Zhao Minghao: US and China must avoid the tragedy of armed conflict over Taiwan

  • Zhao Minghao: Professor at the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, nonresident senior fellow of CISS, Tsinghua University, and a China Forum Expert.

    More than anything else, the message from the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China was one of continuity. Xi Jinping continues to serve as the party’s top leader, and his signature concepts such as “Chinese modernisation”, “high-quality development”, “common prosperity” and “community with a shared future” remain prominent in the 20th national congress report.

    Washington has already cast Xi’s China as the most serious geopolitical challenge the United States is facing. The Biden administration’s latest national security strategy, released on the eve of the 20th congress, asserts that China is the only competitor with the intent and ability to reshape the international order. This means America’s competitive strategy vis-à-vis China will only increase in scope and intensity.

    Beijing is fully aware of this. In his report to the 20th national congress, Xi said that China must be “be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms”. Given rising geopolitical conflict, high inflation and energy and food crises around the world, the global economic situation is becoming incredibly grim, and China is not immune.

    At the same time, China also has to deal with daunting challenges at home, such as youth unemployment, an ageing population, income inequality and ecological sustainability. In the CPC’s view, these adverse factors are exactly why domestic political stability is needed, to weather the coming storms; this point was repeatedly hammered home in the 20th national congress report.

    It is at this juncture that America is attempting a managed economic and technological “decoupling” from China. In particular, the Biden administration issued unprecedented chip export controls on October 7, which were widely seen as an attempt to halt China’s progress in chip manufacturing and other advanced electronic industries.

    In light of such developments, Beijing is reconsidering how to safeguard economic security. The 20th national congress report calls for the modernisation of the industrial system and emphasises the need to enhance the reliability of the domestic economy.

    The party is also focusing more on technology. In his report to the national congress, Xi stated that “innovation will remain at the heart of China’s modernisation drive”, and proposed an improved “new system for mobilising resources nationwide to make key technological breakthroughs”.

    The Biden administration also views technology as a primary area of competition between the US and China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited Silicon Valley to highlight the importance of “technology diplomacy”.

    On the foreign policy front, the national congress report indicates that China will continue to be more active in shaping its external environment. Xi said that China has “taken a clear-cut stance against hegemonism and power politics in all their forms, and we have never wavered in our opposition to unilateralism, protectionism, and bullying of any kind”.

    These words mean that China will firmly respond to pressure from the US, which it perceives to be manifestations of the aforementioned “hegemonism”, “unilateralism” and “bullying”. The congress report also said that China would adhere to principles including harnessing its “fighting spirit”.

    A growing number of Chinese political elites have reached the conclusion that even if China makes compromises and concessions, the US will not change its strategic intent to contain or even reverse China’s rise.

    In the coming years, Taiwan in particular is likely to emerge as a key flashpoint in this competition. The 20th national congress report mostly maintains the party’s policy on Taiwan, stating that China will “continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary”.

    At the same time, Xi emphasised that such an option is aimed “solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and their separatist activities”, and not at most people in Taiwan.

    The US playing up China’s supposed timetable for armed reunification is an extremely dangerous tactic. In the week of the national congress in Beijing, Blinken said in Silicon Valley that China was accelerating its plans to reunify Taiwan, while Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of US naval operations, warned at the Atlantic Council that China could make a move as soon as this year.

    The Biden administration may be hoping that such unsubstantiated speculation would push America’s allies to prepare for war, thus serving as a political deterrent to China. But it could increase the chances of inadvertent consequences that neither side wants, such as armed US-China conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

    There is growing concern in Beijing that the US is intent on replicating the playbook of the Russia-Ukraine conflict: hyping up the possibility of war, and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that pulls China into the black hole of war. If the US takes a series of provocative steps as outlined in the Taiwan Policy Act, China will not sit idly by, as Beijing considers the issue of Taiwan to be the most sensitive one in US-China relations.

    Even faced with these strategic risks and challenges, the Communist Party leadership has demonstrated its confidence in the future, and emphasised China’s commitment to world peace and development.

    It is in the long-term interest of both sides that the Chinese and US heads of state meet face to face, possibly on the sidelines of the G20 summit next month, to find a path towards peaceful coexistence, amid deep differences and fierce competition.

    The greatest tragedy of our age would be a war between the world’s two largest powers, for they are expected to have the collective wisdom to avoid such an Armageddon.

    (This Article was first published on South China Morning Post on Oct. 25, 2022.)

    Last:Yu Xiang: China's vision to rise to economic challenges