The US should cut arms sales to Taiwan if China reduces its “threatening stance” towards the nation, former US deputy secretary of state James Steinberg said.
He said that Beijing’s missile buildup and the possibility of Washington countering it by helping Taiwan to improve its missile defenses “creates the potential for a new round of escalation.”
Writing with Michael O’Hanlon, director of research for the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, Steinberg said that even though cross-strait tensions have eased in recent years, Taiwan remains a “contentious issue” in US-China relations.
They said this is in part because China has not renounced the use of force to unify Taiwan with the mainland and in part because the US continues to sell arms to Taipei.
“Some tension would seem to be inevitable given the fundamental differences in interests between the parties,” Steinberg and O’Hanlon said.
Beijing should make its stated intention of seeking a peaceful path to unification credible by putting some limits on its military modernization and stopping military exercises focused on intimidating Taiwan through missile barrages or blockades, they added.
“For Washington, it means making sure that the arms it sells [to] Taipei are in fact defensive and demonstrating a willingness to scale back such arms sales in response to meaningful, observable, and hard-to-reverse reductions in China’s threatening stance toward Taiwan,” they added. “Fortunately, both sides are already pursuing key elements of such an agenda.”
Both Steinberg and O’Hanlon are believed to have influence within the administration of US President Barack Obama and their opinions are read at the highest levels.
“Washington needs to make Beijing understand that it will defend not just its own territory and people, but also those of its formal allies and sometimes even its nonallied friends,” they said. “It is crucial to signal to Beijing early and clearly that there are some lines it will not be permitted to cross with impunity.”
One difficulty, they said, is that Beijing asserts an ever-expanding list of “core” interests and has often handled them truculently, turning even relatively minor and routine disputes into potentially dangerous confrontations and needlessly risky tests of mutual resolve.
“Beijing needs to recognize that over time such behavior dilutes the legitimacy and force of its more important claims, sending conflicting signals and undermining its own long-term interests,” they said.
Steinberg, now dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, said that US-Chinese relations may be approaching an “inflection point.”
The bipartisan US consensus on seeking constructive relations with China has frayed and the Chinese are increasingly pessimistic about the future of bilateral dealings. Trust in Washington and Beijing remains scarce and the possibility of an accidental or even intentional conflict between the US and China “seems to be growing,” Steinberg and O’Hanlon said.
“Given the vast potential costs such a conflict would carry for both sides, figuring out how to keep it at bay is among the most important international challenges of the coming years and decades,” they said.
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