The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. should deter — not provoke — Beijing over Taiwan. Here’s how.

Wang Yi, China's top diplomat, at Germany's Munich Security Conference on Saturday. (Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay)
4 min

Jessica Chen Weiss is the Michael J. Zak professor for China and Asia-Pacific studies at Cornell University and a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, met over the weekend in Munich against the backdrop of growing concernconviction even — that war between the United States and China could be coming. Given the enormous costs and uncertain trajectory of such a conflict, everyone must lower the temperature — even if they foresee decades of U.S.-China competition ahead. More symbolic shows of resolve and support for Taiwan, including high-profile visits by members of Congress, will not fundamentally change the calculus.

Here’s what will: clear and credible assurances that U.S. support for Taiwan is not aimed at ensuring the island’s permanent separation or formal independence. Measures such as a House resolution to recognize Taiwan as an independent state and discard the United States’ long-standing one-China policy are unwise. They will provoke rather than deter Beijing.

U.S. officials should reiterate that the United States would accept any outcome that Beijing and Taipei reach peacefully and without coercion. U.S. representatives should not call Taiwan a country or pledge to defend the island unconditionally. This could offer a blank check to future Taiwanese politicians seeking formal independence.

Some have argued that Beijing is looking only for a pretext to take aggressive action. These arguments imply a sense of inevitability that could become self-fulfilling. Despite Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rhetoric linking unification with Taiwan to national rejuvenation, Beijing has not set a timetable for an invasion. Chinese leaders continue to prefer to “win without fighting.”

It is a mistake to assume that military factors alone will make up Xi’s mind. The shifting balance is an important component of his argument that time and momentum are on China’s side. Yet even if Xi gains confidence in the ability of the People’s Liberation Army to prevail, the costs and risks of invading Taiwan will remain enormous.

That said, Xi might direct the military to fight a war he knows it could lose. Why? Because of popular and elite demand in China for “decisive measures” to counter perceived moves toward Taiwan’s independence. Take statements by former Trump administration officials Mark T. Esper and Mike Pompeo urging an end to the United States’ one-China policy and extending diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. These court a situation in which Xi could feel compelled to launch a war of necessity.

The outcome of a war in the Taiwan Strait would be a tossup, according to recent war games. Regardless, everyone will lose. A conflict would ravage the island that over 23 million people call home, take Taiwan’s advanced semiconductors offline and crater the global economy. And there is little reason to believe that such a conflict would remain limited; a broader war could devastate the United States, China and the wider Asia-Pacific region.

The stakes are too high to let blundering balloons and political bluster derail fragile efforts to ease U.S.-China tensions. In the current atmosphere of intense distrust, verbal assurances have to be accompanied by coordinated, reciprocal actions to reduce the risk of a catastrophic crisis.

Washington, Beijing and Taipei all have an interest in avoiding conflict. The United States and China face acute domestic challenges. Both need a period of international quietude to bolster their long-term prospects. Efforts to reduce Beijing’s sense of urgency over Taiwan could help limit the degree of China-Russia alignment, strengthening the overall U.S. strategic position. And Taiwan needs more time to muster the resources and political will to develop an asymmetric, whole-of-society defense.

Washington should strive to do everything it can to win without fighting — rather than adding to the ledger of wars it has fought without winning. U.S. leaders should continue to strengthen unofficial relations with Taiwan, particularly in the economic and cultural domains. And the United States should forge ahead with allies and partners in building more resilient military defenses, all the while pressing China on mutual steps to lower tensions.

Skeptics will say that exploring ways to de-escalate is too politically dangerous for leaders in Beijing and Washington. But so is the current drift toward conflict: It won’t stem domestic criticism or meet nationalistic expectations.

Despite President Biden’s repeated statements that the United States would defend Taiwan, there is no public or elite consensus on whether and to what extent the U.S. military should get directly involved. Resisting fatalistic assumptions will help create the political conditions necessary to prevent an avoidable war before it’s too late.