A Third Taiwan Strait Crisis? Examining Increased US-China Tensions over Taiwan

In recent years, the longstanding issue of Taiwanese independence has flared from a smoldering ember of disagreement to a pressing concern in U.S.-China relations. Several factors have contributed to both sides’ increasing unease. These include China’s advancing military capabilities compared with the United States’ current armed forces, the Taiwanese pro-independence movement’s growing influence, trade disputes, and the general ebb of U.S.-China relations. On June 14th, The Carter Center’s China Focus partnered with the Grandview Institution to host a webinar featuring professors Oriana Skylar Mastro of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute, Zhao Hai of the Grandview Institution and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Ma Bo of Nanjing University to provide their opinions and engage in dialogue about the Taiwan issue. This discussion of the Taiwan situation reflects these distinguished speakers’ perspectives.

Currently, cross-strait tensions are at their highest since the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis, thanks largely to actions by both Washington and Beijing that each side perceives as unwarranted provocations. During the Trump administration’s tenure, the U.S. devoted more attention to the Taiwan issue than it had in decades, especially by increasing military support to  Taiwan. This support included sending U.S. Navy ships on freedom of navigation voyages through the Taiwan Strait far more frequently than the Obama administration had done and encouraging Taiwan to purchase American-made F-16 multi-role fighter jets. Taiwan agreed and finalized its purchase of 66 F-16s in August 2020, which Beijing viewed as both a provocation and a further indication of growing U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan.

Additionally, the Trump years and the early months of the Biden administration have seen more frequent visits to Taiwan by high-ranking U.S. officials. The then-secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, visited Taiwan in August 2020 (shortly before the F-16 sale was finalized). He was followed by Keith Krach, a U.S. Undersecretary of State in September 2020. UN Ambassador Kelly Craft was scheduled to visit Taiwan in January 2021, but this trip was cancelled at the last minute. Under the Biden administration, former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd and former deputy Secretaries of State James Steinberg and Richard Armitage, visited Taiwan and met President Tsai Ing-wen in April 2021. This month,  U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth, Dan Sullivan, and Chris Coons landed in Taiwan using a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster transport to announce a vaccine donation, marking the first time in 40 years that a U.S. military aircraft landed in Taiwan. Chinese nationalists criticized the Chinese government for failing to do more to discourage the landing, highlighting the extent to which Taiwanese autonomy has become a significant issue in Chinese domestic politics. For its part, China has raised concerns in Washington and Taipei through increasingly aggressive rhetoric, military exercises simulating amphibious assaults, and more frequent incursions into the Taiwanese air defense identification zone, with the most recent taking place on June 15, likely as a response to the U.S. landing in Taiwan.

Beijing began to step up its potentially escalatory actions in 2016, after Taiwan elected Tsai Ing-wen as President. Generally, Beijing’s actions followed actions by Taiwan or the U.S. that CCP leaders perceived as provocations which merited a response. However, China does not exclusively engage in escalatory action or rhetoric in response to American or Taiwanese behavior. President Xi Jinping has also stated his goal to reunify Taiwan with the mainland on occasions of political significance, such as during a January 2019 speech marking the 40th anniversary of China’s “Message to Taiwan” from the Fifth National People’s Congress in 1979. During that speech, Xi asserted that reunification was an inevitable part of “the great trend of history” and stated that although peaceful reunification was preferable, China would not rule out reunification through force.

China has also taken on greater significance in U.S. domestic politics, as evidenced by President Joe Biden’s remarkable shift in tone during the presidential campaign and his presidency. In 2019, Biden remarked, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” In 2021, Biden told New York Times columnist David Brooks that “We’re kind of at a place where the rest of the world is beginning to look to China.” Biden views competition with China as the central component of his drive to prove that democracy is not only still viable, but also a superior system of government to authoritarianism. The combination of Biden’s conviction with the American public’s dramatically worsening perception of China has drawn increased attention to the Taiwan issue. To Biden and the American public, Taiwan represents a test of the U.S.’s commitment to global democracy. Failure to preserve Taiwan’s autonomy would be demoralizing for the American people and a potentially crippling political blow for Biden.

Stronger engagement from the U.S. and Chinese public adds greater danger to an already unstable situation, as popular outcry pressures both governments into increasingly escalatory action. However, both governments are at fault for fanning the flames of public discontent against each other. In the U.S., Trump’s anti-China rhetoric and trade war with Beijing increased anti-China sentiment within the American public, while China’s deliberate attempts to create nationalism have increased its citizens’ negative views of America. However, it must also be noted that China could easily improve its own international reputation by ending its oppression of Uighurs and returning to the agreed-upon One Country, Two Systems framework in Hong Kong, thereby partially defusing tensions with the U.S.

One of the key drivers of increasing tensions in the Taiwan Straits is China’s increasingly powerful PLA. As Professor Mastro pointed out during the Carter Center/Grandview Institute webinar, successful U.S. deterrence of a Chinese offensive against Taiwan depends on the US demonstrating overwhelming military superiority. In 2021, it is impossible to credibly claim that the U.S. holds a significant military advantage in this hypothetical conflict. Certain experts, such as the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, claim that China currently has neither the military capability nor the intent to mount a takeover of Taiwan. However, Professor Mastro argues that China has the capacity to invade, and that because reunification with Taiwan has been one of the CCP’s chief ambitions since the Mao era and Taiwan is highly unlikely to reunify with the mainland peacefully, a Chinese invasion is only a matter of time. Professors Zhao Hai and Ma Bo offered views similar to General Milley’s, arguing that the U.S. still effectively deters China’s long-term ambitions for Taiwan and that China would only be likely to invade Taiwan if Taiwan unilaterally declared independence. Professor Ma Bo also noted that China has several incentives not to invade, namely that it is already engaged in expensive global projects such as the Belt and Road initiative and that taking and holding Taiwan would be very costly because there is very little sympathy for Beijing in the Taiwanese population. Additionally, Professors Zhao and Ma argued that Chinese military exercises and rhetoric are intended to deter Taiwan from moving towards independence rather than to signal that China intends to invade. These could also be intended to deter the U.S. from more closely supporting Taiwan.

China is certain to continue improving its military capacity in the future, and the U.S. is embarking on its own military shift towards “great power competition,” partly in response to China’s increasing strength. This change in focus is short-term as well as long-term. In recent weeks, the U.S. has considered establishing a permanent naval task force and a “named military operation for the Pacific,” which would provide defense secretary Lloyd Austin with a dedicated force and a way to “allocate more dollars and resources to the China problem.” These potential policies originated from the work of the U.S. Department of Defense’s China task force, which President Biden formed in February 2021 to assess then-current U.S. military policy towards China and make recommendations on future policy. After the task force completed its recommendations, Secretary Austin issued a directive on June 9 to begin “several major Department-wide efforts to better address the security challenges posed by China as the United States’ number one pacing challenge.” Additionally, the directive stated that Austin will personally oversee all U.S. military policy towards China. The U.S. Navy also announced on June 15 that one of its aircraft carrier groups is now “conducting maritime security operations” in the South China Sea. Austin clearly views China as his top priority, as evidenced by the June 9 directive and by his statements during his confirmation hearing in January. In the hearing, Austin described China as an “ascending power” and “the most concerning competitor that we’re facing.”

Though a Chinese invasion of Taiwan does not appear likely in the immediate future, if the negative trajectory of U.S.-China relations persists, whatever leverage the US has in encouraging restraint and moderation toward Taiwan will erode.  Fortunately, China and the US can take steps in the military, economic, and diplomatic spheres of the relationship to reverse some of the recent decline in relations, thereby bolstering the prospects for keeping the peace in the Taiwan Straits.

In the military realm, both the U.S. and China are currently deploying more forces in the South China Sea. De-escalation measures must be taken to prevent a future conflict over Taiwan. In the immediate term, as Professor Zhao Hai pointed out during the webinar, the U.S. and Chinese military leadership must establish person-to-person connections and develop crisis management procedures. This will help U.S. and Chinese personnel create mutual trust and de-escalate rather than resort to force during close encounters in the Taiwan Strait. Ideally, the U.S. and Chinese militaries could also develop trust by collaborating, as they have in the past, on low-intensity missions such as anti-piracy efforts and disaster relief.

Longer term, both sides must abandon the current buildup of forces and take steps to reduce their deployments in the South China Sea, as the presence of more U.S. and Chinese forces increases the likelihood of unsafe interactions and accidental escalation. Additionally, Washington should ensure that its military activity in the region is clearly aimed at preserving the status quo in the Taiwan Strait rather than appearing to present a threat to Beijing.

In the diplomatic sphere of the relationship, Washington and Beijing must engage in frank talks to determine each other’s “red lines” regarding engagement with Taiwan and take steps to find a mutually agreeable long-term solution. Both sides must make sincere efforts to understand the other’s perspective. As Professor Mastro notes, Beijing must realize that Washington’s goal of maintaining the status quo is an attempt to meet Beijing halfway and react accordingly. Washington is not attempting to unilaterally impose its vision on Beijing by forcefully advocating for full Taiwanese independence. Instead, it is attempting to prevent Beijing from imposing its own vision on Taipei. Beijing should recognize that Taipei represents no threat to it from a political, economic, or military standpoint. In fact, Beijing has much more to gain in the eyes of the international community by respecting Taiwan’s autonomy than it does by taking over. Additionally, China should take heed of the U.S.’s more aggressive stance and work to de-escalate the situation. The U.S. must not seek conflict, but China needs to recognize that it must contribute to positive relations by reducing its provocative activity. In turn, Washington must also be more aware of how Beijing will react to certain actions, and avoid unnecessary provocations such as frequently sending high-level U.S. officials to Taiwan and encouraging Taiwan to purchase U.S.-made weapons.

Finally, China and the U.S. should embark on good faith efforts to decrease their populations’ animosity towards each other by changing the tone of government rhetoric and prioritizing positive diplomatic relations over scoring domestic political points. President Trump’s rhetoric on China was obviously inflammatory, especially his labeling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “China virus,” which stoked hatred against China and Asian-Americans within the U.S. and offended Beijing. Even though President Biden’s language has been much more restrained, rhetoric like his March 2021 statement that President Xi doesn’t have a “democratic – with a small ‘d’ – bone in his body,” and his remarks to Congress the following month in which he said “We are in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century,” reinforces the impression among the American public that China presents a threat to the U.S. along the lines of the Soviet threat during the Cold War. Similarly, Chinese nationalist rhetoric has encouraged popular resentment of the U.S. and overestimation of China’s power, potentially creating dangerous pressure on Chinese leadership to pursue Chinese domestic priorities regardless of how the U.S. could react. To address these drivers of conflict, China must temper anti-American rhetoric from state-run outlets and tone down its “wolf warrior” diplomacy. In turn, the U.S. should avoid making sweeping pronouncements that frame relations with China as a zero-sum game and more narrowly frame its critiques of China around specific issues.

The U.S. and China can also reduce tensions by engaging in further economic talks aimed at decreasing tariffs to a mutually acceptable level and enacting fairer trading rules. However, China must engage seriously and honor any deal that both parties agree to, as China fell short of its obligations under the phase one trade deal negotiated with the Trump administration. China must also address the U.S.’ longstanding concerns about intellectual property theft, which should be mutually beneficial as China attempts to become technologically self-sufficient.

To preserve the peace in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. and China must establish a healthier relationship rather than following the path towards a new Cold War. However, by steadily working towards improving the relationship in multiple dimensions, better relations are achievable. President Biden has stated his desire for “peace and stability” across the Taiwan Strait. Xi Jinping often speaks of the necessity of international “win-win cooperation” and of building “a community with a shared future for mankind.” Now is the time to match their words with action.

This piece was updated on July 15, 2021.