The “theory” of accidental conflict is quite simple. US-China conflict escalation, as per my recent book, draws its sustenance from the high-octane fuel of dueling false narratives that both nations project on the other. It doesn’t take much of a spark to ignite such a highly combustible mixture. Unfortunately, there are plenty of sparks in the air—tensions in the South China Sea, China’s deepening partnership with a Russian Federation that is prosecuting an illegal war in Ukraine, a toxic anti-China animosity in the US Congress—but none is more worrisome than Taiwan.
Taiwan risks were already in the danger zone following President Tsai Ing-wen’s two meetings with the US Speaker of the House in the past eleven months—one on their turf (with Pelosi in August 2022) and the other on ours (with McCarthy in April 2023). Sandwiched between these two encounters, was last December’s passage of the “Taiwan Enhanced Resilience Act” that earmarked up to $10 billion of new military assistance to Taiwan over the next five years as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2022.
And now, today’s news (June 8) indicates that both sides are upping the already precarious ante. Taking a page from the first cold war and its most worrisome flashpoint, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Wall Street Journal reports that China has cut a secret deal with financially-strained Cuba to set up a multi-billion-dollar offshore electronic surveillance facility targeted directly at the United States. At the same time, the Financial Times reports that the US is leading the establishment of a trilateral drone-based data sharing reconnaissance network with Japan and Taiwan. If these accounts are correct—and the White House has subsequently challenged the accuracy of the WSJ’s Cuban surveillance story—Taiwan risks are now in the high-alert portion of the danger zone.
Meanwhile, the diplomats are operating on a different planet. Kurt Campbell, the Biden Administration’s Indo-Pacific coordinator, was upbeat in suggesting that, on the heels of a recent low- to mid-level flurry of US-China dialogue, meaningful re-engagement between the US and China is now in the early stages. That has led to several reports that the on-again, off-again Beijing mission of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back on-again. I would be cautious in drawing that conclusion from any statements of Kurt Campbell. In a previous incarnation in the Obama Administration’s State Department, Campbell was the architect of the “Asia pivot”—a signature foreign policy initiative that many believe, myself included, set the stage for the major US-China conflict that was to follow. He does not seem like the ideal advocate for a new spirit of engagement between the US and China.
In the end, actions speak louder than words. Escalation is coming from both sides, consistent with the relationship dysfunction of two deeply conflicted superpowers. It’s not just Taiwan, with the new complications noted above. It’s also the looming threats of US investment restrictions into advanced Chinese technologies, a possible nationwide ban on TikTok, to say nothing of recent close calls in the Taiwan Strait (naval) and the South China Sea (air). Relationship problems require a relationship solution. That is the bottom line of Accidental Conflict and imperatives of mutual agreement on a plan of conflict resolution featured in the final part of the book. With little signs of that in the offing, I would suggest keeping the champagne on ice.
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