Sino-U.S. Relations Sour Over New U.S. Taiwan Policy

On April 13th, Zhao Lijian—a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson—warned the U.S. “not to play with fire” after being asked by a reporter about new U.S. diplomatic policy. The week before, the Biden administration lifted former restrictions on diplomats regarding meeting with Taiwanese officials. Additionally, the State Department released guidelines highlighting the U.S.’s interest in continued security and economic cooperation with democratic Taiwan, de facto recognizing Taiwan diplomatically. In response, China sent more than 25 warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers, into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone according to Taiwan’s Defence Ministry.

During the previous week before Lijian’s comment, the Chinese government stated that U.S. naval presence in the South China Sea and near Taiwan could “provoke and stir up trouble.” Moreover, during that same week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken commented that China was “taking increasingly aggressive action.” He then reiterated that the United States would continue to defend the “Taiwan Relations Act, a bipartisan commitment that’s existed […] to make sure that Taiwan has the ability to defend itself.” Further, Blinken stated that “it would be a serious mistake for anyone,” particularly China, “to try to change the existing status quo by force.” In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated that the Chinese government has sole jurisdiction over its sovereignty—implying control over Taiwan due to mainly China’s territorial claims. This rhetorical sparring, changing policy, and military action culminated in Lijian’s grave warning to the U.S. to tread carefully regarding defence of Taiwan.

Although this heightened rhetoric likely won’t be followed by equivalent action, these statements represent growing Sino-U.S. tensions under the Biden administration. Notoriously, the Trump administration adopted a hardline stance against the Chinese Communist Party, and President Biden will continue this trend through defending and supplying Taiwan. According to Alexey Muravieva, a National Security and Strategic Studies professor at Curtin University, “the Chinese have their eyes fixed on Taiwan” since they see the island as a “runaway province,” but the future of Taiwan depends on whether the U.S. is willing to defend Taiwan military beyond pure rhetoric and symbolic action. Nonetheless, if China has any suspicion that the U.S. will act against Chinese incursions, mainland China will not act decisively in fear of nuclear retaliation—reducing the likelihood of war. China’s Realpolitik and fear tactics still pose a threat to global peace. Chinese aircraft movements around Taiwan may make mainland China appear strong and determined, but the United States, Japan, or Taiwan may misinterpret another Chinese military demonstration as a preemptive strike. Although retaliatory confrontation would be unlikely, Chinese officials must stop teasing regional stability because confrontation could initiate a global humanitarian crisis. Critically, the U.S. and allied forces should not retaliate with their own military demonstrations because that also may inadvertently increase the likelihood of confrontation or potentially destabilize other Sino-U.S. negotiations.

These heightened tensions can be better understood within the broader context of current regional dynamics. After the Chinese Civil War ended in 1950, the nationalist Kuomintang government fled to Taiwan, and Communist forces set up the People’s Republic of China—referred to as China in this article. Both countries claimed to be the legitimate Chinese government. Despite formally recognizing the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate Chinese government, the U.S. continued informal ties with Taiwan through the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. This legislation ordered that the U.S. government must fund and arm Taiwan for its defence. Within this context, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s warning “not to play with fire” represents China’s concerns over growing U.S.-Taiwanese cooperation and perceived collusion against mainland China’s geopolitical goals in the South China Sea and East Asia. In total, China sees U.S.-Taiwanese cooperation as a threat to its domestic legitimacy, as the true government of China, but also as an incursion on China’s growing geopolitical and national hopes of securing key geopolitical points.

Because China perceives these changing relations as politically threatening, this could have a chilling effect on future Sino-U.S. relations, especially potential bilateral and multilateral agreements. Although China and Taiwan permit economic cooperation across the strait, this comment by the Chinese Foreign Ministry could encourage greater weapons proliferation on either side. China has already expressed its willingness to challenge Taiwan’s borders, so either state may double down on its perceived defence. Nonetheless, since the Biden administration favors close ties with the Taiwanese government, the likelihood either China, Taiwan, or the United States will threaten global peace is unlikely as the two superpowers involved fear nuclear confrontation. Yet, both sides must halt potential future military demonstrations because, in an unlikely scenario, they could initiate a global confrontation. Either way, these tensions may spill over into international trade, global governance, and political cooperation between mainland China and the U.S, which will inevitably have tangible impacts on global markets and low-income consumers.

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