In a recent NPR interview, Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, delivered an unusually blunt message on Taiwan, stating: “If, ...the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States...keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the United States...in the military conflict."
Although the ambassador also reiterated the Chinese intention to seek peaceful unification as a top priority, this new message clearly presaged a Sino-U.S. military conflict if China’s view of present trends continues. Such a statement amounts to an intensification of the escalating tit-for-tat deterrence signals that Washington and Beijing have been sending one another in recent years, and highlights the need for the two nations to discuss ways to de-escalate this worsening situation.
This requires, above all else, combining deterrence with credible reassurance messages confirming that each side continues to abide by the original Sino-U.S. understanding reached at the time of normalization. That understanding traded a U.S. acknowledgement of the Chinese stance that Taiwan is a part of China and an assertion that Washington would accept any uncoerced, peaceful resolution of the issue, for a Chinese adherence to a peaceful path toward unification as a top priority, while retaining the possibility of a use of force as a last resort.
To sustain this understanding, Washington urgently needs to breathe new life into its One China policy, first, by explicitly rejecting the dangerous notion, recently suggested in Congressional testimony by a senior U.S. defense official, that Taiwan serves as a U.S. strategic asset to be kept separate from China. Second, the Biden Administration should clearly state that it remains utterly opposed to any unilateral action by either Taipei or Beijing that would threaten peace across the Taiwan Strait, and unreservedly supports a renewed cross-Strait dialogue to stabilize the situation.
For its part, Beijing should end its saber rattling toward Taiwan and affirm that its pursuit of peaceful reunification should occur without the coercion (defined as an unambiguous application of direct pressure to force a preferred outcome) that many Chinese observers now believe is necessary. It should also convey a clear willingness to talk with Taiwan president Tsai Yingwen if she openly rejects a One China, One Taiwan policy stance and actively resists efforts by the U.S. or others to place the island within Washington's Asia defense perimeter, as some U.S. observers now suggest must occur. Neither action is in the interests of Taiwan under present conditions.
While the Washington and NATO face-off with Russia over Ukraine now dominates the headlines, the steadily worsening Sino-U.S. face-off over Taiwan presents a far more likely prospect of war between two nuclear powers. All sides must take the recent comments by China's new ambassador to Washington as a clear indication of the urgent need to take decisive steps to arrest the slide toward confrontation and possible conflict.