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Improving US Relations Is Not a Priority for China

Asia-Pacific Security Chair
xi jinping 20th party congress
Xi Jinping votes at the closing ceremony of the Twentieth Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People on October 22, 2022, in Beijing, China. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

In light of the direction Xi Jinping laid out during the Chinese Communist Party's 20th National Congress, do you see the US and China on a path to intensifying rivalry, or is there room for reconciliation during Xi's third term in power?

Xi Jinping’s priority is rejuvenating the CCP and restoring China's unsurpassed influence, not improving relations with the United States.  The 20th Party Congress report offers a foreboding geopolitical assessment, warning of “black swan” and “gray rhino” events that demand the Chinese people be prepared for “high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.” Prior party reports placed more emphasis on peace and development, while this latest directive sees dark, hegemonic forces resorting to “force and subterfuge.” This sounds more like a rival state than an actor seeking great-power reconciliation

If there is room for reconciliation, what would provide such opportunity or catalyst for two countries to sit and talk?

Xi Jinping and Joe Biden should sit down and talk on the margins of the G-20 summit in Bali.  But many in the US are concerned that a face-to-face dialogue without specific agreement might do more harm than good.  A lack of political will to reverse the current course in bilateral relations suggests that things may have to get worse before diplomacy improves. An internal, regional, or global crisis could be a catalyst for cooperation, if not reconciliation. Economic necessity, the threat of regional conflict, or a variety of global calamities might compel leaders from Beijing and Washington to work jointly on addressing urgent challenges. The use of a nuclear weapon in anger, by Russia or North Korea, for instance, would highlight how much the Chinese and American people would lose if they allowed a third party to instigate a nuclear catastrophe. More hopefully—but less likely in the short term--managing trade and technological tensions and transitioning toward cleaner forms of energy might offer offramps before China-US competition veers too far into confrontation.  

Regarding Taiwan, Xi vowed to continue to strive for peaceful reunification. Yet, at the same time said, "we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary." How do you assess the likelihood of China trying to take over Taiwan by force? What do you think about the prediction that Xi will attempt unification by force in 2027 timed with modernization of the People's Liberation Army?

What is most worrisome about Taiwan is Xi Jinping’s utter disregard for the wishes of the people of Taiwan. When he declares this issue must be left to China, he means the CCP. Xi’s stranglehold on the party is unquestioned. Xi’s mind is made up about Taiwan. Xi will do whatever he can to crush Taiwan’s democratic self-rule because its existence is an existential threat to the party-state. For now, “peaceful” approaches comprise pressure, inducement, and subversion. At some point, perhaps as soon as five years from now, Xi may escalate for various reasons and seek forceful unification. For now, Xi knows that using overt force is an inferior strategy to relying more on more indirect approaches for subjugating Taiwan.  Beijing thinks it knows what is best for the people living in Taiwan, and, ultimately, it is that conceit that should send shivers throughout East Asia and the Indo-Pacific.  

The US government repeatedly stated that there is no change to the One China Policy. Yet, there are views that the US has taken a firmer stance, especially with President Biden saying the US will come to the defense of Taiwan. Do you see any de facto change in Taiwan policy? Can you predict how the US government will respond to China's increasingly aggressive stance towards Taiwan?  

US policy on Taiwan has shifted but not fundamentally altered in response to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy against Taiwan. The new National Security Strategy hews to the traditional pillars of US policy: peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is the overriding goal; Washington remains opposed to Taiwan's independence and any change to the status quo by either side; and the US will continue to adhere to the Three Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances, while guided by the Taiwan Relations Act.

The US is not openly challenging that Taiwan is part of mainland China. Instead, President Biden has tried to underscore the longstanding US position that cross-Strait differences must be settled peacefully. As Beijing becomes more assertive in wanting to control the people of Taiwan, the credulity of strategic ambiguity is being stretched to the breaking point. So, President Biden has felt it necessary to show more resolve to help deter aggression.  There are a million predictions for how these tensions might unfold. To preserve cross-Strait stability, South Korea and others must make it crystal clear that disputes over Taiwan must be resolved peacefully. 

Will the increase in tension over Taiwan affect the security situation in Korean Peninsula as well?

Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine reminded the world about the indivisibility of security from one region to another.  A relatively narrow geographical distance separates Taiwan and the Korean peninsula, and war in either would undoubtedly reverberate throughout East Asia and beyond.  But rather than try to forecast the precise effect, it behooves officials in Seoul, Washington, and other capitals to proactively develop the policies and means for preserving peace in both areas. 

Biden administration has stated that there are areas where the US and China can cooperate. Among them is North Korea. Is such cooperation possible? What would induce China to act to stabilize the situation in Korean Peninsula?

It used to be that Chinese leaders prized stability on the peninsula over other goals. Now, however, Beijing seems more interested in supporting a disruptive North Korea to achieve some zero-sum advantage over its American rival and Northeast Asia’s powerful sovereign democracies.  Beijing seeks to elevate relations with North Korea even as Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and missile ambitions are being acted on through an unprecedented campaign of weapons testing and military maneuvers. Pyongyang will have dangerously threatened to destabilize the peninsula before Beijing exerts its overwhelming influence on its economically dependent autocratic neighbor.

Where does South Korea sit in the US-China rivalry? Koreans tend to view the current situation as 'shrimp among whales,' meaning Korea is caught in a fight between great powers. Is it possible to maintain close relations with both countries?  

There is now an emerging asymmetry of power on the peninsula, but not the one many often refer to. The asymmetry I have in mind is that North Korea is destined to be a second-tier threat (never rising to the level of challenge posed by major-power competitors), while South Korea is on track to realize its potential as a global pivotal state.  That leaves South Korea as a vital partner for all powers, including China. Seoul has more leverage than it realizes to join likeminded countries to counter malign and predatory policies emanating from Beijing, provided it also seeks to preserve a workable relationship with China. But make no mistake about China’s ulterior motives. Should Seoul move to strengthen its defenses or join a strong coalition against China, Beijing will lash out in a way far more punitive than its coercion over the THAAD missile defense battery decision of several years ago. Beijing prefers a weak, nonaligned South Korea, but it will settle for a more robust South Korea, provided it retains a high degree of autonomy. 

What is the general expectation in Washington and among US scholars about South Korea's role regarding the Taiwan situation?

Washington doubts that South Korea would fully support US military action to prevent a blockade or invasion of Taiwan. This means the expectation is that America’s linchpin ally would, at a minimum, do nothing to undermine efforts to preserve peace across the Taiwan Strait and, at a maximum, provide indirect diplomatic, economic, and logistical support for efforts aimed at thwarting unprovoked aggression against the people of Taiwan. Should conflict erupt, all calculations would be reassessed in response to the unfolding situation.

The Biden administration is making significant efforts to deny China access to critical technology, such as advanced semiconductors used in AI and supercomputers. And Xi called for achieving China's self-reliance and strength in science and technology. Are two countries heading towards decoupling? Where do you see US-China economic and trade relations going forward?    

Xi Jinping’s dual circulation, technological ambitions, and industrial policies seek to make China less dependent on the world and make the world more dependent on China. The United States and like-minded powers are belatedly waking up to this unfair competition. They are beginning to move to protect critical technologies and supply chains, so they are less vulnerable to coercion or surprise. In rolling out the new National Security Strategy earlier this month, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stressed that the US will follow the principle of “small yards, high fences.” That means selective decoupling, more significant investment in national technological and scientific capabilities, and rising cooperation with trusted partners. But it should not mean severing mutually beneficial trade and engagement with China. However, there are bound to be some problematic tensions as the United States and others seek to rebalance economics and security. 

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