Minxin Pei is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
The fate of US-China relations may hinge on this weekend’s elections in Taiwan — or so China would like the world to believe. If Vice President Lai Ching-te, candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), prevails, tensions are almost certain to rise. China could ramp up air and naval incursions, stage cyber-attacks, and boycott Taiwanese goods to signal its displeasure, increasing the risks of a clash that could draw in US forces and devastate the world economy.
In fact, while a loss by the DPP would likely lower tensions across the Taiwan Strait, it would not have much impact on the overall US-China rivalry.
The tech war between the two superpowers will grind on regardless. The decoupling of their trade will continue; so will frictions over the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. The US and Chinese militaries will not stop circling each other in the South China Sea. The list goes on.
The reality is that the US and China find themselves at odds not because of their fundamental disagreement over the status and future of Taiwan, but their incompatible visions of the international order.
This was not the case until probably about a decade ago. Taiwan had always presented a tough, hyper-sensitive problem for China and the US to handle. However, as long as their overall relationship was non-adversarial, Beijing and Washington tried hard to avoid allowing the question of Taiwan’s future to poison everything else.
On occasion, they even collaborated to stave off potential crisis. In 2003, for example, President George W. Bush publicly criticized a referendum pushed by Taiwan’s then-President Chen Shui-bian that China viewed as a subtle move toward de jure independence.
The last decade has seen the collapse of such engagement and the beginning of a full-spectrum, hostile rivalry between the US and China. This shift can be traced to a series of actions Chinese President Xi Jinping took shortly after his rise to power that amounted to a direct challenge to the US-led post-Cold War order.
These initiatives included China’s construction of militarized artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea starting in December 2013; the announcement of what became known as the Belt and Road Initiative, also in 2013; increasingly aggressive activities near the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which Japan also claims; and a keynote delivered by Xi at a high-profile regional security forum in 2014 implying that the US security presence in Asia was no longer welcome.
The US has responded to Chinese actions with tariffs, export controls, military patrols, and a reinvigoration of its security alliances in Asia. Indeed, the very instruments that underpinned the US-led international order — its vast alliance network, access to its consumer market and advanced technology, and control of the global payments system — were weaponized against China.
A vicious cycle has naturally ensued. Beijing sees Washington as denying China the benefits of the open trading system and regional peace made possible by the US-led order, from which it had profited immensely for decades. Disagreement over America’s global security role and selective application of rules has morphed into an irreconcilable conflict over the very existence of this order.
As a significantly weaker power, China felt it had to partner with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which shares its grievances against US “hegemonism.” The “no-limit friendship” announced by Xi and Putin in February 2022, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, cast Beijing as Moscow’s accomplice, deepening frictions with the US.
Unfortunately for China, the war in Ukraine has since sharpened the world’s focus on Taiwan as the next flashpoint, one that could presage direct conflict with the US.
To deter China, the US has stepped up military support for Taiwan and strengthened its security networks in East Asia. China sees these moves as provocations and has responded with more aggressive gray zone coercion to intimidate Taiwan’s DPP government.
The fact that the fundamental source of US-China tensions is their conflicting visions of international order, not Taiwan, is both bad and good news.
The bad news is that as long as the US and China keep clashing over the rules and norms that govern their exercise of power abroad, the fate of Taiwan will be held hostage to this broader contest. The Taiwan Strait will remain one of the most dangerous arenas of great-power conflict regardless of who governs the island.
The potential good news is that since Taiwan is not the root cause of US-China rivalry, Beijing and Washington may be able to desensitize the issue enough to pause the tit-for-tat cycle in which they are engaged. In practical terms, this means US and Chinese leaders should prioritize the management of other aspects of their rivalry and not allow Taiwan to dominate the relationship.
While some in Taiwan may fear being overlooked in such a scenario, the island will only be more secure if US-China ties are less crisis-prone.
The US and China pulled off such a balancing act for decades, albeit under more benign circumstances. Pure self-interest should motivate them to try again.