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Opinion The U.S.-China crisis over Taiwan was wholly predictable

Tourists watch as a Chinese military helicopter flies past China's Pingtan Island on Aug. 4. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images) (Afp Contributor#afp/AFP/Getty Images)

How did the world’s two most powerful nations find themselves in a hair-raising crisis that could spill into a military conflict? The strangest aspect of the current conflict over Taiwan is how predictable it was.

Taiwan has been known to be the most sensitive issue for both the United States and China, one that has been carefully managed for five decades. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) recent visit to the island — which triggered the current conflict — was something she signaled she intended to do months ago.

On the American side, several errors — many of them tactical and driven by domestic politics — have resulted in a dangerous reality: There is no serious working relationship between the 21st century’s two most powerful actors.

Early in its tenure, the Biden administration adopted a policy toward China of open hostility and criticism. At the first face-to-face meeting between senior officials from both sides in March 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken decided to deliver a harangue, to which his Chinese counterpart defiantly responded. (That Blinken’s remarks were designed for a domestic audience can be seen in the fact that they were delivered in public, in front of television cameras — a format that would only harden Beijing’s position, not change it.)

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As Jeffrey Bader, President Barack Obama’s top adviser on Asia, has noted of the Biden team: Despite having criticized Trump’s foreign policy bitterly, “when it comes to the greatest foreign policy challenge facing the United States — how to deal with the rise of China — [Biden officials] have continued and mimicked Trump’s destructive approach.”

Bader added, “This has prompted glee among departed Trump officials, who proudly declare themselves innovators and the Biden administration unimaginative and dutiful implementers.”

Ryan Hass, another top Obama China expert, argued that “communication channels for managing tensions have collapsed.”

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But although the Biden administration’s approach has been tactically flawed and can be adjusted, Beijing’s errors are much more serious and strategic. Over the past decade, under President Xi Jinping, China has changed its Taiwan policy, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Modern China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, outlined an innovative solution to the Taiwan problem when he offered the island, in 1979, a solution that came to be known as “One Country, Two Systems.” Taiwan could eventually become a part of China formally, Deng proposed, but it could maintain its own political system, administrative laws, even its own armed forces.

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Taiwan rejected the offer, but Deng urged strategic patience. He then decided to demonstrate the vitality of this policy by applying it to Hong Kong, once the British handed over the city-state to Beijing in 1997 — spelling out these promises in an agreement with Great Britain and in Hong Kong’s Basic Law (its de facto constitution).

For several years, Beijing observed “One Country, Two Systems” in Hong Kong and held out the prospect of the same for Taiwan. Trade and travel between China and Taiwan increased dramatically. In 2015, Xi met with Taiwan’s then-president, Ma Ying-jeou, and they spoke of enhancing ties, something that is inconceivable today.

Deng’s basic strategy toward Taiwan was that, as long as China remained open, dynamic and accommodating, time was on its side. Taiwan would come to realize that there were many benefits and few costs to being formally attached to the mainland.

But over the past several years, Xi’s policies have been to make China more closed, less dynamic and significantly less accommodating. Nowhere has the latter policy been more clear than in Hong Kong, where Beijing has reneged on virtually every important guarantee it made regarding the city-state’s freedom and autonomy.

The results are plain to see in Taiwan. In the 1990s, few Taiwanese advocated for independence, and many believed reunification with China was inevitable. Today, according to National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center, support for independence is much stronger, having nearly doubled since 1997, the year of the Hong Kong handover (though most still hope for a continuation of the status quo).

People’s sense of Taiwanese identity — as distinct from Chinese identity — is also stronger, and is now closely wrapped up with Taiwan being a democracy. As Xi bullies Taiwan more, militarily and economically, these trends, especially among younger people, grow in size and intensity.

China claims its goal is peaceful reunification with Taiwan. If that is really the case, then Beijing should reverse course and return to Deng’s policies — announce that Hong Kong will be allowed all the freedoms it was guaranteed, promise Taiwan the same, end economic sanctions on Taiwan and stop threatening the island with dangerous military maneuvers. It is Xi’s policies that are making the Taiwanese people reject any prospect of cooperation with the mainland, let alone eventual reunification.

But that is not going to happen, and it leads to the central dilemma. Beijing recognizes that with Taiwan today, time is not on its side. Every year, the island becomes more likely to break free. And this has created a strategic challenge for Beijing, one that could turn into a catastrophe for the world.