Taipei has become a routine destination for US lawmakers and other officials since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August. Her trip was soon followed by a congressional contingent led by Senator Ed Markey, then a team of trade negotiators helmed by Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, and then, last Thursday night, a third congressional delegation.
President Joe Biden’s administration reportedly encouraged Pelosi to skip her trip and is likely no more pleased with the subsequent flurry of American visits to the independent, democratic island that Beijing claims as its own. But it has been busy with Taipei, too.
The administration recently formalized plans for US-Taiwan trade talks this autumn to address topics including Chinese “economic coercion,” and the Biden Defense Department has signed off on five weapons sales to Taipei. More and bigger arms deals are likely coming soon, given Taiwan’s intent to boost military spending by 13.9% next year.
Beijing, of course, has responded vociferously at every turn, encroaching on Taiwanese defense boundaries by sea and air, vehemently condemning each US outreach, and issuing public reminders that “‘Taiwan independence’ means war.”
The precarity of the moment is enough to draw speculation that the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis has already begun. And whether that’s true or further crises may still be averted, policymakers in Washington would be wise to consider seriously the disproportionate interests at stake here, the security dilemma leading toward destructive escalation, and the need to tread carefully with China for Taiwan’s security – and America’s own.
That Beijing and Washington have disparate degrees of interest in Taiwan’s status is obvious in their respective rhetoric. The Biden administration continues a multi-decade American habit of strategic ambiguity around Taiwan, maintaining simultaneously its support for a one-China policy and the status quo of a free and self-governed Taiwan.
There is no such ambiguity from the Chinese government. “Taiwan has been an inalienable part of China’s territory since ancient times,” insisted Chinese Ambassador to the UK Zheng Zeguang in a recent op-ed. “China has never been divided,” he continued, and “will firmly safeguard, at any cost” its claim to control Taiwan.
Beijing considers the fate of Taiwan a matter of core national interest and a chief application of its military. The same is simply not true of the United States. However much the US supports Taiwanese democracy, however many weapons sales the Pentagon approves or congressional photo-ops are staged, US security does not depend on whether Beijing reifies its power over Taipei.
Taiwan’s conquest would have serious economic and technological fallout, yes, but even accounting for those effects, China remains far more vested in this situation than the United States is now or ever will be – and that means there is a limit to the power of American deterrence given sufficient tumult.
And sufficient tumult is increasingly possible, particularly if we fail to realize this is a case of the “security dilemma,” which Harvard international relations professor Stephen M Walt defines at Foreign Policy as “how the actions that one state takes to make itself more secure – building armaments, putting military forces on alert, forming new alliances – tend to make other states less secure and lead them to respond in kind.”
This produces “a tightening spiral of hostility that leaves neither side better off than before,” Walt says, and we can easily see those ill effects for Taiwan right now.
Compared with a month ago, before an array of US officials descended on the island in a show of security solidarity, Taiwan is less prosperous and less secure. It has been subjected to fresh rounds of Chinese sanctions and live-fire military exercises, including – if the Japanese government is correct – ballistic missiles fired over Taipei.
As Taiwan undertakes to boost its defense (with American help) in reaction to Chinese hostility, Beijing will probably further climb the spiral too.
And here the risk – unlike with the fate of Taiwan itself – undoubtedly does involve the United States, and indeed the whole planet. The Chinese military has a nuclear arsenal and is the US military’s only near peer.
US-China relations are integral to the global economy; it may be impossible to overstate how harmful US-China war would be, even if it never went nuclear. US-China relations are inevitably rivalrous, but the prospect of open conflict is unspeakably grim.
We can – and we must.