On Taiwan, the island’s growing and increasingly distinct socio-political identity means that the more Beijing proclaims the imperative of reunification, the more Taiwan’s leaders are driven to assert their differences, autonomy, and seek Washington’s security embrace. Even Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party in Taiwan, which until recently seemed amenable to finding a way to assuage Beijing while preserving the island’s actual autonomy, is distancing itself ever further from formulations acceptable to the PRC. If it wants to be politically competitive in Taiwan, the Nationalist Party increasingly will sound to Beijing like more independence-leaning elements on the island. Beijing may conclude that there no longer is an alternative in Taiwan that offers even the faintest prospect of peaceful reunification with content it finds acceptable.
Finally, although it has no treaty obligation to defend Taiwan, Washington generally has had many politicians in and out of Congress who assert or imply that America does. The consequence is that any leader in Washington who washes their hands of Taipei must expect to face withering criticism from citizens and interest groups unforgiving of leaders charged with permitting a democratic society “to go down the drain” thereby demolishing U.S. credibility. The irony is that these forces may have enough “will” to get into a war over Taiwan but lack the inner fortitude or capacity to carry it to “successful conclusion,” whatever that may mean. Neither a second-term Donald Trump nor a first-term Joseph Biden is likely to find backing down in the face of Beijing’s intimidation attractive.
The Coming Deluge
When these tributary streams of events have fully entered the main channel of U.S.-China relations, making events progressively less manageable and producing escalating tensions if not outright conflict, there will be professions of surprise and finger-pointing as to where responsibility for the disaster rests. Beyond the immediate carnage of such a fiasco, there will be the toll inflicted on the ability of the great powers to deal productively with each other on transnational issues, whether it be world health, the global economy, climate change, and much else. Now is the time for sober minds in all three societies to assert themselves. The deluge is closer than many think.
David M. Lampton is a senior research fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute. He is the founding director of the China Program at what now is The Center for National Interest. Lampton is former president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and former Chairman of the Asia Foundation. His newest book, with Selina Ho and Cheng-Chwee Kuik, is: Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia (University of California Press, 2020). The author thanks Zoe Balk for her research assistance.