For the last six months, the United States and China have been engaged in a steadily escalating war of nerves, with relations now at their worst since the Korean War of the 1950s. Many have likened the current situation to a new cold war, but there is now an increasing danger of it transforming into a hot war as hostility keeps spiraling upward.
At every stage, China has responded tit-for-tat to American actions, from limitations on journalists to closure of consulates. But now China is worried that things may get out of hand. The reported order to its South China Sea forces not to "fire the first shot" is clearly aimed at overzealous military personnel.
At the same time, Chinese diplomats are emphasizing their willingness to talk. The ultimate question was posed by Cui Tiankai, the ambassador in Washington, who asked at an Aspen Institute seminar if the United States was ready to live with China in peace—a country with a different history, culture and perhaps system, but with no intention to compete for global dominance.
The contest grew from a trade war, which was suspended after a phase one agreement in mid-January. It now encompasses a media war, a diplomatic war, an ideological war and a tech war. The visit of Alex Azar, the U.S. secretary for health and human services, to Taiwan last week raises the danger level another notch.
As China's leader, Xi Jinping, had personally told Donald Trump in 2017 when the American leader paid a state visit to Beijing, Taiwan is the most important and sensitive issue in Sino-U.S. relations. Azar is the highest-ranking American official to visit Taiwan since Washington severed ties with the island in 1979 in order to establish relations with Beijing. The visit is very much a finger in China's eye.
Previously, the most senior American officials to visit Taiwan held such offices as the United States Trade Representative in 1992 and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014. Such visits were rare. But this time, a full-fledged cabinet secretary had visited Taiwan in an official capacity and met with President Tsai Ing-wen. The visit came after the passage in 2018 of the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows high-level visits to Taiwan. Hence, such visits are likely to be repeated.
China showed its anger by sending fighter jets across the median line of the Taiwan Strait between the mainland and Taiwan on August 10.
Chinese military forces also conducted live combat drills on both the northern and southern ends of the Taiwan Strait, which a spokesman for the People's Liberation Army called "necessary action" to safeguard the country's "national sovereignty and stability."
Discussion of a war with the United States is now commonplace in China. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the official People's Daily, on August 7 discussed which side would have the upper hand if war broke out.
Hu acknowledged that "in terms of overall military strength" the U.S. is more powerful. However, he said, if hostilities should break out in China's coastal waters then, taking into consideration "China's maritime strength plus onshore combat power," it would be "difficult to say which side is more powerful."
The Chinese military, he said, should under no circumstance fire the first shot. But, he wrote, "I am confident that China will be well prepared to fire a second shot as a response to the first shot. On core interests, China will not back off. The best way is for China and relevant parties to respect each other's core interests."
The United States, no doubt, is well aware of the two sides' relative capabilities. No doubt, Washington doesn't want a war with China. But already there are rumors of an "October surprise" in the form of a war if Trump continues to trail in the polls. If the Trump administration decides to provoke China by, say, establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan, then there is no telling how Beijing will react.
It would be difficult, but even in those highly trying circumstances Beijing should stay its hand. An invasion of Taiwan would be walking with open eyes into a carefully baited trap. Diplomatic action can wait until after the American electoral turmoil subsides, hopefully by early 2021, with the installation of a new administration in Washington.
A war avoided could well lead to talks involving not just the United States and China, but Taiwan as well. The island and its 24 million people cannot be left out. The wisdom of people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait may yet show that a so far insoluble issue may perhaps be amenable to other, more subtle, approaches.