Tensions between China and the United States over Taiwan, the single most volatile issue in the bilateral relationship, will likely remain stable through the end of this year. But tensions will probably rise again in early 2024, perhaps to their highest level since the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) normalized their relations.
Strains over Taiwan, fed by actions from both sides, will in no case disappear. China continues its hostile military signaling by operating ships and aircraft near Taiwan. The United States periodically announces arms sales to Taiwan and sails warships through the Taiwan Strait.
The situation is manageable, however, given that both Beijing and Washington evince a desire to reconcile. In June, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, a venue usually reserved for foreign heads of state. Xi said on that occasion, “The two sides have also made progress and reached an agreement on some specific issues. This is very good.” Blinken reported, “We are working to put some stability into the relationship, to put a floor under the relationship.”
In July, China’s ambassador to the United States, Xie Feng, held a discussion with Ely Ratner, the top U.S. Department of Defense official for the Asia-Pacific region, in the Pentagon. The Chinese ambassador rarely meets with senior U.S. military officials.
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Besides Blinken, three other senior U.S. officials – climate envoy John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo – have traveled to Beijing for negotiations this year. From the U.S. standpoint, there have been few if any positive substantive results from those talks. They do indicate, however, a willingness on both sides to jaw-jaw rather than war-war. At a minimum, this buys time.
The August visit to the United States of Taiwan Vice President and presidential candidate Lai Ching-te prompted China to conduct additional military drills near Taiwan, but the perturbation passed without a serious setback in China-U.S. relations. Another presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, plans to visit the U.S. from September 14 to 22, but his trip will be less sensitive for Beijing because Hou’s Kuomintang (KMT) accepts the principle that Taiwan is part of China.
The possibility of Xi traveling to San Francisco for the APEC leaders’ meeting in November creates an incentive for Xi to prevent a worse downturn in the China-U.S. relationship. Respectful treatment of Xi by the United States as a host nation would uphold Xi’s prestige back in China.
An even more important stabilizing factor is Taiwan’s election season. The Chinese government has learned from past experience that aggressive gestures play into the hands of the politicians taking anti-China positions. Prior to Taiwan’s 1996 presidential election, China carried out military exercises, including firing missiles that landed in the seas near Taiwan’s two main ports. Beijing said the exercises were a warning to Taiwan’s people to not vote for incumbent President Lee Teng-hui, whom Beijing considered a “separatist.” The belligerent Chinese signaling likely increased the margin of Lee’s electoral victory.
During the following presidential campaign in 2000, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji warned Taiwan’s people against voting for Chen Shui-bian or, he said, “You won’t get another opportunity to regret.” Once again, the Chinese intervention helped Beijing’s least preferred candidate win.
Taiwan voters will elect a new president and legislature on January 13, 2024. A crucial political fault line is whether candidates believe Taiwan’s ultimate destiny is to be part of China or permanently politically separated from the mainland.
Candidate Lai and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favor an independent Taiwan, although Lai has been careful to couch this as support for the status quo, rather than backing a formal declaration of the existence of an independent Taiwan. Despite the distinction, Lai’s insistence on de facto independence makes him unacceptable to Beijing.
The Chinese government must be careful, however, not to oppose Lai so openly and aggressively as to help him win. Beijing is therefore maintaining a moderate level of background pressure by continuing to fly military aircraft and sail warships near Taiwan, much as it has done steadily since the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen ascended to the presidency in 2016. At the same time, the more China-friendly presidential candidates make the argument in campaign rallies that a vote for the DPP is a vote for war.
The combination of moderate military signaling and reinforcement of the message by Taiwan’s opposition politicians is likely sufficient for Beijing. Significantly ratcheting up tensions runs too high a risk of fueling anti-China sentiment during the election. Beijing is incentivized to keep the Taiwan Strait situation on a low simmer setting before mid-January 2024.
Moreover, a grace period will likely follow the election, as Beijing waits for the new president to take office and then present a vision for cross-strait relations. Current President Tsai, elected in January 2016, did not take office until May 20. Only when her government refused to endorse the idea that Taiwan is part of China did Beijing embark on a pressure campaign that included more aggressive diplomatic and military actions. If Beijing follows the same pattern, the level of tensions in the Taiwan Strait will remain stable through May of 2024.
After that, however, tensions are likely to rise.
Although much could happen in Taiwan politics between now and January, Lai currently is the favorite to win the presidential election. A Formosa poll in early September showed the DPP candidate with a comfortable lead. While Lai commands 35 percent support, his opponents Hou, Ko Wen-je, and Terry Gou manage a paltry 18, 17, and 12 percent, respectively. A plurality is sufficient to win. The late entry into the race of Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn, helps Lai, who was already leading, because Gou will take votes away from the other candidates challenging the DPP.
Lai is extremely unlikely to accommodate Beijing’s demand that he accept the principle that Taiwan is part of China, regardless of whether the wording is direct or implicit (such as “the 1992 Consensus”). Lai has identified himself as “a politician who supports Taiwanese independence. I will never change this stance no matter what office I hold.” The Chinese government, as well, considers Lai an “independence separatist.” Lai says he is in favor of “goodwill” toward China, but that accepting the idea of Taiwan as part of China is “impossible.”
Beijing saw the presidency of DPP member Chen Shui-bian (2000 to 2008) as a disaster, but took a more relaxed stance toward cross-strait relations when the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou (president from 2008 to 2016) succeeded Chen. When Tsai took office, as described above, cross-strait relations went back into the freezer, with Beijing severing dialogue channels and ramping up military exercises.
Similarly, Beijing would see the election of any of the three relatively China-friendly candidates (Hou, Ko, and Gou) as a basis for hope that Taiwan is no longer drifting toward permanent political separation from China. If Lai is elected, however, Beijing would face possibly another eight years of the DPP ruling Taiwan, following on eight years of the Tsai administration. This would stoke Chinese fears that China-friendly politicians can no longer win elections in Taiwan, and that the island is still trending toward independence.
Under those circumstances, Xi’s government will feel compelled to intervene in an attempt to reverse the trend. The levers that China typically uses are bellicose rhetoric and threatening and intrusive military maneuvers. The Chinese reaction to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022 was an example.
Should China undertake such signaling after the inauguration of a Lai administration, observers will conclude China is moving closer to launching an attack and urge the United States to do more to deter China. This will raise tensions in the Taiwan Strait, perhaps to an intensity exceeding the previous three Taiwan Crises (1954-55, 1958, and 1995-96), when there was no serious possibility that China might attempt to invade or blockade Taiwan.
The U.S. elections coming in November 2024 are another potential accelerator of tensions. Although the Biden administration is extraordinarily tough on China, arguably tougher than the Trump administration was, Republican politicians have made “out-toughing” Biden a major plank of their foreign policy. Even if Biden wins re-election, the Republican Party might capture control of both the House and the Senate in 2024. A Republican-controlled Congress would push Biden to take an even more adversarial posture toward China.
Achievement of a breakthrough in the next few months is possible, one that could bring lasting peace to the Taiwan Strait. The forces at work, however, appear to close off the possibility of such statesmanship. Instead, we will see only a temporary, partial reprieve.