Can America keep the Cold War cold in the Taiwan Strait?

Can America walk the fine line keeping the Cold War cold in the Taiwan strait? Maybe. In an American government that doesnt agree on much, it does agree on using the U.S. military to defend Taiwan, making the strait the most likely flashpoint with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Both the United States and China claim to want peace and stability. But keeping the peace will require foregoing zero-sum games, something neither side looks ready to do.  

Responding to the G7 admonition on belligerent Chinese behaviors, China sent a record twenty-eight military aircraft through Taiwans air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on 15 June, a move increasingly common in Chinas annexation campaign of Taiwan. Asked about this, the Chinese military emphatically stated that Taiwans future lies in reunification and that any reliance on the United States is futile. This was immediately followed by the completion of the sixth Taiwan strait transit this year by an American Aegis Destroyer, also a record. The military tit-for-tat spells out only too clearly the increasingly warm cold war between America and China playing out in the Taiwan strait.  

Adding fuel to the smoldering embers is intransigence from both sides. For China, a little understood factor is the extent of domestic pressure on decision making processes inside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP.) The CCPs image of competency is wrapped up in the partys ability to deliver on three key issues: building a strong economy, taking territory like Taiwan, and restoring China to its expected place atop world affairs. Inside China, both a slowing economy and an aging population after decades of Chinas one child policy may leave the CCP in a precarious position with its domestic audience. Stacking up foreign policy wins could help the CCP ease domestic pressures. Under President Xi Jinping, the result is an aggressive foreign policy aimed at America, the cornerstone of which is forcing the Taiwan issue.  

The CCP views Taiwan as an immutable part of the PRC. It sells a revisionist history that paints China as a victim at the hands of colonial powers. Despite the indisputable fact that Taiwan has never been governed by the CCP, nor was the territory considered essential imperial territory prior to the 1895 Japanese occupation, the CCP asserts that Taiwan was always a possession separated only because of illegitimate colonial encroachment. Chinas fear of a return to the century of humiliation is personified in Taiwanese separateness. Any support alluding to independence,  either in Taiwan or internationally, is immediately eliminated. Vitriolic overtures warn that Taiwan is an internal affair and Beijing will not tolerate outside interference. Anything less than annexation is unacceptable to the CCP.

Beijing further claims that Taiwan is bound to the 1992 Consensus in which China thinks both agreed to the One China Principle. However, Beijing and Taipei have made clear that they interpret it differently: the former that both China and Taiwan will seek reunification, and the latter that Taiwan agrees to disagree on what One China” means. The disagreement has led to deteriorating relations between Taiwan and China. Stuck in the middle, the United States finds it increasingly difficult to manage peaceful cross-strait relations. 

For America, intransigence exists in legislation binding it to Taiwan and declining public opinion for a rising China. When the Nationalists fled the mainland in 1949, America backed them as the Chinese government. Fast forward to an American containment strategy for the Soviet Union, and Chairman Maos PRC looked like the counterweight needed. In 1979, President Carter switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC and adopted Americas One China Policy” acknowledging, but not agreeing with, the Chinese position that there is but one China that includes Taiwan. That same year, the U.S. congress issued the Taiwan Relations Act, rejecting any use of force by either side to settle the issue and committing to giving Taiwan the ability to defend itself. The confluence of ambiguous legislation does nothing clear up the CCPs predilection for equating the One China Policy with its principle, nor does it give America an offramp to walk away from Taiwan.  

As the leader of the free world, America has a moral obligation to defend Taiwanese democracy. Bidens foreign policy marshaling democracies (us) against autocracies (them) chains Taiwans fate to American assistance keeping China at bay. This includes increasing military sales to Taiwan, stepping up military and government engagements, and and looking at new legislation in the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and the Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act. All these actions bring America closer to Chinas Taiwan red lines.

Predictably, Chinas reaction has been to ramp up military exercises around Taiwan, send more fighter aircraft through Taiwans ADIZ, speed up its ship building program designed for an amphibious assault, and continue wolf warrior diplomacy denouncing support for Taiwan. Entrenched in policy ambiguity and jockeying to balance power in the Indo-Pacific, Washington and Beijing are engaged in an intense security competition cycle that is picking up steam.  

At home, the Biden administration faces an American public with growing concerns over rising Chinese power. There is a daily increase in outcries surrounding the CCPs involvement in covering up COVID origins, Uyghur slave labor from Xinjiang used by American companies, Chinese cyberwarfare targeting American government and infrastructure, and intellectual property theft costing upwards of $600 billion a year for Americans. All this combined with patriotic support for democratic Taiwan creates a steady drumbeat to push back against China in the strait.  

The new cold war is decidedly warming in the Taiwan strait as both the United States and PRC wrestle to come out on top in a balance-of-power struggle. On the current trajectory, continued military tit-for-tat will lead to misunderstandings that increase the probability of military conflict in the strait. Peace and stability will require communication and trust, something that is not apparent in todays security competition. Neither side can afford to be seen as weak, but peace will rely on each side conceding ground in the zero-sum game that is Taiwans fate. Until then, America and China remain on a collision course that promises to throw not just the region into turmoil, but perhaps even the world.

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Michele Lowe

Commander Michele Lowe is a Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Navy with over twenty years of naval and diplomatic experience in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. She is the Federal Executive Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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