Illustration: Craig Stephens
Zhou Xiaoming
Zhou Xiaoming

To defuse tensions over Taiwan, US and China need a new strategic understanding

  • As the party that initiated the new round of tensions, Washington should make the first moves towards reconciliation, while Beijing could scale back military exercises in the Taiwan Strait
  • The two countries must also seize the opportunity of the G20 summit to set up a face-to-face meeting between their presidents
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August triggered a crisis the world had not seen for years, plunging China-US relations to their nadir. Bilateral ties are entering a period of heightened tension and great uncertainty. The situation could spiral out of control in the months ahead.

Is there any way to defuse the situation? For a start, it is important that both Washington and Beijing immediately stop provocations to break the vicious circle of escalating tensions. Both should exercise self-restraint. Rhetoric needs to be toned down and hostile actions halted.

Washington and its Western allies have accused Beijing of “overreaction” to Pelosi’s trip. However, the visit, as China sees it, reflects a “change in the status quo” with regard to the United States’ Taiwan policy, and embodies Washington’s efforts to achieve a long-term strategic objective – containing China through Taiwan. Therefore, China considers its response measured and appropriate.

It is quite natural that Beijing and Washington would not have the same perception of a particular event due to their different places in the world and the impact of the event on them. The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York do not necessarily mean the same thing to the average American and Chinese.

By the same token, Washington, as the perpetuator of the injury, is unlikely to feel the same way as Beijing about the harm that Pelosi’s trip inflicted. Indeed, it is pointless to argue if China’s response was overblown. If the Biden administration is genuinely interested in constructive relations with China, a more sensible and productive approach would be to acknowledge the harm and proceed quickly to remedy it.

US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (centre), along with the Congressional delegation that travelled to Taiwan, speaks to the media about their trip in the US Capitol in Washington on August 10. Photo: EPA-EFE

Moves to flex military muscle and show Western solidarity are highly likely to backfire. Rather than deter China, they would only serve to augment its resolve to do whatever it takes to unify the country, including using military means.

When the US-led forces pushed towards the Yalu River, the border between China and Korea, Beijing resolutely sent troops to help Pyongyang in October 1950, despite the fact that the People’s Republic had just been born one year ago out of the wreckage of a long war against Japanese aggression and deadly civil strife.

As the party that initiated the new round of tensions, Washington should make the first moves towards reconciliation, including scuttling or suspending plans for “freedom of navigation” operations through the Taiwan Strait, arms sales, formal trade talks and visits to the island by US lawmakers.

On its part, Beijing may want to reduce the intensity and scale of its military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. After all, it seeks stability in the region.

Other parties could also help by not fanning the flames. In this regard, parliamentarians and politicians from other countries would be well advised to think twice about visiting Taiwan in an official capacity.


Taiwan farmers feel the squeeze as mainland China import bans following Pelosi trip sink in

Taiwan farmers feel the squeeze as mainland China import bans following Pelosi trip sink in
Under China’s “one country, two systems” framework, people in Taiwan are free to choose their own political and economic system after unification. And Taiwan is mandated to maintain a social system different from what prevails on the mainland, with a high degree of autonomy.
Thus, Western politicians’ justification for visiting the island – that they are supporting democracy – is a poor excuse. The Taiwan question is not about democracy but sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Besides taking damage control measures, the two countries should seize the opportunity of the G20 summit in November to set up a face-to-face meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The leaders have not met in person since Biden was sworn in as US president in January 2021. Moreover, given the current political climate, neither Biden nor Xi is likely to visit the other’s country in the near future.

Xi is expected to attend the G20 summit in Bali, however. A face-to-face meeting with Biden could pave the way for a return to bilateral normalcy of some sort. In addition, the process of preparing for the summit would force officials from both countries to interact intensively on key issues and keep the ball rolling.

Major crisis averted in Taiwan Strait – this time. But what happens next?

It would be quite unfortunate for China, the US and the world at large if this opportunity were allowed to go to waste. In such an eventuality, the earliest opportunity for the presidents to meet in person could be well into the second half of 2023, probably in another multilateral setting. Between now and then, the situation could deteriorate to the point of no return.

Both Washington and Beijing should realise that it is impossible to defeat the other without unsettling itself. Confrontations between the major powers could devolve into a lose-lose situation for both. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger recently warned the current administration against “endless confrontations” with China.

In this context, it is important for Washington to understand that Beijing has no intention of upending the existing international order. As a beneficiary of the system, China has an interest in maintaining it. Contrary to what Washington suggests is sabotage of the international order, China seeks only to help make the system fairer to every country.

China is not out to replace the US as hegemonic power. As former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said in an interview with the Financial Times on August 30, China’s philosophy, unlike the West’s, is not to conquer and occupy other countries.

While a rising China will inevitably change the global balance of power, both China and the US should learn to live and work with each other. Their differences would have to be ironed out through dialogue and cooperation, not confrontation. A new strategic understanding is in order.

Zhou Xiaoming is former deputy representative of China’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations Office in Geneva