invasion scenario of Taiwan.”
But clarity could also bring confrontation closer. Plus, as we learned from the Obama years, drawing a red line could box the U.S. into a situation it would rather avoid. The worst kind of crises, after all, are self-inflicted.
Ironically, just as China is ramping up its threats against Taiwan, public support in America for defending Taiwan is reaching new heights. For the first time, a majority of Americans (52 percent) support sending in U.S. troops to defend the island if China were to invade, a survey of American public opinion by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found.
But war should be avoided at all costs. China and the U.S. are now inextricably linked through their economies—and a conflict could severely disrupt that integration, seriously hurting both economies and their roles in global trade and security. It is in neither American nor Chinese interest to fight.
Taiwan is the 10th-largest goods trading partner to the U.S., a powerhouse of technology and innovation and a leading producer of semiconductors. Sophisticated chips from Taiwan go into smartphones, jet fighters, airliners, exercise machines, and automobiles. “If you use a smartphone, you have a relationship with Taiwan,” said Bi-khim Hsiao of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, Taiwan’s top diplomat in Washington.
“The Chinese government doesn’t want opponents in positions of power in its neighborhood. It saw Hong Kong as a place where threats to its power might grow, so it eliminated their power,” notes Ian Hurd, a professor of political science at Northwestern University. Hurd told me it’s “normal, predictable, and sensible” to expect that China will do the same with Taiwan, eventually. The three parties have followed the ambiguity intentionally so far, he said. “These kinds of ambiguities have value—more than the absolutes. It allows people to get along even if they have different views.”
But the rules of the game are starting to change, and the Biden administration must walk a regional tightrope to support Taiwan while avoiding military escalation. Biden has the experience. He has known Xi since he was Obama’s vice president. He must focus hard on diplomacy. The administration’s response will test and define American power—and China’s rise—for years to come.