The US is bracing for China’s reaction to a scheduled meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California on Wednesday. After Tsai sat down with McCarthy’s predecessor Nancy Pelosi in Taipei last year, Beijing launched several days of intense military exercises surrounding Taiwan, firing ballistic missiles over the island and dispatching dozens of fighter jets across the informal “median line” in the Taiwan Strait.
Aggressive and dangerous displays of force by China have become more and more common in recent years, whether directed against Taiwan or against US patrols and reconnaissance flights in the region. Until now, China has resisted US calls to build “guardrails” to prevent confrontations from spiraling out of control, believing that a degree of uncertainty helps deter the US. It would be wise to rethink that calculus.
At the heart of Chinese objections lies an uncomfortable reality: For all its talk about the decline of the West and rise of the East, China remains a significantly weaker power than the US on practically all fronts. What China sees as unfair practices — including US surveillance operations in international airspace and waters near the Chinese coast — are merely a manifestation of the exercise of US power in its rivalry with a weaker adversary.
Similarly, China deeply resents the number of tools at Washington’s disposal. At his summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping last November, US President Joe Biden again called for “commonsense” measures to prevent great-power competition from slipping into great-power conflict. As nationalist Chinese outlets such as the Global Times never tire of pointing out, such calls ring hollow when the White House is imposing stiff controls on technology exports to China and a China-bashing Congress is agitating for even stronger measures on a near-daily basis.
What Chinese leaders are ignoring is the fact that a weaker power cannot in the long run impose significant costs on a stronger adversary using confrontational tactics. That only risks escalation, which China can afford less than the US can.
The Soviet Union, which was also significantly weaker than the US-led West during the Cold War, ultimately came to the same conclusion. Although the Soviets initially resisted curbs on their actions just as the Chinese have, they changed their stance after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis brought them close to nuclear war with the US and exposed their vulnerability.
In August 1963, less than ten months after the standoff, the Soviets agreed to establish a hotline between the White House and the Kremlin, and signed a treaty to ban nuclear tests in the atmosphere. Six years later, Washington and Moscow launched their historic arms reduction negotiations known as Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). In 1972, the two adversaries signed an “incidents-at-sea agreement” establishing protocols for avoiding accidental naval conflict.
Although the rivals went on to fight several proxy wars, the codes of conduct and confidence-building measures they instituted prevented any unintended escalations. That spared the Soviet Union a direct clash that could have endangered the survival of its Communist regime.
Like the Soviets, China right now would be unlikely to prevail in a conflict with the West. However much China would like to push US forces away from its shores, it would be foolish to risk a crisis that might threaten its national dignity and the regime’s credibility.
A smarter course would be to adopt some of the same tactics the Soviet Union did. The first task should be establishing a real hotline between the White House and Xi’s office in Zhongnanhai, the compound housing top Chinese leaders near Tiananmen Square. An existing hotline between the Chinese military and the Pentagon is woefully inadequate. When Defense Secretary Llyod Austin requested a call with his Chinese counterpart after the US shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon in early February, Beijing declined to pick up the phone.
Also urgently needed are safeguard agreements that can prevent unintended clashes between the two militaries in the air and on high seas.Chinese leaders should remember that all negotiations entail give-and-take. If they’re willing to engage in good-faith discussions as Biden has urged, they may win some concessions from the US. They’ll get nothing if they continue to reject talks.
For now, China should respond with restraint to a Tsai-McCarthy meeting. Once this latest furor dies down, Xi should then respond positively to Biden’s call to discuss measures to cool tensions. China needs them as much if not more than the US.