Taiwan’s political atmosphere is growing more fervid as the January 2020 election draws nearer. The roster of contenders includes candidates with experience governing and an understanding of the need for balance, and others who rely on charisma and offer promises without consideration of potential consequences.
There also is growing momentum in Washington for judging that Beijing’s bullying of Taiwan is escalating at intolerable rates, and that the antidote is for Washington to show stronger support for Taiwan to counteract the squeeze that Beijing is putting on Taipei.
Some American experts hold a different perspective, namely that President Tsai (蔡英文) has altered the status quo by not accepting the 1992 consensus or finding a way to manage differences of interpretation with Beijing. By and large, though, this perspective is not ascendant in Congress or inside the Trump administration.
Having spoken with both American and Chinese officials involved in cross-Strait policy recently, it is striking how much both sides hold the other in contempt for seeking to stretch the cross-Strait status quo. From official Washington’s perspective, Beijing’s poaching of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, particularly in the United States backyard, was provocative; President Xi’s (習近平) January 2 speech on Taiwan was bellicose; the People’s Liberation Army’s April 1 penetration of the Taiwan centerline was dangerously escalatory; and Beijing’s ever-expanding meddling in Taiwan’s internal affairs has grown out of control.
From Beijing’s perspective, China has been reacting to actions by Washington and Taipei that it finds unacceptable. Beijing’s grievances include: President Tsai’s inflexibility on finding a way to reconcile differences over the 1992 consensus; the US Congress’s increasing activism on Taiwan; the US Navy’s attention-seeking behavior for each of its transits of the Taiwan Strait; press reports of upcoming big-ticket arms sales to Taiwan; and Washington’s quiet loosening of procedures for Taiwan presidential transits.
In other words, Washington, Taipei, and Beijing are falling into an action-reaction cycle on cross-Strait issues, even as they disagree on who is the initiator of this cycle. This is occurring at a time when there is under-developed muscle memory at senior levels in all three capitals for managing cross-Strait tensions, US-China relations are severely strained, and cross-Strait relations are becoming more contested in more domains.
On top of that, we are entering a dangerous period for resolve-testing behavior. As elections approach in Taiwan in January 2020 and in the United States in November 2020, there may be shrinking political space for moderation in response to perceived Chinese provocations.
All this is occurring at a time when there are atrophying channels of communication between Beijing and Washington and Taipei, respectively, on cross-Strait issues. Some of this is due to Beijing’s reflexive dismissal of Tsai’s initial offers of reassurance, and its preference for punishment over genuine efforts to bridge differences, including by freezing official channels for cross-Strait communication. In the US-China context, the primary channels that previously were used to manage cross-Strait tensions — in-depth conversations at the presidential level and in the Strategic Security Dialogue — are no longer available.
As a consequence, all three sides have a less granular understanding of each other’s sensitivities. In the absence of an ability to clarify the meaning of events, all sides will face a bias toward assuming the worst intentions of the other’s actions, which risks leading to exaggerated threat assessments of the other. A case in point is Beijing’s interpretation of recent US Congressional resolutions, which reflect the political views of members of Congress and do not require the Trump administration to take specific actions, yet are treated by Beijing as substantively significant.
Taken together, these are the types of ingredients that could spark a crisis that nobody wants, but that nobody feels they could avoid. While the risk of deliberate military conflict remains low given the catastrophic consequences of any such action, the risk of an unplanned incident leading to unintended escalation is rising.
This risk ought to concentrate minds in Washington, Taipei, and Beijing on practical steps for mitigating unintended escalation. These could include:
Fortifying the “no surprises” approach to cross-Strait relations between Washington and Taipei;
Establishing a dedicated and functioning channel between Washington and Beijing involving seasoned diplomats to examine on a sustained basis each other’s concerns regarding cross-Strait developments;
Developing a reliable, discreet, unofficial channel between Taipei and Beijing to manage incidents when they arise, so that impulses toward rapid retaliation can be dampened;
Exercising restraint on the part of Beijing in its use of financial, cyber, media, and social media tools to meddle in Taiwan’s political discourse. (If evidence becomes publicly available of Beijing seeking to interfere in the election, it will harm Beijing’s preferred candidates.)
Overall, the security situation in the Taiwan Strait is likely to grow tenser in the next year. It will become ever more important for all sides to get ahead of problems, rather than react to them after they occur. The alternative likely would be an intensifying security dilemma, where each action one takes makes the other feel less secure and causes them to respond accordingly.
There are practical steps all sides can take now to reduce risk. Given the stakes involved, this should be a priority for Washington, Taipei, and Beijing.
Ryan Hass is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, where he holds a joint appointment to the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies.
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