In international politics, two mutually suspicious states are often trapped in what theorists call the “security dilemma.”
Each of the two states thinks itself supportive of the status quo, but thinks the other state is aggressive. Accordingly, each state sees its own actions as defensive and the other’s as threatening. The bilateral relationship descends in a negative spiral as each state’s action does not increase its own security but, rather, pushes the situation closer to war.
This dynamic applies to China-US tensions over Taiwan. Both Beijing and Washington frame the other side as an aggressor trying to change the status quo in its own favor. Each attempts dissuasion through military means. Each reacts to the other side’s military moves with alarm and believes it must respond with a show of resolve. The result: worsening tensions.
The problem starts with clashing worldviews.
The United States sees the status quo as de facto Taiwan independence unless and until Taiwan’s people decide, free of coercion, to politically unify with mainland China.
Although Washington does not officially consider Taiwan an independent state, it also does not take a position on whether the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government or the Republic of China government has rightful sovereignty over Taiwan.
The US government has reacted with alarm to China’s recent military pressure on Taiwan, which mainly consists of a large increase of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) warplane sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) since 2020.
The US response includes strengthening Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against a PRC attack and reiterating – within the scope of the policy of “strategy ambiguity” – the strong possibility that America would militarily intervene to protect Taiwan.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that if China challenges the American-sponsored liberal rules-based regional order, “we will stand up and defend it,” and that a cross-Strait war 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 convincing Beijing that unification through military means is not feasible – as US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan puts it, “avoiding any kind of scenario where China chooses to invade.”
From Beijing’s standpoint, the status quo is Taiwan being part of China, and the United States challenges that status quo by legitimizing the Taipei government through closer relations, treating Taiwan as a de facto state and making Taiwan more defensible against a possible PRC takeover attempt.
The US government has taken several actions in recent years that play on PRC fears over Taiwan. Congress has enacted laws to deepen US-Taiwan 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, unusually high-ranking US officials – the undersecretary of state and the secretary of health and human services – visited Taiwan. The outgoing Trump administration lifted previous restrictions on US-Taiwan government contacts in January 2021.
Publicized US Navy transits of the Taiwan Strait increased to near-monthly in 2021. Throughout that year, some analysts in the United States publicly advocated changing US policy to an explicit commitment to defend Taiwan.
In addition to offering to sell Taiwan a large arms package, the Biden administration has reportedly approved three vital pieces of high-technology equipment for sale to Taiwan’s submarine-building 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 this seems minor, note that a similar move by Lithuania resulted in a Chinese attempt to destroy Lithuania’s international trade.
In November the same year, two US Congressional delegations visited Taiwan.
The US government recently not only acknowledged but increased the presence of US troops in Taiwan. Although the number remains small, the Chinese government has in the past specified foreign soldiers in Taiwan as one of the triggers for a cross-Strait war.
Particularly distressing for the Chinese are any indications that America is committed to keeping Taiwan out of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) hands. Such have appeared in both the Trump and Biden administrations. A declassified 2018 strategic framework document mentioned a US intention to “defend the first island chain nations, including Taiwan.”
In 2021, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner told a Senate committee that a Taiwan outside of PRC control is “a critical node within the first island chain … anchoring a network of US allies and partners,” and is “critical to the defense of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific.”
These statements and events support a narrative in the PRC that the US’ goal is to “use Taiwan to contain China” by preventing unification and by incorporating Taiwan into a strategy of militarily encircling China.
Beijing is surely aware by now that Taiwan is not naturally gravitating toward voluntary unification. The anti-unification Democratic Progress Party (DPP) now controls the presidency and the legislature. The DPP refuses to characterize Taiwan as part of China, a point Beijing says is non-negotiable.
Public opinion surveys show a steady rise in “Taiwanese” identity at the expense of “Chinese” identity and a decline of interest in politically uniting with the PRC. The offer of “one country, two systems” never had much appeal in Taiwan. Not surprisingly, recent events in Hong Kong only deepened distrust of the CCP across the Taiwan Strait.
To keep Taiwan from drifting toward permanent and de jure independence, the PRC government increasingly relies on coercion because kinder and gentler means have failed. Hence the military signaling via PLA aircraft pointedly flying near Taiwan.
According to Chinese government media, the purpose of these flights is to prevent independence: to “deter Taiwan secessionist provocations and foreign interference attempts” by demonstrating that “the PLA has an overwhelming advantage over the armed forces on the island … even if foreign forces interfere” – that is, that Taipei should not declare de jure independence from China because the PRC could and would militarily overturn it.
The two tragic aspects of the security dilemma are apparent in the case of US-China tensions over Taiwan. One is that neither side wants a military conflict. American policy has long been to set aside a definitive solution to Taiwan’s status and instead promote “stability.”
Beijing, for its part, does not appear to have a deadline for retaking Taiwan, either in the near term or the medium term. Attempting a military conquest of Taiwan is an immensely difficult and risky proposition for the PRC leadership.
Enduring a de facto but not de jure independent Taiwan is much preferable to a war that could create such economic and social disruption inside China as to threaten 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 question by force.
The second tragic aspect is that the additional efforts to make themselves stronger and to demonstrate resolve do not make the players more secure.
Instead of staving off the Taiwan independence scenario, which Beijing characterizes as a security threat to China, PLA warplane incursions and other military exercises near Taiwan not only have generated renewed US support for the Taipei government but, more broadly, have helped galvanize America to maintain its strategic position in Asia by adjusting its posture to meet the “pacing challenge” of China.
Similarly, US assurances to Taiwan and warnings to Beijing have not caused the PRC to back down. Rather, China has reiterated the argument that US support for Taiwan makes war more likely and has repeated threats to “attack US troops who come to Taiwan’s rescue” and to inflict an “unbearable price” on the US.
There is a way out of the negative spiral. China’s continued prosperity and security do not depend on incorporating Taiwan as a province of the PRC, and the Party’s legitimacy at home does not hang on immediately resolving the issue. Nor is a de jure independent Taiwan essential to the US remaining the pre-eminent strategic power in the Asia-Pacific region.
Both Beijing and Washington should be able to agree that a decisive war can wait.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center. Follow him on Twitter: @Denny_Roy808