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A word of caution: China's aggressive Taiwan flyovers could be just the start

By signaling greater support for Taipei's independence, Washington is risking the island's safety and 40-years of Sino-U.S. peace.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Last weekend’s flight of more than two dozen Chinese military aircraft across the midline of the Taiwan Strait and the strong U.S. verbal response reaffirming support for Taiwan reflect the continued escalation of Sino-U.S. tensions, a dynamic that needs to be brought under control as soon as possible.

While Beijing depicted the exercise as routine, Ned Price, the State Department’s new spokesman, denounced it, describing it as the latest in a "pattern of ongoing P.R.C. attempts to intimidate its neighbors, including Taiwan.”

As the stern U.S. response to the Chinese flights suggested, the new Biden administration clearly wants to show, as Secretary of State-nominee Tony Blinken stated in his confirmation hearings, that Washington will continue the “get-tough” approach to China taken by the Trump administration, yet do it differently. 

But “get-tough” is no policy, it’s an attitude, and an inadequate one at that. What is urgently needed in Washington is a serious strategy toward Beijing that reflects the complex realities of the bilateral relationship, without the use of the simplistic labels and Trump administration’s almost exclusively zero-sum approach. 

Efforts at deterrence are great when needed, but only when combined with clear signals of reassurance that can limit the tendency for either side to escalate further. The United States repeating the standard mantra on Taiwan (upholding the Three Joint Communiques, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the U.S. One-China policy) is rapidly losing its credibility for Beijing as a signal of Washington’s continued commitment to the key understanding reached between the two powers at the time of Sino-U.S. normalization in 1979.

That understanding, which has kept the peace for over 40 years, exchanged a Chinese commitment to stress the search for a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s status as a first priority for a U.S. commitment not to contest Beijing’s view that Taiwan is a part of China. Although both sides have certainly undermined this understanding in various ways since normalization, neither side has yet clearly broken it. The deepening Sino-U.S. rivalry, however, threatens to produce just such a break with potentially disastrous consequences. 

If Beijing continues to rely more on sticks than carrots in dealing with Taipei, and Washington continues to offer little but deterrent messages toward Beijing while moving ever closer to Taipei, we could soon be facing a crisis of major proportions. This will become especially likely if, as overall Sino-U.S. relations continue to deteriorate, U.S. policymakers begin to look upon Taiwan as a kind of strategic asset to keep out of Beijing’s hands. Signs of such a policy evolution were already emerging during the Trump administration in the context of its “get-tough” policy. 

The Biden administration needs to halt that dangerous trend by showing clearly that it will uphold its side of the original normalization understanding with Beijing and limiting its official ties to Taipei in contrast to the eleventh-hour efforts by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in particular, to promote official contacts at senior levels. 

At the same time, the Chinese will need to show their continued stress on the search for a peaceful solution by offering greater incentives to Taipei to engage with the mainland. They can do this by reducing their military pressure on the island and initiating contact with the Tsai Ing-wen government. 

Exchanges of resolve between Beijing and Washington will not move us one inch closer to stabilizing the Taiwan situation, which is urgently needed. The Biden administration needs to give serious consideration to how best to balance deterrence with reassurance to avert a catastrophe.      

A Chinese J-10 fighter jet similar to this one shown at an airshow in 2014 in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, was one of the many warplanes to fly over Taiwan last weekend. (Shutterstock/plavevski)
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