Taiwan Tensions

Jul 28, 2022

Henry Kissinger recently remarked in a fascinating interview that the United States has an unfortunate penchant for seeking “endless confrontations” with China. This resonates with a key theme of Accidental Conflict, which stresses the blame game as an inherent characteristic of a conflicted codependency — easier to blame others than face up to self-inflicted problems.

The US Congress has long suffered from this tendency — quick, for example, to blame China for America’s massive trade deficit that is more an outgrowth of a shortfall of domestic saving arising from massive budget deficits that Congress, itself, enables. But the provocation syndrome is not just about trade — it also resonates in America’s geostrategic posture toward China.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s on-again, off-again upcoming trip to Taiwan is a glaringly important case in point. It’s not that US officials haven’t visited Taiwan in recent years.  But this would be the first time that a sitting Speaker — second in line to the US presidency — has made the trip since Newt Gingrich did so in 1997. Coming at a time of heightened Sino-American tensions, the Pelosi junket would pour salt in an open wound. It ignores China’s hypersensitivity to one of its core issues — the foundational “one China” policy that has formed the basis of 50 years of Sino-American détente as formalized by the Shanghai Communiqué in 1972 at the end of President Nixon’s historic visit to China.

It’s not that China should be let off the hook for its increasingly muscular foreign policy as evident by the militarization of its outposts in the South China Sea. Nor should the US ignore China’s seemingly ominous weapons build-up — the largest navy in the world, growing nuclear capabilities, stunning successes in space, and new hypersonic missile capabilities. But pushing the Taiwan hot button is another matter altogether.

As I argue in Accidental Conflict, China’s biggest fear is the existential threat of containment by the West. Overt US support of Taiwan independence plays directly to that fear.  So does a trade war, tech sanctions, and numerous other examples of seemingly “endless confrontations” stressed by Kissinger. Vladimir Putin “justifies” an unconscionable war in Ukraine as a response to NATO enlargement. How different is America’s China containment gambit?

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

Sign up for Stephen’s Dispatches: