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A nation must think before it acts.
Editor’s Note: On August 12, director of FPRI’s Asia Program Jacques deLisle, FPRI senior fellow Shelley Rigger, and Jude Blanchette discussed Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan.
Carol “Rollie” Flynn:
Good morning or good afternoon, depending on where you’re viewing this, and welcome, we’re doing a program this morning on Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, what the implications of that are. And for those of you who don’t know me, I’m Rollie Flynn. I’m the president of FPRI. We’re a non-partisan think tank in Philadelphia, and I’d like to, before I turn it over to our panel today, thank our supporters and our members for their support. We can’t do it without you. Our moderator this morning is Jacques deLisle, who is the director of FPRI’s Asia program. He is also the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law & Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania.
After our panelists speak for a little while, roughly halfway through the program, we’ll be going to your questions. So please put your questions down in the Q&A box at the bottom of your screen. And I’d encourage you to go ahead and start doing that, because I know Jacques sometimes weave some of those questions into our discussion. So, thank you again, and take it away, Jacques.
Well, thank you Rollie, and thank you everyone for joining us today. Also, a special thanks to our two panelists who’ll be discussing Pelosi’s visit and its fallout. First, we have Shelley Rigger, who’s a senior fellow here at the Asia program at FPRI, and is also the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics and the interim vice president for academic affairs at Davidson College in North Carolina. She’s the author of several books, including Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy, and From Opposition to Power: Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party. Both of which of course are germane to the bad guy in China’s version of the story that we’ll be talking about today. She’s also the author of Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse, and The Tiger Leading the Dragon: How Taiwan Propelled China’s Economic Rise. She’s written widely on Taiwanese domestic politics, a national identity issue and issues of the sort we’ll be talking about today in terms of Taiwan’s relations with the mainland.
Our other speaker today, my second, but by no means least is Jude Blanchette who holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Before that he was engagement director at The Conference Board’s China Center for Economics and Business in Beijing. He was also assistant director of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, well-known by everyone in the China biz.
His book, China’s New Red Guards: The Return of Radicalism and the Rebirth of Mao Zedong came out a couple of years ago. He’s also a member of the Public Intellectual Program at the National Committee on United States-China Relations, known in the trade as PIP. So, let’s start with the big question, or at least the initial question, which is, why was Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan such a big deal for China? We’ve seen other high-level visits. We’ve seen senior congressional delegations. We’ve seen retired senior defense and foreign policy officials. We even 25 years ago saw another Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich visit. But this time it seemed to provoke a much louder reaction, both in the sense of the rhetoric and in terms of the missiles flying. So Shelley, why don’t you get us started off on this? Why did China get so upset about this particular visit?
Yeah, I’m going to let Jude talk about the domestic politics in the [People’s Republic China or PRC] that may have contributed to this outcome. But I’ll just get us started with the observation that the PRC leadership has been under the impression, and they can cite data points that they would say substantiate this idea. I don’t think all of us would necessarily agree with their interpretation of those data points, but anyway, what they have assembled over the last few years is what they view as a series of actions by the US specifically that seem to indicate that the US is moving away from its longstanding policy of neither side of the Taiwan Strait should try to change the situation unilaterally, and the US therefore opposes both kind of military coercion by the PRC.
And a declaration of independence or movements toward formal independence by Taiwan toward a more one sided and increasingly in their view, encouraging Taiwan independence kind of approach to the Taiwan Strait. And so, I think they’ve seen a series of things happen that fall into that pattern, which they interpret as part of this gathering trend. And the Pelosi visit was for various reasons, which I think Jude can illuminate better than I can, a kind of wrong place, wrong time that just was the last straw, to mix the metaphor a lot. But the last straw in this trend and where they decided to draw the line. So, that would be my contribution there.
Jude, so what’s your take on the broken camel’s back or the boiled frog or whatever metaphor we want to use for why we got a stronger reaction from China to this one?
Yeah, it’s a good question. I think a few factors, in addition to what Shelley just said, I think from Beijing’s point of view the US was essentially acting as if there was no price for salami slicing. And so I think one of the things they do is they wanted to use an event to sort of put a floor underneath that or set a price such that additional marginal salami slices in the future would be more, would have a higher perceived price to them. And I think that includes the sort of internationalization issue that Beijing is so frustrated at as well. So in some sense, I think even if it wasn’t Nancy Pelosi, Beijing was essentially, has been messaging, I’d say for about six months, even before the initial Pelosi visit was announced that, “You’re not hearing our concerns and our frustration. So we’re going to need to utilize an event to reset it.”
And then I think there are just more narrow, discrete elements of the Pelosi visit, which exacerbated this from Beijing’s point of view.
And just permanent asterisk—anything I say today is not me agreeing with Beijing, as Shelley just said, this is sort of trying to show some strategic empathy in how they’re looking at this.
I think the fact that this leaked in July and was hanging out there so long put Beijing in a sort of position where it felt like it really had to do something, it had to take a strong action, otherwise it would be perceived as a paper tiger.
And then there’s just an element of China’s political calendar. The visit came the day after the 95th anniversary of the PLA, the Bayi August 1st. Also, it was in the week or so before the senior leaders get their bathing suits and go out to [inaudible] for what is a really important final step for Xi Jinping as he moves towards a third-term coronation. And so sensitivities were extra high. Final point though, I think if it wasn’t this, just again to stress, it could be Speaker McCarthy going in March.
That’s a thought, so we may get that. So one of the things of course that’s been part of this is, as you’ve both suggested, Beijing has been signaling greater impatience or discomfort with what it sees as the US implicitly backing Taiwan being a bit bolder in this space, right? So we’ve seen this gradual ratcheting up of support for Taiwan and congressional legislation. We’ve seen a raft of legislation in the last four or five years. They call for closer cooperation, higher level visits and so on. And Beijing keeps saying, “Hey, you guys, you’re asleep of the switch. Taiwan is doing sort of creeping toward formal independence here.” And so I think that we’ve got to take seriously, we can discount a little bit the idea that Pelosi was representing Biden policy as part of a plot, but there is a sense of perhaps a failure to reign it in.
But so we did see a lot going on here, we have seen at least two measures by Beijing that are ratcheting things up from what we had seen as the already tense baseline. One is of course the live-fire military exercises that got very close to Taiwan. And the other is dropping this white paper, the third white paper on the Taiwan issue. So I want to delve into those issues, but before we do, a more, a sort of more general question, which is, how should we read Beijing’s reaction here? I mean, if you go through the punditry, the commentary of the media commentary on this, you get everything from, “Oh, it’s just sabre rattling. they always do this. And then maybe it’s a little louder,” to, “Hey, we’re on the verge of great power kinetic conflict here.” So on a scale of one to infinity there, where would you put how seriously we should take Beijing’s reaction? I’ll start with Jude on this one.
Here’s how I think Beijing is processing it, which is, I think they think their response was a calibrated escalation, one that was enough to sort of give a bloody nose, but not so much that it would make this spill over into an outright security spiral. I think there’s a bit of a disconnect between how Beijing thinks its actions are being perceived and how they’re actually being perceived. So, we did a discussion with some Chinese interlocutors the other night, and they were all very, very clear. The masses wanted Beijing to do far more than it did. And so be thankful that Beijing was essentially as careful and calibrated as it was.
That being said, a year ago when we were thinking about the what-if scenarios, one of them was them lobbing a missile over Taiwan. They’ve now done that. And so I think in between the sort of, it’s a nothing burger and the, “Oh my God, World War III is about to start.”
I think we’re somewhere in the middle of, we are now going to see a much more militarized Taiwan Strait. There’s a whole question now about, should we even be thinking about this as a discrete set of exercises, given that the long tail effects of this will be more regular PLA activities in the Strait? Are we going to see the erasing of the median line as a functional way to benchmark escalations? I think those are still open-end ended questions, but I think we’re somewhere in between. They did more than we would have been, in some ways we would have been expecting several weeks ago. But they still left a lot on the table that they could do. I hate to keep imagining a world in which there’s a speaker McCarthy, but I think they left a lot in the table that they could do in the future that they didn’t do this time.
Okay. Shelley, what’s your take on that question?
Yeah, I think that’s pretty right on target. It seems to me that if Beijing was at kind of the twenty yard line and was moving up the field a yard at a time, battling for every first down, this was one of those long passes that takes them much closer to the goal line than they would have been if they had been sort of on that pre, the sort of been playing the strategy that they were playing up until this visit.
So, while it’s not the beginning of World War III, I don’t think, it’s a step up toward a higher level of conflict and tension and containment honestly, of Taiwan, than we have ever seen before. And that even, I think, a bigger step up maybe than the PRC was kind of expecting to do during this year. And I don’t think it’s going to go back. I don’t think there’s a reset. I don’t think there’s a, maybe a little bit of a relaxation. But I don’t think that we are ever going to return to where we were two months ago in terms of the level of militarization of the Taiwan Strait.
I think that’s right. I think we do have, we’ve seen gradual ratcheting up of the gray zone type activities. And then now we’ve got this aspect to it. So Shelley, you’ve written a lot about Taiwan domestic politics, and you and your colleagues think did something on public opinion when The Economist declared Taiwan the most dangerous place in the world. And that was before the current dust up over the Pelosi visit. So how was the visit received in Taiwan? There’s a lot of reporting about how warmly Pelosi was welcomed, how much this was a boost to the narrative that the US really will back Taiwan and is strongly supporting it. There were obviously concerns as well. So how should we read the reaction in Taiwan? Superficially quite positive, but as you both have outlined, reasons for concern about what it means for Taiwan’s security going forward.
Yeah, I think it’s very complicated and impossible to characterize a reaction in Taiwan. I think that reaction was quite varied. Many people, basically the US is Taiwan’s supporter internationally, and so an affirmation of that support was welcome. But as the fallout from the visit became more clear to people as they began to realize that the response that Beijing had telegraphed ahead of time was actually the response that they were going to have and that this event had brought about, whether it’s fair to blame Pelosi’s visit for Beijing’s actions or not, certainly the timing suggests that this was the opportunity. This was the catalyst or the rationale, if you prefer, for a significant intensification of all kinds of pressure on Taiwan. As that realization has dawned on people they have also, I think those who are paying close attention to the discourse about it in the US have been shocked to discover that many people in the United States are blaming Taiwan for this whole development, right?
Then why is the Taiwan Strait blowing up? Well, because the Taiwan government somehow seduced Nancy Pelosi into doing this thing. And so now what I’m getting back from my friends who are sort of politically active in Taiwan is a bit more like, “Wait a minute, we were trying to make the best of something that was not really under our control, and now we are actually getting blamed for it.” So, I think to a non-trivial extent, what was for a moment looked like a positive development for Taiwan is now increasingly looking like a misstep or a setback. And to add to that the possibility that the Beijing’s reaction might reduce US enthusiasm for Taiwan in the future, or that Taiwan might be identified even in Washington as the bad guy in this whole picture. It’s, I think that’s quite unsettling for folks in Taiwan.
Okay, thanks. So we touched briefly upon this third white paper that dropped earlier this week. So, many people who are followers, this issue will of course recall, this is the third in a series of white papers that Beijing has issued on the Taiwan question as it calls it. The first in 93, the second in 2000 on the eve of the elections that brought the first [inaudible], Kuomintang, the first Democratic Progressive Party president to power in Taiwan. So Jude, do you follow these kinds of rhetorical flourishes quite closely, there’s a lengthy document, it’s on the same scale as the prior to papers. So what should we take away from this third white paper coming out when it did, and in what ways is its content significant? What does it add to what we already were familiar with in Beijing’s policies?
Yeah, thanks, Jacques. And I think this is one we’re sort of still somewhat processing about having read it in full yesterday, and then just gotten out my ruler to measure margins and spacing to see where it differs from previous versions. It strikes me that all these documents are put out to answer a, to solve a riddle that the party is facing at the time. So you’d mentioned that the previous two, ’93, 2000, and then 2022. So, we haven’t had a white paper come out in 22 years. And in some sense, I think one was overdue from Beijing’s perspective, right? That they had had significant developments in the Cross-Strait relationship that needed addressing [inaudible] and I think 2016 being a big inflection point from Beijing’s point of view.
And then of course, we’ve had developments on Hong Kong, which directly implicate the one country, two systems framework. Some are wondering if this was kind of rushed out in light of events of the last week. Bureaucratically that’s probably not likely. These documents take a significant amount of time, especially one on a question as sensitive as Taiwan. You can imagine from what we know about drafting processes within the party and within the state council there’s, these take a year or so to do, oftentimes more. Sometimes quicker, but not by much. You have successive waves of drafts. You have inputs from probably shaman university and all the big areas that are focusing on Taiwan. And in fact, I can see some of the fingerprints in the sections on one country, two systems that overlap with some of the academic writing and Chinese Taiwan specialist writing on one country, two systems that we’ve seen over the past year or two.
So, I think this was probably completed or close to completion anyway, and was likely to be coming out around the 20th Party Congress. They may have advanced the timing a bit, but I think that would be a marginal advancement. The other thing I think is important is, there was a lot of speculation about new possible language in the 20th Party Congress report that Xi Jinping will give. And there was some real maximalist interpretations of, are we going to see a timeline come out that is more concrete over the sort of statements he has made about cannot pass this down generation to generation? Or the linking of the Taiwan question with rejuvenation by 2049? I think now that the white paper is out, we know that there isn’t going to be a significant deviation at the 20th Party Congress. It wouldn’t make sense to me that they would put this white paper out and then two months later have something that radically diverges from that, or even frankly, in any marginal way diverges from it. That just wouldn’t make sense.
So, I think what we’ve got here with the white paper is essentially the parties, what is likely to be their framework for the near future. Just a few kind of micro comments, and then I’ll shut up. But if the first paper was really laying out the “historical case,” the second paper was then focused mostly on the one China principle and a sort of a reminder refresher for the political parties in Taiwan about what China means. This one is now two things that are important. One is the title. So this is now talking about reunification in the new era. The new era has some fuzzy demarcations, but it really is thinking about during Xi Jinping’s reign.
So on one sense, this does sort of follow the course of other statements Xi Jinping has made, which give us the indication that there is some view of “resolution” of the issue while Xi Jinping is alive. But I should hasten to add, like a good politician Xi Jinping has given some vague timeline that doesn’t box him in. That doesn’t give him hard targets. That still gives him a lot of time. For imagining that Xi Jinping is going to be around for a while. This is not any impending issue that he needs to solve. So I read this a little bit as signaling to domestic audiences and the other elite, “I’m in control of this. I’ve got this. We’re moving towards an objective,” but at the same time, if any politician in the US, or if any CEO announced a strategy that had the same amorphous timeline, you’d think they’re you’d think they’re just kicking the can.
The second thing of note is how much this spends on the one country, two systems framework that previous ones have not. In a way it’s totally tone deaf to how events in Hong Kong have just, if one country, two systems didn’t have many buyers anyway, certainly it didn’t after the national security law, not surprisingly, you get none of that self-reflection in the document. But on the other hand, it just is plowing ahead as if Hong Kong didn’t fundamentally challenge the one country, two systems. There are also some tweaks in this, which others in reporting have noticed. Taking out some of the previous language about stationing of, or allowing Taiwan to have its own military sort of administrative autonomy.
But on the other hand, in the new document it still does have language, which nominally has some olive branches about, you’ll still get a high degree of autonomy. There’s still lots of room for negotiation about how this goes. So my elevator pitch to someone on this would be, and I think we’re going to talk about this later, worryingly there’s no innovation in China’s head. And I actually think that’s a problem. Because one country, two systems is dead. Forceful reunification is prohibitively risky, and I think Beijing knows that. And so there’s a wasteland. And I think in between those, and I think without a functioning strategy Beijing is going to be very, very reactive. And I think that could be potentially very worrying.
Those are all fair points. And if you go through the document, a lot of it is quite familiar, right? That Taiwan has always been part of China, wrongfully separated by the Japanese war against the Qing, which led to that and the whole history and all that. And the major new pieces, if there are any. As you say, a lot of Xi Jinping associated. The new era is very much Xi Jinping’s phraseology. And the part of one country, two systems really is quite striking. I mean, not only tone deafness to Hong Kong, but actually celebrating the success of how the one country, two systems was adapted to deal with the unrest in Hong Kong. And isn’t it great now that has all been solved. Shelley, do you want to weigh in on this issue?
No, I mean, I think Jude’s done a fantastic job. And just to underscore the peril of continuing to, of Beijing’s continuing to trot out the same old stuff in a very different and quite dynamic external and internal honestly environment. We’ve been advocating forever for folks in the PRC to try to be more creative and to consider some alternative. You can still package it as one country, two systems. And there’s a lot of content that can change within that box, but when neither the packaging nor the contents are changing, it feels like a missed opportunity, for sure.
Yeah. And that, I think a couple of other strands that run through it is we get a lot about fairly unsettled statements about how powerful China is now, how big it is economically, how it’s developed the capacity to pursue a more coercive, or at least more high pressure way of approaching this. And there’s a fair amount too, I think that captures Beijing’s growing concerns about subtle drift. I mean, in the 1993 and 2000 white papers is all about, “Oh, don’t go down that path. People in Taiwan don’t vote for Chen Shui-bian, he wants open independence.” But now it’s much more, that’s still there too, but there’s also this element of we’re watching these sort of creeping slow drift away and it’s never going to happen. And we now have the wherewithal to deal with it. And I agree with Jude’s notion that there’s no timeline here. There’s lots of flexibility built in that sense. We don’t see the generation to generation pass down, but we see that the quite clear statement that, “Yeah, we cannot allow this to happen.” So, a quite strong marker on the ultimate outcome, but a lot of flexibility on-
Jacques, just one final, one that I should have mentioned is I think the other striking thing is how much, and this very much tracks post-2016 developments and doesn’t deviate from the discourse coming out of Beijing and the TAO. But a lot of ire focused on the DPP and a lot of time spent on the role of nefarious, external forces. Left unmentioned who specifically they’re talking about, but I think we can guess who they have in mind.
Yes. So, let’s turn a little bit to that. I want to get back to the question of what we would see happening going forward. But as to who the bad guys are, obviously the DPP comes in for a lot of heat and the US is the outside force that it’s focused on. So whatever you think of the merits of this, this has been a source of some recent friction, an elevation, already high level of friction in US, China relations. So I guess that brings me into two questions. First of all, how do you read this in terms of what it tells us about the level of concern in China about the US-Taiwan relationship.
And secondly, given that it was pretty predictable and indeed pretty strongly signaled that China would react the way it did to Pelosi’s visit, or at least somewhere in this range. And that the Biden administration seems not to have been super keen on her going, but it doesn’t seem to have pressed very hard for her not to go. And after all, what she said was in some ways very much been keeping with Biden administration policy. I mean, there’s some tweaks here and there, but by and large, nothing unusual. So how do we read that in terms of Beijing’s view, of what it tells us about Beijing view of US-Taiwan relations and its place in US-China relations? And why do we think the US administration, the Biden administration took the posture it did toward Pelosi’s trip? I know it’s kind of a MIRV’d question, but let me throw that first to Shelley and then to Jude.
Oh man, so I have thought for a long time, and Jacques has heard me say this a million times, at least a million, the wild card in this triangular relationship has always been the US. The PRC tries to, well, it has a very consistent objective and it has, excuse me, signaled its preferences, its intentions, its actions pretty well. We’ve had very few genuine surprises from Beijing. If you are listening, if you’re paying attention to what they’re saying, their actions are rarely surprising. Lots of people like to look at Taiwan as a wildcard player or an unpredictable actor, “Oh, it’s a democracy. They might have somebody who would do this or that.” But what we have seen since 1996, which was the first time the PRC really kind of stood up and said, “Wait a minute, we are not going to allow the process that is underway in Taiwan to continue in the direction it seems to be going. We’re going to step in here.”
Since 1996, Taiwan has been kind of continually narrowing the range of options that people are seriously considering in the direction of protecting the status quo. And you even see under Taiwan, not only has she been very stable and cautious in her behavior in Cross-Strait relations and in the international realm as well. But she’s also been kind of trying to get past the idea of Taiwan as the sole identity for Taiwan. And so she’s got this new formulation for how to name the country, which is Republic of China Taiwan. Bringing back the Republic of China and integrating Taiwan into it.
So, I don’t see the PRC as being exactly full of surprises. I don’t see Taiwan as full of surprises or unpredictable, but the US, you just never know what might come out of Washington. And I think for the PRC, this is very much their concern is, Taiwan cannot do many things on its own. Without the protection of the US, Taiwan is not going to bust a move. But with the protection of the US, or even worse, the encouragement of the US, Taiwan could do something that might create a situation where the PRC is forced to respond in ways they don’t really want to, or they don’t think they’re entirely ready to do.
So, I see this, I see the last few years as what we call in international relations theory a classic security dilemma dynamic where the PRC is acting in ways that look aggressive, because it is worried about what the US is doing. And the US responds to those apparently aggressive moves with things moves of its own that the PRC perceives as aggressive. And so you’ve got the US and China kind of spinning this thing up and Taiwan has kind of disappeared completely and is just a kind of one of the targets that they talk about when they compete to show how tough they are.
So, I think that’s why the PRC reacted so strongly is that they see, they saw this as just another step in a trend. And the salami slicing metaphor, the slices are getting thicker and thicker and thicker. And the US is not getting the message that this can’t continue up to no limit. And why they chose to draw the line here, I think has a lot to do with the timing of their calendar and perhaps some misperceptions about US politics.
But it’s understandable, and I think entirely predictable that they would have reacted so strongly to in this instance. Why the US? Why the Biden administration allowed this to happen? Why Pelosi’s team insisted upon it? I cannot explain that. I cannot understand, given the amount of information that was available, predicting how dangerous and how unnecessary and kind of gratuitous this visit would be that nobody said, “We never announced it. We’ve always denied it. We don’t have to do this.” To allow Beijing to goad her into going in order to show that she won’t be goaded into doing things by Beijing. I think it’s a big failure on the US part, honestly. I really do.
I mean, obviously that was just so well said. Sorry, what really worries me about the discussion here in Washington is, even though we know ultimately the primary aggressor is the PRC and the designs they have over Taiwan, full stop, end a sentence, underlined exclamation mark. I actually only think that gets you about three yards. I’ll continue with Shelley’s football metaphors, about three yards down the road, because then this comes, “How do we sustainably manage this relationship such that Taiwan can continue to grow as a prosperous, resilient, safe, secure democracy?” And that I think requires elongating Beijing’s timelines, not shortening them. And that’s a very un-American thing to do because it means there’s no “solution” for this. It means we have to show some strategic empathy and understand how decisions we make frame and shape Beijing’s timeline.
I hate to say this. It actually means we have to think about how far, how much room do we need to leave Xi Jinping domestically, such that he can credibly say, “I’m controlling this scenario.” Because I think once we start really backing him against to a corner and we really shorten these timelines, we can become a victim of our own success.
Shelley, I think this is you or Bonnie Glazer, this idea of just hugging Taiwan so tightly, you suffocate them. Give them a big bald eagle hug. So I think that’s where we are. And actually I think Beijing thinks, Beijing has a very bad clumsy theory of deterrence that is not calibrated to understand how its actions reverberate through the assumptions and predilections of the US security community. So last week’s events feed the beast here. Absolutely. And actually China was a little, damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t. If it didn’t respond aggressively, the lesson we would’ve learned is, “Let’s do it again.” If it responds in a way that we think is above our Goldilocks, then it’s see and prelude to now blockade is the new is the new word de jure here in Washington, D.C.
So, I think this is not about avoiding pissing off Beijing at all. There are things we may need to do and Taiwan may need to do that will upset Beijing. But this is, when we decide we’re really going to frustrate, upset, we have to make sure we get a darn good reason that it fundamentally adds to Beijing’s aggregate. Or excuse me, Taiwan’s aggregate holistic sense of security and prosperity.
So things like renaming TECRO to have it say Taiwan, I don’t think does anything to make Taiwan more secure. I think Pelosi’s visit. Although there was a lot of sort of self-congratulations of, “We showed support for Taiwan.” I think even just a week out we now know that the PLA is in many ways the winner from last week’s events. Its mission, its value proposition to see Jinping just strengthened. And they’ve been running free drills that they could not have done without being seen as a prelude to war. Last week’s event gave them a proxy to be able to do that. So I think moving forward, how do we find a way where we can recognize the realities of Beijing’s power and intentions, but move towards one where we’re thinking about sustainability of our actions, vis-à-vis Taiwan, and elongating China’s timelines. Every morning we can get Xi Jinping to wake up and say, “I’m going to kick the can.” That’s a great day.
Yeah. Can I, I just want to applaud all of that. I think that’s so important. And just add one note on deterrence, because I think you’re right, Jude, that the deterrence strategy that the PRC has been following is not a very effective one. But the US has forgotten about deterrence. Deterrence is now just shows of force. Like, “Oh, we’re so tough.” And we’ve forgotten that the other half of deterrence is reassurance, right? If I think that no matter what I do, you are coming for me, then I am not going to try to do anything else, except figure out how to win that fight when you come for me. If what you’re telling me is, “As long as you stay within this cordon, I’m not coming for you. But look at how I could come for you if you step over,” then I’m going to concentrate on at least some of my energy on staying within the cordon.
But the US is doing no reassurance right now with the PRC on any issue really. All we’re doing is shows of resolve, which I don’t think the PRC leadership necessarily believes anyway. And I think a lot of the reaction in the US to this recent up swelling of tension, if I were in Beijing I would read that as reason to believe that the US commitment is not what, that the mouth is talking, but it doesn’t feel like the weight of the political center is behind the claims that are being made. So I think this also is a little bit of a test of American political resolve. And I don’t think we’re winning on that dimension either. So our punishment, the punishment side of our deterrence, I think, has lost some weight over the last two weeks. And the reassurance side of the deterrence strategy we forgot about sometime in the Trump administration. And that’s just, that’s a failure of our deterrence strategy to match the failure that Jude’s mentioning on the other side.
Jacques, I know you got to go to Q&A, can I just very quickly, because I think here’s how we could, to Shelley’s point about reassurance, here’s foundational reassurance. And if we did this, I’d be very happy. Let’s have a clear, consistent policy on Taiwan. That I think for the PRC would be step numbers one through nine of reassurance. And I think, again, we’re in this top line statement that we hear coming out of like, “Our policy has not changed one iota.” And then we say, free communicate assurances and TRA, end of story. And I just think it’s disingenuous and not credible. And so, if I were advising Beijing, I would be saying, “You had seen a fundamental shift occur in US policy that actually [inaudible], I can’t entirely accurately read where it’s going because it’s all over the place.”
And so we will look at Biden’s three statements and the walk back and have a sort of very calibrated reading of what it means. And there’s not been a fundamental shift. If we look at these white papers with a microscope to see if the spacing between words has shifted one iota and we will read massive strategic shifts from one word change or the word count. And yet we’re so fast and loose with everything we say, and we expect the party to just understand it. And then the final thing is, notice what sets off crises, ’95, ’96 and last week, it is very visible public political moves that the United States makes. So a lot of this is there’s kind of actions that we take, but what really goads Beijing is when we wave it in their face and therefore create some domestic challenges for them that they’re not in control of the Taiwan question to them.
So, I think when we think about, again, our deterrent strategy, we need to move way beyond military. China’s grand strategy is, not take Taiwan. China has bigger fish to fry. There are other places where we could be leveraging potential costs to Beijing, diplomatic, economic reputational if it takes drastic escalatory action over Taiwan. But to what Shelley said, when we make this just a military dynamic, we’re creating, I think a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy here, because if we just think about this as we got to arm ourselves, arm Taiwan, and do it as quickly as possible, because an invasion is coming, we’re going to get more things like we got last week, which is not going to be good for Taiwan and is not good for us.
So out there, and we do need to turn to our Q&A, of course. We’ve actually woven some of that into our discussion already. And I would just agree fully that we have neglected the reassurance side or deterrence. Who trying to set his own in which the behavior is deemed acceptable and won’t provoke a reaction. I fully agree with Shelley’s comments about the security dilemma style dynamic to this. But there’s another piece to it as well, which is that US policy has been so focused on old-style dual deterrence, right? That it’s to stop Taiwan from pushing the envelope on formal independence and to stop Beijing from an armed attack. And of course, most of the game now is in the zone in between there. And then Beijing’s [views] you as, “Hey US, you’re subtly drifting toward fermenting a drift toward independence on the Taiwan side.”
So, that’s a bit of a mismatch. And it’s like the old Yogi Bera quote, everybody loves the status quo. The problem is it keeps changing. The question, each side has defined the status quo in a particular way. And from the US perspective quite rightly size been portrayed as being quite moderate in all this, Beijing sees it as sneaky and drifting away. And the US, of course, sees China’s increasing pressure on Taiwan as trying to change the status quo by sort of gray zone coercive measure, a set of measures to be pushed back against. But I agree fully with Jude that too much of the discussion is now about the war and not about the things short of that. We could have another discussion if we’d believe China was determined to use force in the near term to take Taiwan, but that’s, and as Jude suggests has been a very big part of the discourse lately.
So, there are a couple of questions in the chat that I think to speak to. And in some ways a challenge, a little bit of discussion that’s going on here. And one, I think one can rephrase as China going to China. That is that China has its agenda. It is to keep up the pressure on Taiwan and eventually to reunify, preferably peacefully, by force if necessary. And so the US should not be much in the game of calibrating its responses, but should take the big picture view about what US strategic interests are and does not get caught up in the day-to-day reaction to what China does, almost the [inaudible] problem.
The other is the US has shifted its rhetoric toward a more pro-Taiwan, if you will. That is toward signaling a degree of stronger support. I think Jude’s quite right to point to the unclarity in the Biden era. What we’ve seen is several statements that the Chinese read as stronger commitments. And we have not seen the usual walk back. I mean, this is hardly the first time a US president or senior official has strayed from the sacred texts and the way of saying things. But usually there’s been more of a scurrying back explicitly to absolutely nothing has changed. And here I think some of that’s been left hanging out there.
So there’s the China going to China question. And the other question is one that says, “We’ve changed our rhetoric in the way it’s perhaps somewhat confusing, but I think most would agree in a so-called pro-Taiwan direction. Do we have the wherewithal to back that up?” Basically militarily, politically, allies and so on. So I guess those two questions, are we making mistake of being caught up in the micro response to each thing China does, each line in the white paper? And then, do we have the material wherewithal the commitment to make our rhetoric at all effective? Who wants to take those on first?
Oh, I can take stab, is China going to China? Yes-ish, in the sense that China’s broad goals have remained consistent for a very long time about what its ultimate objectives are? What’s an interesting part of the China going to China though is it’s shown I think a demonstrated desire to appear to be winning more than to take substantial costs to force a resolution sooner than later. So part of China going to China has been a preference for can kicking when it can frame it as still having a glide path to some sort of fuzzy horizon reunification. That being said, I think we do need to rethink how we’re estimating Beijing’s strategy here, because a lot of the China going to China was when there was a pretty significant delta between China’s aggregate power capabilities and strength and the United States. And that delta is closing.
And I think one of the things that has been shifting Beijing’s sense of anxiety and urgency is yes, political dynamics in Taiwan post-2016. Yes, political dynamics vis-à-vis the United States’ relationship with Taiwan. And as you said, Jacques, not just the statements, but the actions that have been racking up since the Trump administration. But I don’t think we should deny or at least discount the fact that Xi Jinping strikes me as a leader who likes to make progress towards objectives at a speed with which previous leaders either didn’t think they could or didn’t have the capabilities to do.
And then a final thought is, I suspect that Beijing is looking at time horizons and seeing them shrinking. And I think that’s, they would prefer to have much more time, but I suspect as someone on one of these calls track two said the other night, which I’ve heard from a number of people, “Faith in the ability to reach peaceful reunification is collapsing in elite circles in China.” And I think this is driven by observable trends in Taiwan that are worthy of celebrating, I.e. the robustness and resiliency of its democracy. But Beijing is also looking at trend lines in Taiwan in terms of identity, support for political parties or withholding support for other political parties, looking at issues of identity. And so I think China going to China has never been a static thing. And I worry that there’s a convergence of forces. A lot of these are Beijing’s own doing.
And then final, China going to China is, another thing that worries me is Xi Jinping has a distinct inability to have any peripheral vision and does not see how his own choices and actions in one area are fungible in terms of how they shape people’s perceptions in other areas. So he is after the 20th Party Congress going to come out I think swinging. I think we are in for an aggressive third term from Xi Jinping on foreign policy across the board. And that is going to make his life harder on areas of core concerns. And he will inadvertently shrink his own timelines, I think, I worry about on issues like Taiwan, because he will foreclose options where creativity would be a firm benefit to him and create self-fulfilling prophecies. So this is why I do worry about the near term. Not because Phil Davidson told us to, I don’t think that’s true, but because I think dynamics are shifting in a very rapid fashion and both Beijing and Washington D.C. don’t to seem to be very well invested in the status quo.
And one of the striking features of the white paper, not surprising given it’s the Xi Jinping branded white paper with the new era and so on, is this notion of linking Taiwan’s recovery to national rejuvenation in a quite explicit way. That’s not entirely new, it’s been coming for a while, but it’s one of the striking features. Again, doesn’t commit to a tight timeline, but it does create the sort of atmospheric and tone that Jude is talking about. Shelley?
I’ll just speak to the second question about US capabilities. The purpose of US capabilities relative to the PRC in a Taiwan Strait war is not to win. I mean, once the war starts, Taiwan is done, right? A real war. The purpose of US capabilities is deterrence, is to ensure that the PRC, that as Jude said earlier, that Xi Jinping wakes up every day and says, “I don’t need to do this today. The costs of doing this, the risks associated with doing this today are higher than any benefit I might gain.” So I sort of don’t care that much whether the US can defend Taiwan or not, whatever that means, because I have a television and it shows me that even if the Ukraine war ended tomorrow and the Russians, every Russian left every inch of Ukraine’s immediate post-Soviet territory, the disaster that has befallen the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian nation is only beginning.
And that’s what Taiwan is, that’s where Taiwan is if there’s a war. It’s not a limited war, it’s not going to be nice to civilians. The only difference is that unlike the millions of Ukrainians who have become refugees, Taiwanese are trapped on an island with all that same crap raining down on them to kill them, to destroy their cities, to ruin their life for generations. So the job of the US is not to somehow win. The job of the US is to prevent that war from ever starting. And to do that we have to be smart. And that’s, I think what all of us are kind of saying here on this call today is that some of the things that the US politicians have been doing are not smart if your goal is to protect Taiwan from total destruction.
We did a session earlier on lessons of Ukraine and they’re quite complicated here in a way. On the one hand, one of the lessons to take away from it is the ability under some circumstances to rally international pressure and support in the way that it hopefully will deter the kind of actions that Putin undertook. On the other hand, it has fed a narrative in Beijing. And this two comes through the new white paper that the US is sort of conspiring and sort of bought the Putin narrative about trying to keep China down and contain China and playing the Taiwan card, using Taiwan as a pawn to check China. And that of course is a pretty dangerous territory because as Jude says, Xi Jinping has many fish to fry, but the more it links Taiwan to that large batch of fried fish, the more risk I think we’re facing on that front.
We’re coming pretty close to the end of time here. But I do want to get in a couple of other points and questions. One is sort of the US domestic politics that we haven’t talked about so much. How much of what we see in terms of what you see is the lack of creativity and potential even recklessness of US policy is driven by the fact that it’s not about what’s the best China policy, what’s the best Taiwan policy, what’s the best policy toward Cross-Strait issues, but is driven by people’s senses of their own political legacies and agendas. You don’t want to get hammered by being too soft on China. That sort of thing. Is that a significant factor here? And if so, what do we do about it? I’ll throw that to Shelley and then to Jude.
Yeah, earlier when I said that the US is the wild card in this triangular relationship much of the time, I failed to add that the reason for that is the US has the least at stake, right? We could totally blow it. We could create a situation in which Taiwan is just a smoking ruin. And most Americans would not experience a significant change in their quality of life. They might feel bad for a week. They might find that some semiconductors were not available so your new car would be unavailable for longer. The world would get over it, but Taiwanese would never get over it. And so I really think that that recklessness, the questioner’s word recklessness is a good word to be thinking about here. Are we acting in ways that we can get away with, because at the end of the day we are not on the battlefield here?
And so we can be influenced by political factors, but the domestic politics of the Pelosi visit are for me very hard to understand, because I do not think there is a single person in the United States who is going to change his or her or their vote because Nancy Pelosi did or did not go to China. Maybe they talk about this on Fox News, but are the Fox News viewers really going to vote for Democrats anyway? It felt entirely unnecessary to me from the standpoint of domestic politics. I really can’t understand it. So if one of you has an explanation, I’m all ears.
I mean, I think I agree with Shelley and I think this is, I think Beijing was pushing this out there that this was about the midterm elections. I agree. I mean, American voters don’t vote on foreign policy. There’s always been a massive disconnect between us foreign policy decisions and where the median voter is. I think it’s genuinely the fact that many on Congress, and especially after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, see this through the box of US credibility in the region and credibility unfortunately is often used to justify just about any decision. Because if we don’t act here, it will explode our credibility there. But I think there’s a genuine desire and concern to help Taiwan. So, I don’t deny that at all, there are longstanding pathologies to US foreign policy that lead good intentions to go to overbearing, uncalibrated, unnuanced outcomes. This doesn’t surprise me in any way.
We do things in massive pendulum swings. And so there’s a lot, I mean, I meet with Hill staffers all the time who their bosses are trying to get legislation. And I just met with someone yesterday and they come with a blank piece of paper and they say, “We got to do something. What’s something?” And so I think that’s probably, and maybe that’s more worrying, but there’s always been a missionary zeal in US foreign policy to solve issues. And now that we’re kind of wrapping this in the ideological, actually I saw [inaudible] as well, by the way, wrapping this in the ideological package of autocracy versus democracy and linking as again, as Taipei does, Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow. I think you’re going to get more of this, “We got to do something. This is something, so let’s do this.” And nuance will go by the wayside.
And I agree Shelley 100 percent. The fact that we’re socializing the idea that war is the likely outcome is extraordinarily worrying to me because it forecloses options. And the other thing is, we just have to be front and center. If we get to war, what an utterly, utterly devastating global event that will be. And who’s going to take that first and foremost in the face? People of Taiwan. And the fact that we’re talking about TSMC and how this is absurd, moral logic. That’s going to be our last concern is semiconductors. It’ll be what happens to 23 million people on this island.
And that Luce Backley asked one final question, which is, this would be disastrous for Taiwan, and as one of our questions points out, wouldn’t be a cakewalk for China either. The huge cost of the invasion itself, the likelihood of kinetic conflict with the United States and the economic fallout, the damage to Xi Jinping’s goals of great national rejuvenation, reunification, economic growth, all of that is put at great peril. So there are all sorts of reasons not to do it. Just that brief follow up on what you both said. I mean, I think part of this is nobody wants to get bashed in American politics for being soft on China. Hugely costly, probably not electorally, but it’s still a headache and it still feeds into the general vibe of weakness, strength, and all that.
And you can hardly blame Taiwan for playing the values card, it’s the card they’ve got. But it does lead to this Cold War feedback set of issues. And yeah, I think it’s a scary time to be. We’re up against time, but I can’t let Michael Fante’s question go entirely unanswered, which is, “Will Beijing declare the Tawain Strait internal water such that the US Naval ships need permission to pass?” They’ve certainly taken steps down that general direction. We could go through a long history, probably to a whole session and would bore everyone, but me and a couple people who do obviously, but the international waters, the Strait is not international waters, is a prelude. That strikes me as a sort of high cost, low reward move though at this point, it does. It’s one of those areas where, although international law hardly governs these things, you pull on that thread, a whole bunch of other things follow.
It’s why I think we saw the blockade language. That’s an act of war. So there’s a lot of stuff going around the periphery of technical legal issues that are heavily fraught with claims of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of use of force and exclusion that do fit into a war scenario. So think it’s another example of what Jude’s pointing to the risks that we’re taking, all these steps that deny everyone flexibility. And that’s a risky place to be.
I want to thank Shelley and Jude for a terrific discussion today. That was just very, very, very rich. We could go on forever, but we promise not to. So thank you for taking the time to do this. Thank you all of you in the audience for your questions and for listening. And we do hope that you’ll all tune in for future FPR Asia program events. It’s 7:00 a.m. here in Honolulu, so I’m going to go get my coffee. And thank you all again for joining us.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.