Mon, May 21, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Ryan Hass On Taiwan: Harnessing challenges to build consensus on key questions

The US-China relationship presently is on a negative trajectory, and the reverberations already are being felt in Taiwan. As strategic competition intensifies, Taiwan’s margin for error is shrinking.

The deterioration in US-China relations has roots on both sides of the Pacific. In Washington, the Trump administration has doubled down in pressuring China, whom it views as America’s foremost strategic rival. From the Trump administration’s vantage, Beijing’s goals are incompatible with those of the United States when it comes to global leadership, regional primacy, and dominance of the cutting-edge technology industries of the 21st century. The Trump administration believes China must be confronted, and they worry that conciliation is the surest path to China pushing the boundaries of American tolerance in ways that could lead to conflict.

At a political level, the Trump administration also sees value in challenging China. Pushing back on China’s aggressive behavior allows Trump to point to a promise kept from his campaign. This is especially pertinent at a time when Trump’s political base is embittered by his failure to build a border wall and indifferent to his signature domestic achievement, a tax cut that tilts toward the wealthy. With midterm elections looming in November, and a general election in 2020, Trump seems to view a “get tough on China” strategy as an energizing issue for his supporters.

Meanwhile, a mirror image dynamic also is on display in Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda organ has framed the current US-China disputes as a necessary step along China’s path to national rejuvenation. Beijing has presented America’s challenges as attempts by an anxious declining power to slow the rise of an ascendant China. Xi Jinping (習近平) also has used recent tensions to redouble his call for China to become less reliant on inputs from abroad as it climbs up the value chain and seeks to dominate the leading industries of the future.

US-China frictions are likely to intensify in the coming months. Tit-for-tat tariffs are becoming increasingly likely, following the inability of both sides to negotiate a solution that addresses each side’s complaints about the actions of the other. Maritime tensions are also rising. Washington is likely to increase scrutiny of Chinese investments in the United States on national security grounds. American export controls are likely to tighten. There is a possibility of new visa restrictions on Chinese students, and increased scrutiny of Chinese efforts to influence America’s political discourse. There also is growing risk of divergence between the United States and China on major international issues such as Iran.

Unable or unwilling to stop this downward trend, Beijing appears instead to be seeking to harness it for domestic benefit. Some in Beijing may see benefit in elevated tensions with an external adversary, particularly in the wake of muffled dissatisfaction related to Beijing’s decision to scrap presidential term limits, internal pressure from its continuing anti-corruption efforts, and its simultaneous push to break through special interests and reform the military and the economy.

In such an environment, Beijing appears to be growing increasingly sensitive to developments surrounding Taiwan, and particularly US support for Taiwan. This has led Beijing to use increasingly visible signals to highlight its displeasure with recent events.

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