Amanda did this by tackling questions such as:
- What are key points of difference in the US and Chinese worldviews?
- Why are both sides intentionally elevating tensions?
- What has led to the current change in decades-long status quo?
- What is the importance of President Xi’s declaration of ‘reunification’ by 2049?
- Why is Taiwan so important to both China and the US?
- What do people in Taiwan want?
- What lessons is China drawing from the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
Amanda’s work at Crisis Group focuses on conflicts in which China plays an important role, and developments in China’s foreign policy that relate to conflict prevention and resolution. As you will hear, it is understandable why she is a respected go-to voice on matters affecting China and the region. Some of the topics we covered are:
- Amanda’s journey into researching China
- Current state of affairs between China and the US
- Increased tension = better preparedness
- Narratives for domestic vs international audiences
- The role of history in China’s quest for ‘national rejuvenation’
- International laws, hypocrisy, and moral high ground
- The risk of a ‘hot’ war
- Language of ‘Reunification’ vs ‘unification’ with Taiwan
- Complexity surrounding Taiwan’s status
- Shifts in perceptions, especially the youth, in Taiwan
- The historical, cultural and strategic importance of Taiwan to China
- Lessons China is learning from Russian invasion of Ukraine
- Regional impact of growing tensions
- Current crisis management mechanisms and what else is needed
- Likelihood of Taiwan pursuing independence
- Relevance of Chinese demographics
- Assessment of risk of Chinese invasion of Taiwan
If you like what you’ve heard, please take a moment to like and review the show wherever you get your pods. You can also support the show on our Patreon page here.
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Amanda Hsiao – China, US And Taiwan: A Deep Dive
My guest is Amanda Hsiao, who is the Senior Analyst for China at the International Crisis Group. She focuses on conflicts in which China plays an important role in developments in China’s foreign policy that relate to conflict prevention and resolution. Prior to the Crisis Group, Amanda established and managed the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue China Program in Beijing. She was overseeing projects related to the South China Sea, US-China relations, and China’s evolving approach to conflict mediation.
Before that, Amanda was a field researcher on the conflict in South Sudan for the Enough Project. Amanda has degrees from Pomona College and the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. She joined me in this episode for a deep dive into the increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing. Amanda, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
Thank you so much for having me on.
Before we dive into the undoubtedly dense subject of China and perspectives from China, maybe we can find out a little bit more about you. How did you end up in the world of conflict initially, and what motivated your extensive career?
That question is forcing me to reflect on some of these things. Decisions around careers aren’t necessarily so well thought out. In university, I was particularly interested in African politics. That led me to study abroad in Africa. I got lucky, and I got a research position at a think tank in DC that focused on conflicts in Africa. Specifically, I started working in Sudan. I had a chance to be based there for a couple of years. That was what started it. I had no intention of working on Asia at all, but then life happened and I started working on Asia following grad school. That’s how I got my start.
You are a Mandarin speaker, is that right? I think I saw that somewhere on one of your profiles.
I was born in Taipei, and I grew up in the US. I’m a Mandarin speaker. I was one of those kids that took Chinese school every Saturday. It’s all about preserving their heritage and all of that. The diaspora community is particularly focused on that, but it never crossed my mind that I would be working in China. It was an intimidating field, so it was unaccepted.
I suspect your cultural understanding of nuance and history is undoubtedly an asset when it comes to your analysis.
I hope so. The cultural nuances, when I was in Beijing, I was extremely sensitive to that and personal interactions. I think by virtue of looking Chinese and speaking Chinese well enough, I might have gotten slightly less varnished interactions from Chinese interlocutors. There was less of a feeling on their side that they had to perform or signal a certain posture because it was before a Western audience. I’d like to think they were slightly more direct with me.
You are speaking the same language metaphorically and literally, I wonder if it has ever worked against you, especially given that you were born in Taipei. Has that cultural link ever worked against you in your analysis, particularly from the Chinese side?
For sure. My family is from the Mainland and then went over to Taiwan. There’s an expectation sometimes that if you are of Chinese heritage, you are more sympathetic to China’s positions and that you should automatically understand. There’s a little bit of that, but there was always this awkward moment at the beginning of introductions where they will ask where you are from. I tended to mix it all up. I’m born in Taipei. I grew up in the US, but I have lived all over the world, so please accept me as a global citizen, but that never quite works.
I have that as my tagline on LinkedIn, “Global citizen,” but oftentimes, people laugh. However, that’s how I see it because I have lived so many different identities in many ways, and that resonates with me. I can also see why it wouldn’t necessarily land too well with the people that you are dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
It’s an interesting pivot because you are so closely tapped into the crisis. I don’t want to call it crisis because it’s not necessarily that, and that’s a loaded term but maybe I will ask you first. What is the state of affairs in China? I’m going to use the US in the first instance because Taiwan will come into that. Given what we know of the global competition between China and the US, maybe that’s an interesting point to start. What is the state of affairs between the emerging and the hegemon?
The relationship has settled into an openly competitive and confrontational relationship in which decision-makers on both sides are more risk tolerant, and they see the introduction of friction as necessary for achieving their national objectives. The competition is increasingly ideological. That’s another piece of it. It’s partly seen as a rivalry between the two domestic systems and which system can perform better. Increasingly, about divergent visions of what the world order should be.
The fact that both sides are now increasingly understanding this contest through an ideological lens essentially increases the likelihood that either side will perceive some unintended military collision or spike in tensions around the long-standing dispute as a high-stakes event that tests the credibility and the resolve of each side, which effectively makes conflict management more difficult when you attach such high stakes.
To get into the details slightly, we have seen that under the Biden administration, there’s been a real push to demonstrate that democracies work, especially following the Trump years. There’s this rhetoric that has been repeated multiple times that Biden sees this current moment as a battle between democracies and autocracies over the shape of the future world order. These are incredibly high stakes when you think of it in that sense.
The US now assesses that China not only has the capabilities to reshape the international order but that they have the intention of reshaping the international order. On China’s side, there was a lot of hope at the beginning of the Biden administration that there would be a shift towards, if not an altogether friendly relationship, but there was an expectation that tensions would reduce and that tariffs would be lifted. Tariffs are still in place and things like that.
Beijing sees Washington’s emphasis on the ideological component of the competition as a condemnation of their political system. As Washington trying to undermine the Chinese communist parties and the Chinese system’s moral authority globally, their legitimacy and their moral authority. When Washington criticises Beijing, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, it’s reinforcing a lot of these longstanding anxieties that Beijing has that external forces are attempting to change China’s political system and bring down the communist party.
It’s stirring a lot of those anxieties on Beijing’s side. For Beijing, we have seen them more openly embrace the fact that there is competition. They don’t like to say that because they think that fuels competition by openly declaring it, but we have seen that they are increasingly open about it and they also see that it is about proving that the political system is more effective.
The first thing I want to pick up on is there were a number of interesting points you made. The first one was that these tensions are necessary or that they both view these tensions as necessary. Why necessary?
You will hear the sentiment from both sides, that at least the military piece of it is there needs to be a military component to our policy because without it, and specifically here, I’m referring to military presence operations within the first island chain and increasing military build-up by both sides. There’s a conviction amongst many that without that piece, the other side won’t take your rhetoric, your position, and your stated commitments seriously.
This has become very much accepted on both sides. You need the military piece. How many times have I heard this from both sides? It’s particular to Washington because on Beijing’s side, the idea that they are in a struggle with the US has been there for some time but under Xi Jinping, that is an element that has grown more explicit and you see more people saying it.
On Washington’s side, there’s been a fundamental shift in how Washington is managing its relationship with China. That’s based on the belief that the policy of engagement of pursuing trade relations with China, that such a policy would lead to domestic political reform in Beijing, to put it lightly, is no longer in vogue.
The mainstream view now is that didn’t work and the response has been almost all the way to the other end, which is that we need to introduce more friction. We need to embrace the competitive elements of this relationship. We now are faced with a China that is not only militarily capable but a China that we see as fundamentally aggressive. Those are the key pieces that drive the view in Washington that friction is necessary.
That’s interesting because the way I see that is you are effectively increasing potentially the threat for your domestic audience, and even in your mind, in order to then have something to build against. In order to develop your military, increase your budgets, increase your spending, sharpen the commitment, and clarify the purpose, vision, and mission that you are to follow.
If both sides are doing that and they are doing that in a vacuum for their domestic audiences, doesn’t that ultimately contribute to the classic security dilemma where it’s perceptions, action, reaction, action, and reaction? I’m perceiving China to become more aggressive, and that’s the narrative I’m building to strengthen my position and my deterrent. China is doing the same, perceiving me as growing more aggressive and more threatening increasing my military capabilities. Isn’t that a self-licking ice cream?
That’s exactly what’s happening right now, and it’s partly as you alluded to about mobilising the respect of bureaucracies. There’s an element of that. There’s also this conviction that this is the most effective way of signalling to the other side. We know the theory around deterrence is that you not only need to deter, but you need to assure as well, which we can discuss a bit more. It’s the piece where there might be some improvements or some additional thinking is required. It’s clear that both sides are pursuing the military piece of it and it’s clear that both sides are focused on military deterrence, but what about the other pieces of the strategy?
What brought this along? The status quo seems to be upset or there are turbulences and those turbulences, depending on which side of the world you are looking at it from are very much turning into tremors potentially. Why the change and what triggered it?
It’s not only about Chinese capabilities. Chinese military capabilities have increased significantly. Their economic influence and leverage have increased tremendously. Chinese hard power has grown, but that combined with the West’s reading of Chinese intentions has caused a shift in thinking and the data points that are generally used to identify Chinese intentions.
I feel obliged to say and any other China reader would agree. Determining Chinese intention is not a particularly easy task. There’s a lot of reading of party official rhetoric and parsing through the language, shifts in the language, and little changes in words here and there. Somehow that’s supposed to reveal intention.Determining Chinese intention is not a particularly easy task. Click To Tweet
We all know the limits of that. That’s like saying, “I can understand Washington’s intentions purely from reading the National Security Strategy or something.” It will get you to a point, but it doesn’t reveal the whole picture. That’s to qualify any analysis about Chinese intentions, but the data points we have are not few. The data points include the Chinese militarisation of islands and outposts in the South China Sea that they control.
A revisionist reading of UNCLOS in its claims around the South China Sea. Its actions along the border that is in dispute with India. Its use of grey zone coercion around the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands. Also, its actions internally as well are suggestive that Beijing, right now under Xi Jinping, is no longer in this era of hiding its strength, capabilities, and time, which was the mantra under Deng Xiaoping.
What we are faced with now is a much more assertive, ambitious, and unapologetically so Beijing that is very much intent on securing, and the phrase they like to use is they are actively shaping the external environment to their favour. It has been more than active. It has been extremely proactive and extremely assertive.
Those are the data points that suggest to most analysts and myself that this is a China whose intentions might well be aggressive if allowed to do so. If allowed to push for its ultimate objectives, and if not kept in check by the rest of the international community. The realisation that we are facing a different China is not the only trigger. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of Trump himself in being a force in the US shift in policy towards China.
It took a fairly unconventional president to enact such a shift in policy. That was a key reason as well. In terms of Beijing, as I mentioned before, their attitude towards the US has always been competitive. There’s always been an element of that where there’s an understanding that China is in this long-term struggle with the US. That is not necessarily new, but it’s become more public and it plays a bigger role in attitudes and shaping perceptions in Beijing now because that competition is more explicit.
To what extent is it also have to do historically with China’s perceived place in the world? It’s often said that the West thinks in decades and China thinks in centuries. You are making the point that this is almost the coming of age or returning of China onto the global scene and asserting its dominance post the century of humiliation. To what extent do you think the narrative that’s embodied in the Chinese psyche that their manifest destiny is to command this presence on the global stage?
Historically, under multiple Chinese leaders, the national objective has more or less stayed the same, which is to achieve national rejuvenation of China following the century of humiliation. It’s the return of China to the centre of the world stage. What national rejuvenation means, which is supposed to occur by 2049, is for China to become a least as powerful as the US if not more.
The way that the leadership understands the international environment is that it’s facing a world that is undergoing what they like to say major changes unseen in a century, which is a transitional period in which they see US unipolar power ending, but appeared in which Chinese power or China has not grown strong enough to assume a position as Washington’s peer. It’s this transitional period that we are in from the leadership’s perspective.
Going back to this idea of creating a positive external environment, the strategic goal is to extend what they see. In this period, they see both strategic opportunities, but they see a lot of challenges. What they are trying to do is to manage this period in a way that exploits those opportunities and manages these challenges. A key challenge is the US efforts right now to what they see as pressing China’s rise, including now under the Biden administration, through the formation of anti-China coalitions. This is a key challenge right now that they have to manage.
Maybe you can explore that in a bit more detail. What do you mean by the anti-China coalitions?
Particularly, under the Biden administration, which has been relatively effective in strengthening the US alliances and partnerships with like-minded countries. This would include shoring up the Quad, the signing of AUKUS, the push for the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and having relative success in focusing both NATO and the G7 on the China threat. These are all activities that Beijing sees as threatening. These are activities that exclude China and are targeted at China, and they are not wrong.
I guess that’s the key there. They are not wrong, but it’s very difficult to take an objective view and see this as, “Isn’t everybody just doing the same thing?” If we stand aside as interested bystanders, do you see this going any other way than a form of a hot conflict that’s going to at some point test the other? It’s because that’s ultimately what’s going to assert dominance over the rising power or the up to now still the hegemon in global affairs.
Before I get into that, I want to touch very quickly on your point about, “Isn’t that what everyone is doing?” It’s because this is a point that is important. Back to Chinese intentions and how difficult it is to read but China has shown itself to have a fundamentally hierarchical view of not only the region but of the world in which there are big powers including itself and the US middle powers and small powers.
There is this view that major powers have always been able to dictate the rules of the game and to get away with violations of the rules of the game when it suited their interests. This is something that when US rhetoric focuses on international laws, norms, and the rules-based order, the Chinese are incredibly cynical about those concepts and not without reason. That’s why Beijing has shown itself to be willing to selectively implement those aspects of international laws and norms that suit its interest and to discard those that do not. It’s because it sees itself as doing what other major powers are doing.
To pick up on that because that’s an important point because we are talking about the moral high ground here as to who retains the moral high ground in the face of interest prevailing, which is always a fundamental clash between these values and interests. The democratic world, myself included, projects these values of democracy and freedom and freedom of speech. That’s the narrative that we try to embody.
However, we know very well that our national interests have overshadowed our values and we have breached the very global rules order that we are trying to project outwardly, not least in some of the wars that we participated in. Iraq stands out as a spectacular case of its own goal, but then that begs the question. I have got to be careful here. I’m not necessarily defending Beijing, but I’m trying to understand Beijing’s perspective, because they have every right to say, “Hold on a minute. You are being hypocritical. Therefore, the rules-based order that you seek to protect, you only do so when it’s in your interest,” right?
It’s right to say that the rules-based order that Washington is defending, it’s defending not only because of values, but because it’s in its strategic interests and it helps to ensure American pre-eminence in the world. It is the system upon which US legitimacy and moral authority sit. Beijing sees that very clearly. What Beijing is saying in not-so-persuasive ways is that given our stature in the world now, and given where we will be going forward, we deserve a say in what that system is.What Beijing is saying in not-so-persuasive ways is that given our stature in the world now, and given where we will be going forward, we deserve a say in what that system is. Click To Tweet
If we are talking about the long term, how do you manage this competition between the US and China? We said there’s this military piece of it, but there’s also this other piece that requires more thinking on all sides, which is how do you accommodate Chinese preferences and interests in the international order? I don’t think that it is that controversial to say. Senior officials in the Biden administration insist that their ultimate objective is coexistence with China, however much the military piece of it would suggest it’s not to China.
Coexistence is accepted by Washington. China is not going anywhere. To add to that, there are no signs of changes to their domestic political system. We are not going to see a democratic China anytime soon. Given those realities, the question of how you coexist is critical. It very much has to do with 1) To what extent are the US and its partners willing to accommodate Chinese interests and 2) What are the processes that would be deemed legitimate for accommodating those interests? There’s no institution for this. Is it a series of bilateral negotiations and reaching some understanding between Washington and Beijing? What is that? It’s because it has to be seen as legitimate.
Is it too cynical to say one world with two systems?
That’s exactly the slogan that Beijing would trot out. I wouldn’t be shocked. If there are Chinese senior officials who read this, I wouldn’t be shocked if I hear it next time.
I say that in jest, but it strikes me especially given what you are saying, that there is a recognition that we have to coexist unless none of us is doing that type of thing. It’s a necessary realisation. It’s now finding ways how we do that in a way that in some sense a win-win rather than a winner takes all, which is where the challenges are. That’s what you are alluding to that the military solution is a winner takes all solution, and we need alternatives.
You started talking about the potential for a hot war. Not only is the military piece of it inclined towards zero-sum thinking, but also it creates risks in the short to medium term. These are very concrete risks. It’s not the theoretical risks. I don’t think that conflict is inevitable at all. It’s constructive for decision-makers to keep that in mind on both sides. It’s not inevitable, but if we look at the risks in the short to medium term, they exist.
I’m referring to the possibility of a total misinterpretation of the other side’s intentions. The example that I like to use often is that in the autumn of 2020, Beijing misinterpreted a series of US actions as indicating a possible US plan to attack Chinese outposts in the South China Sea. This was something that any casual observer of US policy would have automatically said, “No, that’s absurd. There is no plan to do so.”
Within the Beijing ecosystem of information, this gained a lot of currency. Fortunately, in that situation, US officials were able to help pre-empt any escalation because they picked up on this. At the time, there were not many channels of dialogue. This is the controversy around Milley calling his Chinese counterparts. I don’t know, but that was in the news a lot.
It was the US side that noticed this risk and used existing defence communication channels to convey directly to Chinese senior defence officials that there was no intention, no attack was planned or was underway. This was an example in which the US was able to head off a total misreading of their intentions, but it also illustrates the intensifying risks and the possibility that Beijing could misread the US.
Aside from that, a different set of risks is the risk of an unintended collision at sea or in the air because there is simply an increase in military presence and operations in close proximity in and around the first island chain. The chance of a collision is low, but ever-present. A collision was to occur, particularly in contested areas where the two sides have different understandings of their rights and their obligations under international law.
The South China Sea would be a key area where the two sides have very different understandings of international law. Also, should an incident occur during a Freedom of Navigation Operation, tensions can ratchet up very quickly. It’s because we are living in this environment where both sides are in competition mode and inclined towards zero-sum thinking, the tendency will be to perceive hostile motives on the other side, once an incident happens.
Once an incident is made public, officials on both sides will also come under domestic pressure to take tough public stances to show resolve, which then reduces the space for private accommodation and negotiating off-ramp. The likelihood from these scenarios of a full-scale conflict is low, but we do have to be aware that these risks exist.
That’s interesting, particularly, the unintended nature of it, an accident of some sort. Whilst the two heads of the military might be able to explain it and say, “All good.” The interesting piece you said there is the domestic audience because we have to remember that on all sides there are hawks who express nationalistic sentiment and will put pressure on the domestic leaders for their political gain.
Let’s say Biden is perceived as not doing enough, he will be criticised. I suspect something similar occurs in China as well. Maybe that’s a neat way to go to Taiwan because we saw that with Nancy Pelosi’s visit. We saw the wrenching up of nationalistic rhetoric in China. What do you think about that?
Domestic politics cut in both directions when we think about how it affects Beijing’s stance on Taiwan. There are a lot of hard-line nationalist views in China, which the leadership has helped to build up through their domestic propaganda efforts. Part of this is manufactured by constantly elevating the importance of unification with Taiwan. Xi Jinping has reduced the political space on this for himself by saying that national rejuvenation by 2049 is linked directly to unification with Taiwan.
That’s in an explicit way, attaching more importance to unification with Taiwan because now you are saying that our rejuvenation is conditioned on our ability to unify with Taiwan. Our rise to great power status is conditioned on Taiwan. He’s leaving very little domestic political space to back down from that going forward.
To pick up another point there and you are probably referring to the just published white paper. They don’t use unification if I’m correct. It’s reunification, which is a vastly different picture that’s being put out there. I find that interesting that it’s the red line. That’s a very clear red line and a necessary part of China’s future by 2049.
Interestingly, you raised that. If I can get into something slightly different that points to these increasingly divergent understandings across the strait. Let’s set the US aside for a second but between Taiwan and China. A Taiwan veteran expert, Shelley Rigger, put it this way in a New Yorker piece. For some unification is getting back together after divorce. For others, Taiwan and China were never married in the first place. That points to the words that are used as well. The Chinese were getting back together.
Whether you like it or not.
I can do it the easy way or I can make it hard for you.
You are coming home, honey.
When put in those terms, it sounds even more abusive, right? One of the issues now because we can also look at the overall Taiwan situation as a struggle between the three key parties as to what the status quo should be. Each has their preferred status quo, and they are not happy to see it changing right now and shifting in different ways. For the Taiwanese, the shift there has been that there are changing attitudes amongst the Taiwanese youth. A survey showed that only 2.4% poll identified as only Chinese and 62.7% as only Taiwanese.
How different is that from the previous polls? Is that a vast difference?
It is a significant change. I don’t have the numbers from previous polls but it’s a change. What that points to is the increasing irrelevance of China period to Taiwanese youth. We are going to get into the specifics of the 1 country 2 systems solution that China is holding fast onto as their political solution for Taiwan, which we have seen how it played out in Hong Kong. This shift in identity and the lack of credibility in what China is offering, all of that points to the divergence between the two sides of the strait that makes peaceful unification more challenging for Beijing. They see this as well.
This is the reason for the rhetoric. “We’d like to do it peacefully, but stand ready to use our full military might to reunify.” I find that fascinating because there’s so much psychology in here that’s deeply infused with the idea of nationhood and nation-state from all parties in many ways. Taiwan sees itself as an independent nation.
Most of the world, certainly all the global powers, still accept the One China policy and that is the status quo. However, if an uninformed observer was watching from the side, they would consider Taiwan an independent nation. Maybe you can give us some background context as to what the status quo is, how that’s changing, and what the tensions that exist within how Taiwan is viewed by the rest of the world or much of the rest of the world.
This will require a tiny bit of history to outline what the status quo as understood is. When the US and China normalised relations in 1979, the US ended its official relationship with Taiwan. A key part of relations resuming was finding a way to accommodate both sides’ concerns over Taiwan. What emerged was the One China policy for the US which recognises that the PRC, the People’s Republic of China, is China’s sole legal government, but only acknowledges the position of the PRC that Taiwan is a part of the PRC. It does not recognise this position. These little things are extremely important.
The choice of words and the distinction it implies was intentional. That was the intention of diplomats back in 1979. At the same time, as part of a series of communique that led to the resumption of relations, Washington also stated at that time that it has no intention of pursuing a one China, one Taiwan policy. I say this because that’s important for our understanding of the Biden administration’s position now.
This wasn’t the only piece of it. Those were the commitments that Washington made to China about Taiwan, but Washington also made commitments to Taipei. In 1979, the Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which establishes the framework for the continuation of unofficial relations between Washington and Taipei. The act says that any effort to determine the future of Taiwan through nonpeaceful means would be considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the US. To that end, authorises the US government to provide Taiwan with defensive arms and to also maintain the capacity of the US itself to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that could jeopardise the security of Taiwan or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan.
There was a balancing act from the start where Washington was looking both ways and made commitments to both sides. These understandings are not convergent. They overlap, but they are not convergent. That was fine for a time because there was enough ambiguity that all sides can say that they got what they wanted. Chinese capabilities weren’t what they are now.
Increasingly, under the stress of competition, these changes to the status quo are seen as more threatening by all sides. The key change on the Chinese side is that their military capabilities have advanced so much that the use of force to compel unification, while not yet viable, is becoming more viable. Not only that, but we talked about this before. Their intentions simply appear more assertive and aggressive.
In Taiwan specifically, Beijing has done a very good job of diplomatically isolating Taipei. Since 2016, peeled away eight countries that had previously recognised Taiwan. They have blocked Taipei’s participation in international organisations. It’s tightened its understanding of the ’92 consensus, which is a cross-strait consensus. There has been an uptick in military coercion. Nearly daily intrusions of Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone by PLA aircraft and now, crossings of the median line post-Pelosi.
All of this is for Washington. They have begun to see that the odds of a military invasion of Taiwan are becoming too high. Also, for Washington, the expectation has always been that Taiwan’s status should be resolved through peaceful means that are non-unilateral. Washington feels that it’s catching up to events. There’s a sense of urgency that it has to take action to deter additional aggressive Chinese action. We have to stop it here, is the attitude coming out of Washington.
That’s prompted a flurry of actions that started under Trump but has been more substantive under the Biden administration. Now, the US is using language and taking actions that elevate Taiwan’s political status. Washington calls Taiwan a key US partner and is constantly saying, “Our commitments to Taiwan are rock solid.” It’s internationalised the Taiwan issue. It’s ensured that Taiwan is mentioned in G7 statements.
In 2021, this is the first time a G7 statement referenced the Taiwan Strait. Regional governments are increasingly concerned as well, and that shouldn’t all be credited to Washington. That should be credited to Beijing as well because regional governments are also worried now about what China is doing. We have seen bilateral cooperation increase. We have seen an added sense of urgency, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to bolster Taiwan’s defence.
The final piece of it that is important, and going back to what we were saying before about the US committing to China, is that it had no intention of pursuing a one China, one Taiwan policy. What’s notable is that some of the rhetoric coming out of the Biden administration is implying that Washington would prefer for Taiwan to remain de facto autonomous from China.Some of the rhetoric coming out of the Biden administration is implying that Washington would, for now at least, prefer for Taiwan to remain de facto autonomous from China. Click To Tweet
That represents a shift in the level of strategic importance that the US is attaching to Taiwan. For Beijing, this is all very worrisome. They see Washington playing the Taiwan card as a pressure point in the larger competition. They see US actions in rhetoric as hollowing out some of those commitments that the US had previously made and continue to say that they uphold China. It’s concerned that Washington’s preferred end goal is to maintain and ensure that Taiwan remains separated from China in perpetuity. That would be quite a shift from the status quo.
Isn’t China then also doing the same thing by explicitly stating that by 2049, they will achieve reunification? We are left in this conundrum where ultimately both sides are drawing a red line across a poor island that it seems is quite clear as to what it wants and what its people want, but is effectively almost a chess piece on a geopolitical chess board. Why is Taiwan so important to China? What is it about Taiwan that is potentially leading to an all-out war with the US?
A lot of it has to do with history. After the Qing Dynasty, there were two key political groups that emerged. It was the Nationalist parties or the Kuomintang or the KMT, which saw the future of China as a constitutional republic, as the Republic of China. There was a Chinese Communist Party, which envisioned a socialist China based on the principles of Marxism-Leninism.
The two sides fought in a civil war throughout World War II. There was a moment when they cooperated to fight the Japanese, but for the most part, they were fighting with each other as well. In ’49, the CCP established the People’s Republic of China with Beijing as its capital. The KMT under Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan and said that the capital of the Republic of China was in Taipei.
For a time, both sides claimed to be effectively the rulers of China, and the KMT sought to reclaim Mainland China from its base in Taipei. This never happened, and Taiwan’s leaders now no longer harbour strength and ambitions. This piece of history is increasingly irrelevant to the Taiwanese population. The fact that this civil war was never concluded, the view that there is only one China in the world consisting of people on both sides of the strait and that Taiwan has always belonged to China, are some of the reasons why Beijing sees what they call reunification with Taiwan as a priority.
By tying it to national rejuvenation, Beijing is attaching greater strategic importance to Taiwan that has very little to do with the historical or cultural reasons to reunify. That is more reflective of Taiwan’s geographical position. Beijing has long wanted to break through what it sees as a hostile chain of islands that lie between its Eastern coastline and the Pacific. This is the first island chain. It runs from Japan down to the Philippines and into the South China Sea.
All of these countries are sovereign territories, allies, and partners of the US. That’s why China has always viewed this first island chain as a hostile fortification that it had to break through. Taking Taiwan, to put it very simply, allows Beijing to break through this chain and to project power from what some people like to term an aircraft carrier that can never be permanent. This is also part of the reason why the US attaches strategic importance to Taiwan as well, by virtue of its unfortunate or fortunate geographic position.
That’s an important aspect because it features quite often as to the motivations why, but it’s often below the narrative of this idea of values for the freedom and liberty of the Taiwanese people. I won’t know the figures off the top of my head, but a significant portion of global trade goes through these waters.
You made a mention of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Given the two scenarios, it resembles in some sense, both because of these kinds of cultural ties or how one nation views the other. What impact do you think on the ongoing invasion and, perhaps as we are seeing right now, the backsliding of the Russian efforts on Beijing?
Beijing is watching the situation in Ukraine very closely. Part of that has to do with the fact that Xi and Putin had signed up for the no-limits partnership on the eve of the invasion. Russia’s setbacks on the battlefield have likely prompted a lot of reflection amongst Chinese military planners. For the PLA, their goal in a Taiwan military contingency has always been to achieve victory decisively and swiftly. They do not want to be bogged down in a protracted war.
Some of the lessons that China is drawing include, the importance of strengthening its nuclear capabilities. What they are seeing is that the US has not directly intervened in the Ukraine-Russia war because it doesn’t want to go to war with a nuclear power. For the Chinese, this is a key lesson learned. The second one is that information warfare is key. The Ukrainian government has been extremely effective in shaping the narrative around this war.
I think this was part of the military plans for Taiwan anyways, but for them, it emphasised the importance of cutting information flows to and from Taiwan at the very beginning of an invasion. That would mean hitting submarine cables and cyberattacks on telecommunication companies. It’s controlling the narrative from the start. Also, this would have an impact on the support that Taiwan would receive from the US and potentially Japan if information flows are disrupted.
Is that what you mean? It’s because of the delay in the call for help.
Yeah, or the sharing of timely information as to what is happening. On the economic front, following what happened, there were a lot of discussions, at least, in the academic sphere, about the need for China to reduce its dependency on the dollar, how to diversify that dependency and maybe move more towards the euro or digital currencies. There is a lot of discussion around that.
This points to a lot of thinking internally about how China would weather potential economic sanctions in a Taiwan invasion. There’s growing concern over NATO’s role, not only in Europe but also in Asia as well. We saw that Japan and South Korea attended the last meeting in NATO. This certainly caught the eye of the Chinese. I would add, this is something that I think is less discussed but is at the top of my mind because I was in Tokyo, but the way in which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed threat perceptions in China’s immediate neighbourhood.
For instance, in Japan, the war has prompted a shift in domestic sentiment amongst average people, but also amongst lawmakers as well tilting them more in favour of an increase in Japan’s defence budget and support for Japan developing long-range missile strike capability. There’s this effect. It made the prospect of war much more concrete for some populations that live around China.
That’s a pretty big step for Japan as well because it is a complete shift in their self-defence posture.
Also, a country that has been deeply rooted in pacifism post-World War II, it does represent how much more seriously the domestic population is considering the potential for war, but more specifically, one that would arise from China or involving China. There’s a lot more thinking now, it seems, around a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in Japan as well.
It’s a double-edged sword in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both because, in some sense, it sends a very clear signal that taking people is not as easy as one might perceive it, particularly when you have a wet gap to cross, which makes it exponentially more difficult for China than it is for Russia with a massive land border with Ukraine. On the other side, there are some critical lessons. It’s almost like a test run for Beijing. “Let’s see where you make your mistakes.”
We will also put in mind pivoting into some more optimistic discussions. If there is a silver lining to any of this you did talk about deter and assure. You said that there’s work to be done here. What exists as checks and balances or crisis communication, and what are some of those things that can be done and are being done to build this assurance between the two?
It’s hard. Let me start with that. Some of it has to do with what we were discussing before. There needs to be more thinking about what does coexistence with China look like? It’s very serious long-term thinking and a clear vision from the US and its partners. Ideally, this would be something that the US also discusses with its partners and allies.
While you are discussing how to upgrade military capabilities and working on that together, it would be useful for them to also discuss what their vision for coexisting with China looks like concretely going forward. However, on a more practical level, there is a silver lining, at least, specifically around Taiwan, as funny as it might sound. In the short term, none of the key parties wants a war. That’s pretty clear. China is not interested in a war in the short term. It’s not ready for one. It would come at tremendous political risk right now for them. It is not the right timing for China.China's not interested in a war in the short term. It's not ready for one. It would come at tremendous political risk right now for them. Click To Tweet
To that extent, the three parties are more or less aligned right now, and nobody wants a war. That has meant that there has been a degree of restraint that is evident on the part of both Washington and Beijing. Following Pelosi’s visit, the way that the Chinese conducted their military exercises was escalatory, but it was very much controlled. The way that the US responded to it, they were very clear in their signalling. They said, “We are not going to send an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait. We will be sending something, but it’s not going to be an aircraft carrier.” Days later, they sent two vessels through.
This is good. This is exactly how the two sides should be signalling to each other to lower the temperature, but more can be done. Both militaries need to be ordered to be acting with the utmost restraint in continued operations going forward. There are simply going to be more military interactions in the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan. Even with everyone being restrained, human error can always occur. This is something that all three militaries should take to heart.
Crisis communication channels still exist between the US and China. They don’t exist between China and Taiwan. This is something that the two sides should seriously think about establishing, though it’s very hard to see progress on that in the political environment. On US-China mechanisms, the Chinese, as part of their retaliation for Pelosi’s visit cancelled a number of defence dialogues that were meant for risk reduction and preventing incidents. That was not a positive sign, but it was not entirely unexpected.
The Chinese, at moments of high political tensions, tend to cut off military and defence dialogues because they see them as expendable, unfortunately. It’s an easy way of telling the US that they are opposed to whatever the US has done on the political front. This is a thing that the PLA has done for decades. It’s not surprising, but it’s not constructive at all. Nevertheless, there are lines of communication that exist, but we also heard around the Pelosi visit that the Chinese weren’t picking up the phone for some of these communications channels.
There’s a lot of work that can be done. Beijing should be encouraged to utilise those communications channels and pick up the phone and return to resuming those dialogues. Beyond that, there’s an assurance piece of it. The Biden administration has, in each meeting between Biden and Xi, made clear that their policy on Taiwan has not changed. That they are not changing the status quo, that they are upholding the One China policy, and that they are not supportive of Taiwan’s independence.
All of that needs to continue as an affirmation of those statements. As I alluded to, those statements are losing credibility in the eyes of Beijing. This is the challenge. What else right now can help to assure Beijing? The US should continue to say that our goal is to coexist with you and that we are not trying to undermine the regime. All of that is also important, but to what extent will that assure Beijing? They should continue to say it. I’m sure the Biden administration is well aware of the limitations of those words. The only thing left here is dialogue. This is going to sound naive at this moment because neither Washington nor Beijing is particularly interested in dialogue now.The US should continue to say that our goal is to coexist with China and that we're not trying to undermine the regime. Click To Tweet
I find it fascinating. On a global scale, it’s schoolyard emotional immaturity, which is why we can comfortably say that there is nothing rational about war. It’s emotional. It’s human. This is why your warning of an accident is so relevant because it is so emotionally loaded. With all the pressures and all the tensions, both domestic and external, you can see how the emotional immaturity oftentimes all the parties involved can lead us down a path where we can’t back out.
We sleepwalk into war, to use a phrase attached to World War I. Given Taiwan’s expression of its own identity, is there a peaceful path to Taiwanese independence? Given everything you have said so far and the distinct assertion by Beijing that 2049 reunification will occur, is there a peaceful way that Taiwan becomes an independent nation?
The Thai administration’s position is that Taiwan is already a defacto sovereign nation, therefore, it does not need to declare formal independence, which is interesting and smart in a lot of ways because she’s saying we don’t need to do that. The likelihood of that is extremely low. Polls have consistently shown that the Taiwanese population, the majority of people here want to maintain the status quo.
It’s a difficult status quo for Taiwan, but they would prefer that over getting into a war with China. I don’t think that there is, at the moment, much appetite for any formal declaration of independence. It could change because of shifts in generational attitudes towards China, as we talked about. Who knows what will happen in the next decade or so?
What do the Chinese demographics and ageing population, how do you see that play into the next twenty or so years? Some are calling it the greatest disparity in its ageing population, and much of it is due to the One China policy. That is potentially why someone like Xi might look to do something now while he has a lot of young people, especially young men, to throw at a potential conflict rather than waiting another 10, 15, or 20 years when those young men are now or middle-aged men like myself not keen to go to war.
Two thoughts come to mind. One is that China is not the only country facing a demographic problem. The Taiwanese also have a demographic problem. If they were looking in terms of relativity, that might reduce some of their anxieties around that. We didn’t touch upon Taiwan’s defence, but the short of it is they do have some personal issues for their military, and part of it is because of demographic problems.
The more important point, and this is something that we didn’t cover, that I do think is rather important. There’s a lot of talk these days about what would trigger Xi to make a move on Taiwan. It’s important when folks think about it and discuss it to remember that it remains a fundamentally political decision. It’s not that if the PLA developed all the amphibious lift capabilities it needed to ferry across all the soldiers and equipment that it needed to successfully carry out an invasion that they would immediately do so. That’s not the key factor.
The Chinese have never declared a timeline. Now, there’s an implied timeline of 2049, which is not too far away, if you think about it. The timeline framing is quite a Western thing. We talked about this before. It’s also useful for Washington to focus on the bureaucracy, but I don’t think that’s how the Chinese approach this issue. It’s a political question. Not only do they not have the military capabilities, but the strategic environment right now is not great for an invasion, if you think about it.
If you think from their perspective that there’s still time and that they can wait for a better moment, and that strategic environment we talked about, it’s fairly confrontational to the US that is talking about Taiwan all day, every day. It’s the Pentagon that’s called Taiwan their pacing contingency on top of China being their pacing challenge. It’s at a time when not only the US but Europe, Japan, and Australia are also beginning to think quite seriously about a Taiwan contingency. It feels like a moment when democracies are going to war with autocracies.
It’s not particularly a good time to make a move from that perspective, either. To emphasise that, there’s so much speculation around that right now. The wrong assessment or the overly confident assessment that pins an invasion to a particular year will have ramifications for policy-making by all the relevant actors.
I feel like we could speak all day about this because there are so many threads to pick and unpick on this, but I will let you go because you have also been travelling and in COVID isolation at home. Thank you very much for giving me so much of your time. It’s been insightful. I also want to thank you for the work that you are doing in trying to raise awareness across all the interested, relevant stakeholders as part of your work with the Crisis Group. It’s critical work that we increase our mutual understanding of what is motivating each of the sides. Thank you very much again for giving me so much of your time. I appreciate it.