Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan raises a very important question: Will China and the United States seek new stability on the Taiwan issue through dialogue, crisis, or military conflict? At present, China and the United States need to reach a new strategic understanding in a new environment. This idea is reasonable, but it is being put to the test. This situation has left us with little time. If we cannot achieve strategic stability through self-restraint and mutual assurance, we may have to wait for stability to be achieved through a larger crisis, conflict, or even war. However, this path would be extremely costly for China, the United States, and the world.
Over the past 50 years, the Taiwan issue has constantly been the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations. Over the past few years, many observers have come to believe that China and the United States have fallen into a vicious circle of action and retaliation on the Taiwan issue, making the Taiwan Strait the only area with the potential to lead to a conscious conflict or war between China and the United States. Although she was aware of the danger of the Taiwan issue, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, still insisted on visiting Taiwan on August 2, causing the latest round of tensions between China and the United States.
The Chinese government and scholars have harshly criticized and appropriately countered Pelosi’s mistake. Due to the appropriate and restrained countermeasures taken by the Chinese government, the worst-case scenario people had envisioned before Pelosi’s visit did not materialize. However, the waves in the “Strait of Fear” (恐怖海峡) are far from subsiding, and “crisis stabilization” has not yet been achieved. The Taiwan issue is dragging Sino-U.S. relations down the slope to a more serious conflict, and at the moment, we are hard-pressed to find the strength to stop this slide. Relative to the next few weeks, the situation could become even worse in the next few months or years. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan raises a very important question: Will China and the United States seek new stability on the Taiwan issue through dialogue, crisis, or military conflict?
For a long time, the Chinese and the U.S. governments have criticized each other for “salami slicing” on the Taiwan issue, and both claimed that their actions were reactive actions of last resort. Both sides can make their own arguments, and in this game, it is indeed difficult to distinguish between the “chicken” and the “egg.” Due to a lack of mutual trust, even unintentional actions by one side can be perceived by the other as deliberate provocations, to say nothing of conscious policy adjustments. Neither Chinese nor American policymakers want a military conflict or even a war to break out over the Taiwan issue, but we need to be soberly aware that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the relative stability of the Taiwan issue as in the past because some of the long-term fundamentals underlying the Taiwan issue have changed.
The biggest change is the change in Sino-U.S. relations. Five or six years ago, when Sino-U.S. relations were generally stable, U.S. policymakers were more inclined to restrain their support for the Taiwan authorities to avoid overly aggravating Beijing. After the deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations, the U.S. administration and Congress are unwilling to exercise restraint on the Taiwan issue for the sake of Sino-U.S. relations. Instead, they hope to doubly “compensate” the Taiwan authorities through their actions and even challenge and anger the Chinese government by supporting the Taiwan authorities. This is the psychological root of the “salami slicing” strategy we have seen over the past few years by the United States.
Similarly, when Sino-U.S. relations were still good, the Chinese government did not want the Taiwan issue to undermine the overall situation in Sino-U.S. relations, and it also tried to maintain a relatively restrained attitude towards some U.S. practices. For example, Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, also visited Taiwan 25 years ago, an action that the Chinese government opposed at the time. However, at that time, Sino-U.S. relations were moving towards a “constructive partnership,” and Gingrich’s visit was an “interlude” in the process of improving China-U.S. relations, so China did not respond as strongly as today. Now, Sino-U.S. relations have undergone a qualitative change. When China responds to the provocative actions of the United States, the degree of scruples China has concerning the overall stability of Sino-U.S. relations has naturally declined.
The narrowing power gap between China and the United States and the growing power gap between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are another long-term fundamental factor that is changing. Due to the lack of mutual trust between China and the United States, when mainland China is increasingly capable of achieving the goal of national unity through military action, the United States will be worried and try to help the Taiwan authorities improve their capabilities to confront the mainland even if China does nothing. At the same time, after China’s ability to act is improved, the patience of the majority of the Chinese people with regard to certain U.S. politicians and the Taiwan independence forces on the island of Taiwan will naturally and gradually decline.
These long-term major factors have a decisive influence on the short-term policies of all parties involved in the Taiwan issue. After these factors change, relevant policies will change accordingly.
Historically, after the Korean War solidified the Cold War landscape in Northeast Asia, the United States changed from a policy of “waiting for the dust to settle” on the Taiwan issue to supporting Chiang Kai-shek’s clique in its confrontation with the mainland. After the 1970s, Sino-U.S. relations improved, and the United States gradually came to accept China’s three conditions on the Taiwan issue of severing diplomatic relations, abolishing its treaty, and withdrawing troops. Since the 1990s, Sino-U.S. relations became increasingly complex and in-depth, and the United States began to move towards the so-called “two-way containment” (双向遏制) on the Taiwan issue. On the one hand, it put pressure on the mainland so that it could not use force, and on the other hand, it opposed the rash actions of Taiwan independence forces.
Today, Sino-U.S. relations have undergone their greatest change in the past 50 years, while the change in the balance of power between China and the United States is unprecedented even in the past 100 years. Naturally, we are opposed to adjustments made by the United States to its policy towards Taiwan, but no matter what our subjective desires are, it is obviously unrealistic to expect that the U.S. policy towards Taiwan will remain completely static or that the Taiwan independence forces on the island will remain completely static after changes in the general environment. In fact, while mainland China adheres to its long-term strategy of peaceful reunification, its specific policy formats and priorities are constantly changing.
When discussing the Taiwan issue, we often use the concept of “red lines.” “Red lines” are bottom lines that cannot be crossed. In a strategic game, clear “red lines” for all parties in the game are a necessary prerequisite for avoiding major crises. However, at least on the Taiwan issue, the “red lines” have never been clearly defined “lines,” but more like a “region.” Rather than saying that each party has a “red line,” it would be better to say that each party insists on a “red zone” with blurred boundaries and a certain degree of flexibility.
For example, from the perspective of the Chinese, the United States has been hollowing out its “One China Policy” in recent years, and constantly “slicing salami” through legislation, visits, arms sales, and other means. The United States still claims that it adheres to the “One China Policy” and that actions including Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan do not violate the “One China Policy.” The “One China Policy” is like a temple, which consists of the building itself and the Buddha statues in it. In the past, the United States maintained a series of self-imposed restrictions on its interactions with Taiwan in relation to the “One China Policy” to ensure that such exchanges were in keeping with the nature of “unofficial relations.”
Now, the restrictions of the U.S. government are being gradually lifted or broken. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is the latest example. It is as if the United States removed the Buddha statues from the temple, leaving only an empty structure, and then claimed that the temple was still there. It seems that as long as the United States does not say it “supports Taiwan independence,” nothing else it does will violate its “One China Policy.” In fact, the United States has been continuously trampling on China’s “red zone,” causing anger and anxiety on the part of China, but claiming that it has not crossed China’s bottom line. At the same time, viewed from another perspective, despite the Chinese government’s constant reaffirmation of its basic policies of “peaceful reunification and one country, two systems,” as long as the capabilities of the Chinese military are growing, and the scope of its activities is expanding, the United States will believe that China is gradually abandoning its policy of “peaceful reunification.”
Because the general environment has changed, for all parties to return to the “status quo” of ten years ago is a bit like making a notch on the boat to mark the site your sword fell into the water [刻舟求剑, to take an action that shows a lack of understanding of changed circumstances]. Today, to stabilize the situation in the Taiwan Strait, we must achieve a new balance in the new environment. This is somewhat similar to the process from 1972 to 1979 through which China and the United States agreed upon a new formula on the Taiwan issue in a new strategic environment.
Some scholars believe that China and the United States need a fourth “joint communique.” Although this idea is unrealistic, its core meaning is that China and the United States should reach a new strategic understanding in a new environment. This line of thought is reasonable. The challenge is that, on the one hand, it remains to be seen whether Chinese and U.S. policymakers can withstand the strong domestic forces generated by the deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations that are pulling on them. On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether China and the United States can sit down and have a really in-depth discussion to ensure that each other can send restraint signals that can be accurately grasped by the other side. Both points are undoubtedly extremely difficult, and this situation has left us with little time. If we cannot achieve strategic stability through self-restraint and mutual assurance, we may have to wait for stability to be achieved through a larger crisis, conflict, or even war. However, this path would be extremely costly for China, the United States, and the world.