When US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart met in Bali, Indonesia, in November last year, they agreed to hold high-level meetings to establish “guardrails” for the Sino-US strategic competition. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit Beijing to inaugurate that effort last month.
However, when China sent a surveillance balloon (visible to the naked eye) over US territory, Blinken’s visit was shot down even faster than the balloon.
Although this was certainly not the first time that China deployed a balloon in such a fashion, the poor timing was remarkable. Still, it might have been better if Blinken had followed through with his visit.
Yes, China claimed, dubiously, that the device was a weather balloon that had gone astray, but intelligence cover-ups are hardly unique to China.
The balloon incident had echoes of 1960, when then-US president Dwight Eisenhower and then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were scheduled to meet to establish Cold War guardrails.
However, the Soviets shot down a US spy plane that Eisenhower initially tried to dismiss as an errant weather flight. The summit was canceled, and real guardrails were not discussed until after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Some analysts liken the current US-China relationship to the Cold War, as it, too, is becoming a prolonged strategic competition.
However, the analogy can be misleading. During the Cold War, there was almost no trade or talks between the US and the Soviet Union, nor was there ecological interdependence on issues such as climate change or pandemics.
The situation with China is almost the opposite. Any US strategy of containment will be limited by China being the major trading partner to far more countries than the US is.
The fact that the Cold War analogy is counterproductive as a strategy does not rule out the possibility of a new cold war. We could still go down that path by accident.
The appropriate historical analogy for the current moment is therefore not 1945, but 1914, when all the great powers expected a short third Balkan war, only to end up with World War I, which lasted four years and destroyed four empires.
Political leaders in the early 1910s did not pay enough attention to the growing strength of nationalism. Today, policymakers would do well not to repeat the mistake. They must remain alert to the implications of rising nationalism in China, populist nationalism in the US and the dangerous interplay between these two forces.
Given the clumsiness of China’s diplomacy and the longer history of standoffs and incidents over Taiwan, the prospects for an inadvertent escalation should worry us all.
China regards Taiwan as a renegade province. Ever since then-US president Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1971, US policy has been designed to deter Taiwan’s declaration of de jure independence and China’s use of force to bring about “unification.”
However, some analysts now say that the double-deterrence policy is outdated, as China’s growing military power might tempt it to strike while it has the chance.
Other analysts are skeptical. They warn that an outright US security guarantee for Taiwan would provoke China to act, rather than deter it, and they worry that high-level official visits to the nation are inconsistent with the “one-China” policy that the US has proclaimed since the 1970s.
Even if China eschews a full-scale invasion and merely tries to coerce Taiwan with a blockade, or by taking outlying islands, a single ship or aircraft collision in which lives are lost could be enough to trigger a broader escalation.
If the US were to react by freezing Chinese assets or invoking its Trading with the Enemy Act, for example, the two countries could slip quickly into a real cold war — or even a hot one.
A recent war game staged by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington suggested that the US might win such a contest, but at an enormous cost to both sides (and to the world economy).
The best solution to the Taiwan issue therefore is to prolong the “status quo.”
Former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd has said that the West’s objective should not be to achieve a total victory over China, but rather to manage the competition with it. The sound strategy is to avoid demonizing China and instead frame the relationship in terms of “competitive coexistence.” If China changes for the better in the long term, that would simply be an unexpected bonus for a strategy that aims to manage great power relations in an era of traditional, as well as economic and ecological, interdependencies.
A good strategy must rest on careful net assessment. Whereas underestimation breeds complacency, overestimation creates fear — either of which can lead to miscalculation. China has become the second-largest national economy in the world; but even if its GDP seems on track to exceed the US’ some day, its per capita income is still less than one-quarter that of the US, and it faces a number of economic, demographic and political headwinds.
Not only did China’s working-age population peak in 2015, but its economic productivity growth has been slowing, and it has few committed political allies. If the US, Japan and Europe coordinate their policies, they will still represent the largest part of the world economy, and they will retain the capacity to organize a rules-based international order that can help shape Chinese behavior.
These long-standing alliances are key to managing China’s rise.
In the near term, given Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) increasingly assertive policies — including foolish acts such as the ill-timed balloon — we will probably have to spend more time on the rivalry side of the equation, but if we maintain our alliances and avoid ideological demonization and misleading Cold War analogies, we can succeed.
If the Sino-US relationship was a card game, one could say that we have been dealt a good hand.
However, even a good hand can lose if it is badly played. Seen against the historical context of 1914, the recent balloon incident should remind us why we need guardrails.
Joseph Nye is a professor at Harvard University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has a good reason to avoid a split vote against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in next month’s presidential election. It has been here before and last time things did not go well. Taiwan had its second direct presidential election in 2000 and the nation’s first ever transition of political power, with the KMT in opposition for the first time. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was ushered in with less than 40 percent of the vote, only marginally ahead of James Soong (宋楚瑜), the candidate of the then-newly formed People First Party (PFP), who got almost 37
At their recent summit in San Francisco, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) made progress in a few key areas. Notably, they agreed to resume direct military-to-military communications — which China had suspended last year, following a visit by then-speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan — to reduce the chances of accidental conflict. However, neither leader was negotiating from a particularly strong position: As Biden struggles with low approval ratings, Xi is overseeing a rapidly weakening economy. The economic news out of China has been poor for some time. Growth is slowing;
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate and New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) has called on his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) counterpart, William Lai (賴清德), to abandon his party’s Taiwanese independence platform. Hou’s remarks follow an article published in the Nov. 30 issue of Foreign Affairs by three US-China relations academics: Bonnie Glaser, Jessica Chen Weiss and Thomas Christensen. They suggested that the US emphasize opposition to any unilateral changes in the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, and that if Lai wins the election, he should consider freezing the Taiwanese independence clause. The concept of de jure independence was first
Ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service on Tuesday last week cut its outlook for China’s credit rating to “negative” from “stable,” citing risks from a slowing economy, increasing local government debts and a continued slump in the Chinese property market. Wasting little time, the agency on Wednesday also downgraded its credit outlooks for Hong Kong and Macau to “negative” from “stable,” citing the territories’ tight political, institutional, economic and financial linkages with China. While Moody’s reaffirmed its “A1” sovereign rating for China, the outlook downgrade was its first for the country since 2017, reflecting the agency’s pessimistic view of China’s mounting debts