The writer is chief economist at Enodo Economics
The danger is rising that long-running tensions between China and the US over Taiwan could lead to military hostilities. That puts the island in the front rank of geopolitical risks for US President Joe Biden.
Conflict need not come about by design. Revelations that Chinese military aircraft simulated missile attacks on a nearby US aircraft carrier during an incursion into Taiwanese airspace, three days after Mr Biden’s inauguration, underscore how misunderstandings could escalate with potentially devastating consequences.
My research team believes that the chances of avoiding conflict over Taiwan have fallen dramatically. This notion will strike many as far-fetched. But a year ago, who was anticipating a global pandemic that would kill more than 2m people and bring much of the world economy to a halt?
The simulated attack on USS Theodore Roosevelt occurred during an incursion by People’s Liberation Army aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace. The PLA has ramped up such forays recently, both to improve its capability of carrying out a successful invasion of a self-ruled island it regards as its own territory, and to increase pressure on Taipei.
Beijing’s focus on enhancing military readiness to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence has increased in tandem with the growing assertiveness and confidence of China’s president Xi Jinping. Mr Xi sees himself as a man of manifest destiny. His words and actions suggest that he believes it falls on him to bring Taiwan back into China’s fold.
Once-widespread hopes that Hong Kong’s governance model of “one country, two systems” would serve as a template for Taiwan vanished with China’s imposition last July of a harsh national security law in the former British colony. The crackdown met token international pushback, so why not bring Taiwan to heel too? After all, the military balance has shifted decisively in China’s favour in the past 25 years. Thanks to a major modernisation drive, the PLA has become a sophisticated force with some capabilities that match the US.
Still, the practicalities of a Taiwan invasion are daunting: a contested amphibious assault is the most difficult military operation to carry out. Mr Xi may judge the risks unacceptably high, which is why Beijing is more likely to resort to coercion. Hence the stepped-up air and naval operations around Taiwan, and their attendant potential for accidents: an aircraft crashing or a ship sinking could be misinterpreted as a deliberate act.
US officials have long adopted “strategic ambiguity” when asked if they would come to Taiwan’s rescue in the event of Chinese military action. If Chinese coercion was extended to a full-blown economic blockade of Taiwan, Washington would probably intervene. Aside from the economic stakes, if it stood aside the US could lose status as the Asia-Pacific’s leading power.
The Biden administration has so far stuck to Donald Trump’s tough China line. It responded to the provocative air incursions by calling on Beijing to stop intimidating Taiwan, and described its relationship with Taipei as “rock-solid”. Mr Biden also broke with precedent by inviting Taiwan’s Washington representative to his swearing-in ceremony.
Still, preoccupied with problems at home, Biden will want to avoid provoking Mr Xi over the issue. An important test will be if he includes Taiwan in the “summit for democracy” set for the first year of his presidency.
Inviting Taiwan would enrage Beijing and Mr Xi would be under pressure to respond. On rational grounds, any confrontation would not be permitted to escalate. But the risks involved are not just a matter of logical calculation. As the Greek historian and general Thucidydes observed, the drivers of war are fear, honour and advantage — and all of them are escalating.