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Taiwan and the South China Sea: Two Views

Wu Xinbo

CHINA US Focus 2024-01-09

(Source:CHINA US Focus,2024-01-09)

The 10th Beijing Xiangshan Forum covered all aspects of the Global Security Initiative, with official representatives and scholars from China and foreign countries discussing such subjects as regional and global security challenges, maritime and nuclear security and AI development, The Israel-Hamas conflict and the situation in the Taiwan Strait were obvious highlights.

The Beijing editorial team of China-US Focus interviewed Oriana Skylar Mastro, research fellow with the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, and Professor Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies and director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.

Dr. Mastro is an expert on Chinese military strategy, a senior fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and an assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Political Science. As a reserve officer of the U.S. Air Force, she is also affiliated with the United States Indo-Pacific Command as an expert on political and military strategy. Before attending the Xiangshan Forum, she wrote an article for the New York Times calling on the U.S. government to stay neutral, eschew support for Taiwan independence, not oppose reunification, reassure China and let the two sides of the strait resolve their differences on their own.

She believes that China and the U.S. may reach new understandings or agreements on the matter. However, based on long-term research on U.S. diplomacy and China strategy, Professor Wu assumes any expectation now that America will adjust its stance on Taiwan would be wishful thinking, so the Chinese side should not count on that.

Following are excerpts of our interview with Stanford researcher Oriana Skylar Mastro and Fudan University Professor Wu Xinbo:

Q: As to your feelings about this forum, in terms of major power competition, regional conflicts and changes in the international system, is today’s world multipolar or bipolar? What changes has the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy brought to regional security in the Asia-Pacific, and what challenges does China face in its periphery environment? Will the world be divided into two confrontational camps and enter a new cold war?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: It’s possible we move into those two different blocs, but I think it’s hard to say new cold war because there is a real possibility of hot war between China and the United States. The situation is very different between China and the U.S. than it was between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Obviously, the good news is that we have much more interaction — economic, social and political — but the bad news is we have complex interests that can lead the two sides to conflict. It’s my understanding that the Chinese government has long prioritized relationships with U.S. allies and partners largely because those countries are the richest, the most powerful countries in the world, and isolating them by forming a separate China bloc was not seen as a smart strategy. Maybe that Chinese strategy is changing.

One thing we’ve seen here at the Xiangshan Forum is the desire for China to build a separate grouping of countries that are more pro-China, maybe anti-America. It seems that China has decided to prioritize its relationship with the developing world — some countries with which the United States does not have a good relationship, like Iran or Russia. I don’t see decisions in Beijing to try to improve relations with the U.S. and its allies and partners. The United States has not decided to rethink its China Policy. As long as our two countries continue along the same trajectory, whether our leaders meet or not will not fundamentally impact the nature of the relationship. So it’s possible we move into those two different blocs. But I think it’s probably unlikely, unless there is a hot conflict between the two sides.

The Chinese military is not the same military it was 30 years ago. The truth is that the United States was very open to Chinese economic growth. And even before President Xi Jinping, we had very positive relations, and the Chinese economy was already the second-largest economy in the world. So the view that the United States is responding to any sort of weakening of its position is not quite right. What ended up happening is the Chinese military went from being a relatively backward force to one that is specifically designed and geared toward fighting the United States. The United States saw that and became very nervous about what it means for U.S. security in the future. And so I think it’s largely the security issues that drove U.S. policy to be a bit more hard-line on China.

Wu Xinbo: From the perspective of Asia-Pacific security, peace has been maintained, by and large, in the three decades after the end of the Cold War. Compared with the past two decades, however, major-country competition has intensified in the region, geopolitical tensions are on the rise and the risk of conflict is increasing. The main reason is that the U.S. has returned to the Cold War era in a bid to cope with China’s rise — suppressing China economically, technologically, diplomatically and militarily by means of major-country confrontation and competition and sinking bilateral ties to a historical low since the establishment of diplomatic relations. Major-country relations are the key to Asia-Pacific security — especially China-U.S. relations. The intensifying China-U.S. geopolitical and military competition has resulted in tensions across the region. This is my general judgment.

The U.S. is actually resorting to a Cold War-style approach to contain China. An important means is to reorganize small cliques centered on the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific, asking them to follow the U.S. in diplomatic, economic and security realms, and making regional countries take sides. For instance, America’s so-called Indo-Pacific Strategy focuses on the Quad, AUKUS and U.S.-Japan-ROK security cooperation, leading to greater division and confrontation in the region. This trend is very evident.

I’d call the U.S. approach quasi-Cold War because it features a thick Cold War color. U.S. ideological warfare and geopolitical partnerships and cliques are significant Cold War behaviors. Ongoing U.S. moves in technological suppression and blockade, and economic and trade “de-risking,” are also reminiscent of the Cold War. Such quasi-Cold War tendencies will continue.

Q: Regarding the Taiwan Strait in Asia-Pacific security, judging from official U.S. statements President Joe Biden has on multiple occasions mentioned that the U.S. would “help defend Taiwan.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken even put Taiwan as a global concern. Have there been fresh changes in the U.S. position, attitude and strategic purpose regarding Taiwan? How could China and the U.S. properly manage risks involving Taiwan?

Oriana Skylar Mastro:My understanding of U.S. policy is to ensure that China does not use force against Taiwan and to defend Taiwan if that happens. Helping the Taiwan military strengthen its own capabilities is crucial to that because the only scenario that I am concerned about is one in which China takes Taiwan very quickly before the U.S. can come to its aid. On the military side I believe military deterrence is very important — that if China feels it has any sort of military advantage, it can be very destabilizing.

What I wrote in the New York Times article (“This Is What America Is Getting Wrong About China and Taiwan”) was that while the United States is building military deterrence, we have to be very clear about what our objectives are. My understanding of the U.S. commitments to both Taiwan and to mainland China are that United States wants to prevent unification by force but it is not U.S. policy to prevent unification. I do think that under the Trump administration some people got a bit confused — maybe not confused but they had a different idea — since Taiwan became a democracy it is much more important to protect the political space of the island. My own fear is that if U.S. policy goes that direction, war will be very difficult to avoid, and so I think the objectives of the United States need to remain limited to preventing going off course.

Wu Xinbo: The biggest change is the U.S. has again incorporated Taiwan into its regional Indo-Pacific Strategy — meaning it takes China as a key rival and Taiwan as an important strategic link. This resembles the Cold War era when the U.S. saw Taiwan as a bridgehead for containing China, or as an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the western Pacific. From Nixon’s China visit to the Obama presidency, the U.S. had not taken Taiwan as a significant element of its regional strategy. Since Trump took office, however, it has treated Taiwan as an important element of its campaign against China.

Oriana Skylar Mastro: There’s two important points that I was articulating. First, the only way to move forward in U.S.-China relations is to come to some sort of understanding over Taiwan, as in the 1970s. We have to deal with those difficult issues first; otherwise we’re not going to have another agreement, like dealing with counterterrorism — non- traditional security — that will help the relationship. We need to deal with the most difficult issues first. The second thing is we have to admit that both sides have changed. They’ve changed their behavior and changed their policies.

As I have mentioned, the Chinese military is now extremely powerful, and they engage in an almost daily military coercion against the island of Taiwan. That is new. For the U.S., some of the political ties between the United States and Taiwan are relatively new — potentially it’s not the first time but the amount has increased over time. So I think any sort of agreement between China and the United States would have to take into account those two issues, such that China would agree to reduce the military threat it poses in return for the United States not getting involved politically in the Taiwan issue.

Wu Xinbo: For the U.S., Taiwan isn’t a separate subject, but is rather delineated in the framework of U.S. China policy and strategy. At present, America’s China strategy is to take China as a main rival, and contain and suppress it in the name of competition. Under such a framework, Taiwan is a strategic handle for U.S. containment of China. So unless major adjustments take place in America’s China strategy, the kind of adjustments in its Taiwan policy mentioned [by Oriana Skylar Mastro] would be unlikely.

As I just said, we can only count on ourselves in resolving the Taiwan issue, meaning we need to continuously consolidate our initiative and dominance [as we] make requests to the U.S.

First, we should make diplomatic representations and fight against constant U.S. moves violating the three joint communiques and the one-China principle. Taiwan will remain a focus in our communication with U.S. officials at various levels.

Second, we will take targeted countermeasures against actions that harm Chinese interests regarding Taiwan.  For instance, after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, we imposed sanctions on Pelosi and her direct relatives and took a series of countermeasures at the level of bilateral relations, including sanctioning two American companies involved in arms sales to Taiwan.

Third, we should continuously increase our dominance and initiative over Taiwan. With the U.S. constantly challenging Chinese interests and breaking through the one-China framework, we should manage cross-strait affairs with maximum vigor and resolution — formulate cross-strait conditions, so as to promote an ultimate resolution. These are our main practices in the strategic game with the U.S. over Taiwan.

Q: What about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and commitment to its defense, as well as the U.S. position and statements on Taiwan?

Oriana Skylar Mastro:The promise made by the U.S. was contingent on the military balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. One of the reasons that has increased is that Chinese militarization has increased. If the Chinese agreed to demobilize a lot of the military threat against Taiwan, then I’m sure the United States would be willing to consider changing its military position. But the way I see it, what worries the United States is China’s military position. What worries China is much more the U.S. political position. So I think that’s where the concessions would have to come up for both sides.

In the majority of wars that might happen in Asia, the United States would win, but in Taiwan, if China moves quickly, it is possible that China could win. And the reason is the PLA’s capability, but also because U.S. forces are very far away and China’s are only 20 miles from the coast of Taiwan. And so it just takes the United States a lot longer to come to the theater. The United States is also more reliant on things like satellites to fight. China would basically be using assets within China itself on the land. It’s kind of like we only have a cell phone and our communication could be shut down. And so the requirements for a successful campaign are just very different in the Taiwan situation for the United States and for China.

I think the view is that’s enough to deter Taiwan from doing anything crazy. A word like “oppose” would suggest that the United States would punish or do something if Taiwan declared independence. I think the reason the United States says we do not support [Taiwan independence] is that it’s very clear that if Taiwan wants that route, then they would be on their own.

The United States is not going to do anything on purpose to harm Taiwan. It no longer supports Taiwan to protect it from the PRC. I think instead, probably, an additional compromise would be something like the United States saying it does not support Taiwan independence and does not oppose unification.  I think an addition like that might be more useful.

And then for the Chinese, of course, China will not renounce the use of force against Taiwan. Maybe the Chinese could make some statements and back them up with activities — to say something like, While we do not renounce the use of force, we agree to demobilize the military away from the Taiwan Strait — these types of agreements.

I think, of course, that Taiwan will not be happy with the United States not being fully supportive in all areas. But the United States is not going to abandon the defense of Taiwan. That will not change. In fact the George W. Bush administration had explicitly used the word “oppose” when it comes to Taiwan, because at the time Chen Shui-bien did have a strong motivation and high likelihood for  seeking independence for Taiwan. Had Chen pursued independence, it would have led to cross-strait conflict, and the U.S. would inevitably be dragged in. But the U.S. was preoccupied with anti-terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and too busy to take care of Taiwan. Should Chen have pursued independence, it would actually have harmed U.S. interests, so the U.S. government “opposed” Taiwan independence.

Therefore, I believe, whatever rhetoric the U.S. employs on Taiwan reflects its calculations. This is the key. If it believes Taiwan independence would indeed threaten U.S. interests, it may not only speak against it but even make moves to prevent Taiwan from doing it. This hinges ultimately on how the U.S. calculates and balances its interests. It’s actually meaningless for us to ask Americans to use a different word. The key is to make the U.S. feel that Taiwan independence will inevitably harm U.S. interests, so the U.S. would genuinely not support Taiwan independence [but would] oppose Taiwan independence.

Q: On the South China Sea disputes, after Donald Trump became president and Mike Pompeo became the U.S. secretary of state, the U.S. explicitly took sides in the China-Philippines dispute in the South China Sea and the Huanyan Island issue. It changed the position of the Obama administration, and President Biden has not changed or reversed that stance after assuming office. Why has the U.S. taken sides on South China Sea issues? How should China respond?

Oriana Skylar Mastro: The United States does not care whom those islands belong to. What they care about is China’s desire to control all the waterways in the South China. That is what the United States is against. The more the Chinese promote their claims over islands and their misinterpretation of international law and control of water over those islands, the more the United States is going to reassert itself. I would say what happened with the Obama administration is that they trusted China and thought China had good intentions. And then China made Obama look very silly. I mean President Xi promised the United States he was not going to militarize the islands in the South China Sea, and then he did.

The view in the United States is [that] it was the softer position of President Obama that created all these problems. If the United States had been firmer about not using any sort of coercion to change the status quo, maybe we wouldn’t be at this point right now. And so that’s why I think President Trump took a firmer approach and President Biden took a firmer approach to clarify, not change the U.S. position, but to state very clearly that these are our allies. You use force on our allies and we will be forced to respond.

Wu Xinbo: In order to cope with the U.S. taking sides in the South China Sea, first, diplomatically, we should oppose U.S. intervention, because South China Sea disputes are between China and countries in the region. The U.S. should not get involved.

Second, we would not compromise under pressure if the U.S. intervenes. For example, when we carried out construction work on South China Sea features, the U.S. imposed considerable pressure, but we did it anyway. So we will not let the U.S. accomplish its goal when it intervenes

Third, we should continuously build our own strength and capabilities for such struggle, and let regional countries feel it’s useless for them to ask for U.S. intervention. This is the key.

Q: What of the likelihood of misjudgment and unexpected risk between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea, and how the two countries should engage in dialogue and manage risks?

Wu Xinbo: Of course I worry about the two sides coming into conflict in the South China Sea. The U.S. is engaging in such frequent, forceful actions that the risk of an incident is unavoidable in the long run. On the other hand, this also indicates U.S. desperation, because, as I just said, U.S. pressure on China has proved unsuccessful. Because the South China Sea isn’t [part of] the U.S., nor its backyard, but an area where China has important territory and maritime rights and interests, what China does in the area is for safeguarding its normal national interests. On what grounds should the U.S. order China about? Having not joined the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea itself, the U.S. is not qualified to intervene in the South China Sea. Not to mention we now can say the U.S. is no longer capable of changing the new momentum across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea.

Oriana Skylar Mastro: I’m not particularly concerned about miscalculation. For now in the Taiwan Strait, if China moves quickly, it is possible that China could win. But in the South China Sea the Chinese military cannot project power yet. So if there’s any misunderstanding, they will de-escalate. If you ask me in 10 years how I feel about that, things may be different.

Wu Xinbo: Misjudgment and unexpected conflict are two things. Unexpected incidents may occur any time; they’re not a matter of misjudgment. If the two militaries frequently interact in the air and sea, unexpected collisions are unavoidable. If such incidents are not handled properly, especially when the atmosphere of bilateral ties is very bad and neither side is willing to concede, the situation may escalate. One side may even assume the other acted intentionally, then it may react forcefully on that pretext.

As to whether the two countries will come into military conflict in the South China Sea, that is another matter. From the U.S. perspective, they are very willing to have dialogue, but their purpose is to “provoke” better — meaning we would guarantee their safety when their aircraft and ships come. Can such dialogue display sincerity? Will the U.S. truly talk with us on crisis management? The root cause of crisis and unexpected conflict is that the U.S. has come to China’s doorstep to rattle sabers, provoking and pressuring China. So from our perspective, the U.S. must manage its own ships and aircraft well. This has nothing to do with whether the U.S. is willing to have dialogue with China. The U.S. having the willingness doesn’t mean China must cooperate. China won’t let the U.S. provoke it continuously.

2005- ©Center for American Studies,Fudan University.