Why US-China tensions may lead to strategic instability
The expectation that Washington and Beijing will compete hard but manage tensions below a certain threshold is still valid, but it is hanging by a thread.
The visit of United States (US) House speaker Nancy Pelosi to the self-ruled island of Taiwan — claimed by China — and Beijing’s unleashing of “resolute and strong countermeasures” for what it sees as grave provocations against its core interests have ushered in a dangerous phase of strategic instability. With neither of the two rival great powers willing to blink, fears that “extreme competition” (US President Joe Biden’s characterisation of ties with China) will spill over into military clashes have become less theoretical than they seemed a while ago. The expectation that Washington and Beijing will compete hard but manage tensions below a certain threshold is still valid, but it is hanging by a thread.
Taiwan is not the only theatre of contention. The Biden administration’s increased emphasis on rallying US allies and strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific under coalitions like Quad and AUKUS to counterbalance China has heightened concerns in Beijing about being encircled. When the US announced the AUKUS alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom in September 2021, China lashed out against a “US-led strategic siege of China” and warned any nation colluding with Washington that “China will certainly punish it with no mercy.”
The multilateral containment effort of China got another dimension in May 2022, when the US launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) to provide alternatives to China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While the Biden administration has not deployed the same rhetorical attacks as the Donald Trump administration in ripping into China over human rights and predatory trade practices, the latter has persisted with the former’s labelling of China’s treatment of Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang as “genocide”, and also sustained the Trump-era trade tariffs on over $300 billion in imports from China.
The fact that Biden could not prevent Pelosi from visiting Taiwan has riled the ultra-hawkish Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had hoped from his long “candid” meetings with Biden that the US would respect the one-China policy and refrain from stoking “Taiwan independence forces”.
Even if Biden is personally not keen on escalating crises with China, Xi can see the hardening anti-China sentiment all round in the American political system and public opinion. With the US, as a whole, gearing up for a long-term pushback against Chinese influence, Xi has no option but to look tough and act more militaristically to sustain his towering image inside China as a core leader who does not shy away from a fight.
Xi’s public vow that “foreign forces” which try to “bully, oppress or enslave us will crack their heads and spill blood” and his authorisation of extreme intimidatory tactics against Taiwan are indicators that he is prepared for brinkmanship that carries the possibility of at least limited military skirmishes and encounters with the US.
As the two great powers flex their muscles and enter the ring, the credibility of the US security guarantees to its allies and the sustainability of the world order itself are at stake. Given that Russia is forcibly remaking the post-1991 order in Europe through its invasion of Ukraine, the parallel question in Asia is whether China is emboldened to invade Taiwan or outrightly assault other weaker regional adversaries with whom it has simmering territorial disputes.
An inherent sense of Chinese civilisational superiority and brimming overconfidence about the growing military capabilities of Beijing to revise the order in the Indo-Pacific mean that China is progressively more willing to take risks over Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands or eastern Ladakh than it was earlier. If pursuing territorial expansionism requires a head-on collision with adversaries, including the US, China is saying “bring it on”.
Expecting complex webs of economic interdependence or globalisation to moderate China-US sparring from crossing limits used to make sense. But after the Russia-Ukraine war, the world has entered a darker and meaner phase. It is not enough to acknowledge that geopolitics and great power enmities are back. War is back.
An all-out China-US war is, of course, unthinkable due to mutually assured destruction. But limited showdowns are happening and could snowball into bigger incidents as part of an arduous duel. Experts have quibbled over the terminology of whether or not a new Cold War is on. Whatever one calls it, the great powers are pressing the accelerators and strategic stability has gone for a toss.
Sreeram Chaulia is professor and dean, Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed are personal