Flashpoints | Risk Intelligence | Security | East Asia

The 3 Flashpoints That Could Turn a US-China ‘Cold War’ Hot

Beware the crisis hiding in plain sight.

By Daniel Russel for
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The 3 Flashpoints That Could Turn a US-China ‘Cold War’ Hot
Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

The coronavirus graphically demonstrated that even recognized risks can catch the world off guard. SARS and Ebola had alerted the world to the danger of a zoonotic virus. Just last year, governments and international agencies issued clear and repeated warnings. The U.S. government ran simulations of an outbreak code-named “Crimson Contagion” that highlighted the threat. An international panel of experts convened by the World Health Organization warned explicitly of the pandemic threat to human life and the global economy. Yet when the time came, COVID-19 revealed that governments around the world were largely unprepared and slow to react to a widely anticipated health risk.

Today, the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States is a major geopolitical risk. The relationship’s protective insulation has been stripped away, nerves are exposed, and the mechanisms for defusing tensions are defunct. Battles rage between Beijing and Washington over trade, technology, investment, supply chains, journalists, and COVID-19. Diplomats, from the U.S. secretary of state to China’s rabid “wolf warriors,” are trading decidedly undiplomatic barbs. Public attitudes toward the other nation have taken a sharp turn for the worse. And China, often a bogeyman in U.S. presidential campaigns, is shaping up as a central issue in the escalating battle between the 2020 candidates.

But the risk is all the more dangerous to the extent that, consciously or not, we have acclimated ourselves to the “new normal” of strategic rivalry. To grow accustomed to the intensifying struggle between the Washington and Beijing may serve to camouflage certain chronic geopolitical risks that are hiding in plain sight – risks that, like a novel virus, we are aware of but unprepared for. Among these risks are Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and above all, Taiwan.

Hong Kong

The Chinese National People’s Congress recently introduced a draft decision to put in place laws and enforcement measures in Hong Kong ostensibly to “safeguard national security,” outlawing any act of “secession, subversion or foreign interference.” In 2003 (ironically, the year of the SARS outbreak), the Hong Kong authorities’ effort to ram through a similar law was derailed by protests, and in 2019 a proposed law permitting extradition to the mainland was the trigger for the large-scale demonstrations that raged throughout the summer and fall. In response to those protests, the U.S. Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, threatening sanctions against China and tying U.S. economic relations to Hong Kong with its continued high degree of autonomy. Thus the leadership in Beijing surely took its decision fully aware of both the local and the international reaction it could expect.

Beijing’s increased level of resolve, and its tolerance for negative consequences, seems to be matched by U.S. policymakers’ determination to retaliate – even if Hong Kong may be martyred in the process. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo promptly warned that the United States would retaliate, and on May 29 President Donald Trump took to the Rose Garden to announce his decision to withdraw Hong Kong’s special economic status – a move that, if fully implemented, would destroy Hong Kong’s viability as a largely autonomous financial center. Now, having ridden roughshod over Hong Kong’s remaining political autonomy, how close are China’s leaders to dispensing with another taboo and following through with their threat to use direct military force to suppress dissent and civil disobedience in Hong Kong?

The South China Sea

China’s incremental “salami slicing” tactics, first by land reclamation and then constructing outposts in the Spratly Islands, hampered international efforts to push back against Beijing’s extralegal assertion of sovereign rights in disputed and international space. The refusal by the newly elected Philippine president to stand by the 2016 ruling of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea undercut ongoing regional diplomacy and cemented Chinese impunity in the South China Sea.

Over the past three years, both countries have ramped up military operations. The United States has boosted the pace and publicity of its freedom of navigation operations in the first four months of 2020. For its part, in the same period China has sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel, announced the establishment of administrative districts throughout most of the South China Sea, and deployed its sole carrier strike group to conduct exercises in the area. Since the downing of a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft by China in 2001, no interception or encounter between Chinese and American military aircraft or ships has led to a serious incident. But U.S.-China high-level strategic dialogue and military-to-military ties, which were deliberately cultivated in the aftermath of the EP-3 incident, have atrophied over the past three years, robbing the two governments of essential crisis prevention or management tools. So the combination of frayed nerves, increased operations, strategic mistrust, and the severing of dialogue channels could prove a recipe for disaster by allowing an incident to escalate to a crisis, and a crisis to spark a military confrontation …or worse.

Taiwan

Could a perfect storm be brewing over Taiwan? Taiwan is at the fault line between democratic rule of law and authoritarianism with Chinese characteristics. It is also the intersection point between two major powers, both subject to strong political pressures, but with unequal interests, influence, and capacity for military action. For many in the United States, Taiwan has symbolic importance – as an offshore rebuke to the PRC and an emblem of what a democratic China could look like. For others, Taiwan is a blunt instrument used to harass and discomfit the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But for Xi Jinping, Taiwan is an historical and a political imperative. Putting Taiwan on a path to “unification” is key both to the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” and to Xi’s continued grip on power. No other issue is as central to the CCP identity or to its leader’s political survival.

Yet Xi has suffered a serious of embarrassing setbacks over the past year. Not only did Beijing’s nemesis, Tsai Ing-wen, score a major victory in her reelection bid, but her success was fueled by her very public support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong and her public repudiation of Xi’s suggestion of a “one country, two systems” arrangement for Taiwan. In fact, the election outcome may have contributed to Beijing’s calculation that there was little to gain from continued restraint in Hong Kong. Taiwan’s stunningly efficient handling of COVID-19 won it international accolades and a backlash against Beijing’s policy of excluding Taiwan from international forums like the recent World Health Assembly.

And then there is the series of very public gestures of support to Taiwan by the United States. While some of those actions, such as arms sales and transits in the U.S. by Taiwan’s president, may be comparable to steps taken by previous administrations, other high-profile actions are not. Two major pieces of legislation supporting closer relations with Taiwan were enacted in the space of two years, senior U.S. officials participated virtually in Tsai’s second inauguration event, and the announcement that Taiwan’s pre-eminent chip maker would build a $12 billion cutting-edge semiconductor fabrication plant in Arizona coincided with the announcement of a rule denying Huawei worldwide access to essential chip-making equipment. Meanwhile, rumors abound that U.S. officials are contemplating unprecedented steps such as U.S. Navy ship visits to Taiwan ports or even the rotational deployment of U.S. marines.

The imbalance between U.S. and Chinese interests vis-à-vis Taiwan invites miscalculation and disproportionate response. The painstakingly constructed framework of the “one China policy” may not survive if Taiwan is used as an instrument of pushback against China. How confident can we be in our ability to assess how close Beijing’s leaders may already be to deciding to make good on their promise of unification through force if need be? And if each perceived transgression by the other side incentivizes Washington and Beijing to double down on support for, or pressure on Taiwan, how long before a crisis erupts?

The often uneasy equilibrium that has marked U.S.-China relations for decades should not inure us to the risk that we may now be dangerously close to a tipping point where even a small action would serve as a catalyst that lets slip the dogs of war. The roar of invective in the trade war or the COVID blame game should not deafen us to warnings from either side. The fact is that no situation is so bad that it can’t be made worse. And while there is no reason that chronic problems between Washington and Beijing can’t abruptly become acute, there is abundant reason to worry that the political and diplomatic safeguards against uncontrolled escalation are largely inoperative. There is a caution to both leaders in the old adage, “if you can’t be good, be careful.”

Daniel Russel is Vice President at the Asia Society Policy Institute. He most recently served under the Obama administration as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and Special Assistant to the President at the White House and National Security Council (NSC) Senior Director for Asian Affairs