Home and Abroad Public Forum: China and U.S.-China Relations
A discussion of the U.S.-China relationship, including how Chinese domestic politics are influencing the country’s agenda abroad, the state of security in the Asia-Pacific with a focus on the future of Taiwan, and U.S. priorities and policy options in the region.
HAASS: Well, thank you. Welcome, one and all, to today’s HAVPF, hosted by the CFR, also known as the Home and Abroad Virtual Public Forum hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Richard Haass, the Council’s president, and I’ll be presiding over today’s conversation and discussion dealing with China and U.S.-Chinese relations.
For those of you who don’t know who we are, the Council on Foreign Relations, we’re an independent membership organization. We’re a think tank. We’re a publisher. And we’re an educational institution. We try to serve as a nonpartisan source of information and analysis to advance understanding of global affairs and the foreign policy choices facing this country and other countries.
This particular series, the Home and Abroad Series, focuses on issues at the nexus of U.S. domestic and foreign policy that affect the American role in the world, American interests in the world in material ways. Today’s conversation focuses on one of the most important, many would say the most important, long-term foreign policy question on the American agenda, which is the U.S.-Chinese relationship. And what we’re going to try to do is look at China and how Chinese domestic developments and politics are affecting that country’s agenda and its behavior. And we’re going to look at regional issues and global issues.
Our timing is good. We’re meeting today on the heels of the Twentieth Party Congress in Beijing, where there were important developments that we’ll be discussing in a minute. And here we are, two weeks before the American midterm elections, where even though foreign policy is not front and center on the minds of many voters, or in many of the debates—to the extent debates have been held—the results of the election will have consequences for American foreign policy.
We’re going to be guided here by three real talents. And we are fortunate, and then some, to have them as our sherpas for this meeting.
Oriana Skylar Mastro is a center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. And she’s also a nonresident senior fellow at AEI, the American Enterprise Institute. She also serves, in her spare time, in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, and is the author of, among other things, The Costs of Conversation: Obstacles to Peace Talks in War Time. Needless to say, a rather relevant topic, given where we find ourselves in Europe.
Secondly, Evan Medeiros is the Penner family chair in Asian studies and the Cling family distinguished fellow in U.S.-China studies at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, or SFS as it’s known to the insiders. From 2009 to 2015 he served on the staff of the National Security Council, first as director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, and then as special assistant to the president and senior director for Asia.
Third, and hardly least, Jessica Chen Weiss is the Michael J. Zak professor of China and Asia Pacific studies at a university just north of here in New York, Cornell. From 2021 until recently, she served as senior advisor on the policy planning staff at the State Department, and she did so as a CFR international affairs fellow for tenured IR, international relations, scholars. She is, among other things, the author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations and also has a book coming out under the provisional title A World Safe for Autocracy: The Domestic Politics of China’s Foreign Policy.
Like I said, we are in extraordinarily capable and informed hands. So thank you all. Before we turn to you, one or two pieces of housekeeping. Today’s discussion is on the record. Anything anyone says can and will be used against them. What we’re going to do first, though, is go to those assembled virtually. And I think there’s upwards of 1,500 or even 2,000 of you—about 3,000 signed up. And we wanted to get your views on five questions dealing with China and U.S.-China relations. These questions will appear on your screen. After you—again—after you’ve answered all the questions, you then hit the submit button. And what you just have to do is scroll up on your screen, and these questions will scroll up. I’ll just quickly read them, but don’t wait for me.
Which best describes the way you view China in relations to the United States? You have five options from existential threat to not sure. Question two, do you think U.S. foreign policy toward China is too confrontational? And again, you’ve got a range of answers from much too confrontational to not confrontational enough or, again, you can say you’re not sure. Thirdly, how likely do you think it is that China will invade Taiwan over the course of the next five years, from highly to not at all likely.
Do you think—fourth—do you think the U.S. should send forces to help Taiwan defend itself in the event of a Chinese blockade or invasion? Again, you’ve got a range of choices. And then the fifth question: In recent years, the U.S. defense budget has averaged between 3.5 percent of our gross domestic product. Given the topic of today, given China’s actions, given its growing capabilities, given the threats also from other countries—including Russia, North Korea, and Iran—would you support an increase in defense spending? And here you’ve got three choices.
So, again, vote on all five. Click submit once you’ve made your all five answers. We’ll give you about fifteen more seconds, and then we’re going to circle back to this at the end of the forum and we’re going to give you a chance to re-answer these questions. And we’re curious to see whether the conversation today changed anyone’s thinking. OK, so the polls are about to close. (Sings Jeopardy! theme music.) And I assume someone will let me—OK. I think the polls have closed.
So just to quickly give a windup, those of you who see China as a—how do you see China? A plurality, almost half, see China as America’s greatest rival. Fourteen percent see China as an existential threat. Thirty-three percent as a competitor. Only 2 percent as a partner.
Do you think U.S. foreign policy toward China is overly confrontational? Ten percent say yes, much too confrontational. Twenty-seven percent say somewhat. So that’s basically just over a third think our policy is overly confrontational. Just over a third think we have it about right. And nearly 20 percent think we are not sufficiently confrontational.
How likely do you think it is that China will invade Taiwan over the course of the next five years? Highly likely, a quarter of you. Half of you think it’s somewhat likely. About a fifth of you think it’s not at all likely. Fourth, do you think the U.S. should send forces to help defend Taiwan in the event of a blockade or invasion? Thirty-eight percent say yes. Just slightly more than that, 42 percent, no, that we should provide Taiwan with arms, but we should not get physically involved. And just 5 percent of you say we should neither provide arms nor deploy forces. So we are pretty divided on that.
Last question, five, defense spending. About—interesting, again almost evenly divided. Forty-three percent think we should increase defense spending. Forty-two percent do not favor an increase. And here, as elsewhere, we’ve got a percentage—usually about 15 percent, sometimes slightly less, who are unsure. So we will, again, return to these questions and I’m curious to see whether people move, and whether those who aren’t sure in particular, whether we see a reduction in the category of the unsure.
OK. Let me turn to the people on the platform here in the virtual stage. As I said, we just finished the Twentieth Party Congress in Beijing. Let me just sort of start with—Evan, summarize the big takeaways of it. And I’m going to ask all of you, once we get the summary out, whether there’s anything about this surprises. Is there anything that happened in the last couple of hours—in the last, what, seventy-two hours, ninety-six hours in China that surprises? So let’s just begin, though, with a very quick summary of what, for those who haven’t been watching this, that they—what’s the bottom line they should all know?
MEDEIROS: Well, thanks, Richard. The bottom line is that Xi Jinping ran the table. He fully and completely dominated this Party Congress. We are now in a new era of Chinese politics, and that’s an era defined by maximum Xi Jinping. There’s really no balance in this leadership. He’s surrounded himself with his closest confidants and I think that is a reflection of the fact that he believes that control, and his controls to be specific, is key to order, stability, development, and strength. What that means for politics going forward is that in Chinese politics, loyalty is more important than merit. There really is no long any norms or rules that will guide succession going forward. So while we know Xi Jinping will be around for another five years, it could be another ten years.
And in terms of ideas about political governance, economic governance, and foreign policy, Xi Jinping has now inserted his ideas into the party constitution. So economically that means more state, more self-reliance, more redistribution of income. In foreign policy, it means a great emphasis on vigilance and struggle over partnership and cooperation. And on military affairs, I think that—and really more broadly—I think we see a leadership and a set of ideas that are about hardening the Chinese system for greater competition with the West going forward. That’s my take.
HAASS: So, Oriana, Jessica, is there anything you just heard from Evan that you would either flat-out disagree with or would want to augment? Oriana, let’s start with you.
MASTRO: If I could augment a point that Evan made, it’s absolute—everything he said I agree with, about Xi Jinping running the show and loyalty being the most important characteristic. But I just want to point out that in the military, with the military modernization—and this has been relatively the case for the ten years of Xi’s tenure—this has been good for the military, the centralization of power. So I’m sure Jessica will talk a bit about the domestic politics, and we can talk more about the economic side. But the military was having difficulty engaging in realistic training and making the reforms necessary to conduct the type of operations they would need to take Taiwan.
Xi Jinping had the power to basically completely rehaul the system. Something like if a U.S. president got rid of the Pentagon and all the combatant commands and built it up from scratch. And so when I see the people he actually promoted to the Central Military Commission, which is the organization that makes a lot of the military-style decisions, of which he is chairman, while they’re, of course, loyalists, they are also known for being the most competent of the officers. So Zhang Youxia, for example, he was able to stay in power even though he was older than the retirement age allowed.
I think this was very smart of Xi, something that surprised me, but very smart. That he’s not the only one to shirk the norms, but he allowed other players that are extremely competent in other areas to shirk the norms as well. And at least from U.S. interactions with Zhang, it's—he is thought to be one of the most competent military leaders that they have. So he did promote loyalists but those that, at least in the military, can get the job done.
HAASS: That’s a good clarification.
Jessica, you focus a lot on internal Chinese politics. What’s your take on the gathering that just ended?
WEISS: So I wanted augment a little bit what Evan said, which is that even though this definitely Xi’s show, there was a lot of emphasis on the domestic challenges and international headwinds that China faces coming out of this Party Congress. So there’s been a lot of speculation that a more secure Xi domestically is going to be willing to take on more risk internationally. And I don’t see that as being the case. I see a Xi Jinping that is sort of girding the state and the public for potential stormy seas, dangers ahead.
But I don’t see this as a kind of a risk acceptance, looking for conflict. Not in any way, I would say, supported by the political science research, which suggests that when Chinese leaders have faced domestic problems at home, they’ve actually been a little bit more moderate in their foreign policy abroad. So I don’t expect these domestic challenges, despite how prominent they are to lead to China to lash out, seek conflict abroad, or try to divert attention before China’s power peaks.
HAASS: I expect we will circle back to that, because I expect there could be differing senses of whether the Chinese leadership under pressure at home to deliver might turn to foreign policy as a bit of an escape valve, as a way to either distract or satisfy masses who might be feeling some discontent.
Let’s talk a little bit about what China faces. We’ve all worked with presidents, and we all look at inboxes. I don’t envy President Xi for his inbox. Chinese growth is—official numbers now are under 4 percent. It sounds pretty good, except when you think about the three decades they were in double figures. They’ve got more than ten million unemployed young people. You’ve got serious drought in the country. COVID is still an insoluble problem for the Chinese, given their own stubbornness, or whatever word you want to use about vaccines.
Demographically, the population will soon be in decline, and the ratio of working-age people to others will deteriorate. You’ve got all the characteristics then of a top-heavy system, where it’s hard for people to speak up if they’re not happy with a decision or its implementation. Am I missing something? But Xi Jinping wanted a third term. He got a third term. And could this turn out to be a little bit of be careful what you wish for?
Jessica, why don’t we reverse the order and start with you.
WEISS: Well, as I said, in think Xi Jinping is going to have a very hard time balancing the various objectives that he’s laid out. He has a grand vision, but actually achieving those things—as you pointed out—in an era of slower Chinese growth, there’s a real question about how it is that the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, is going to move away from the zero COVID, that they have touted as part of their kind of secret to dealing with the pandemic.
That isn’t really that—places really strong kind of restraints on the possibility of returning to more rapid economic growth, that may come at a great cost to public health, first of all, because a large portion of the Chinese population remains unvaccinated, as well as the possibility of the specter of social instability. Clearly not—so far—all of Chinese responses to the pandemic so far have really made it clear that stability first is the priority. And so where China’s economic trajectory goes from here I think remains a really big, open question.
HAASS: Uh-huh. Evan, let me turn to you and Oriana, and pick up on what Jessica just said and what she said a few minutes ago, whether you are of like-mindedness or not. If Xi, as is likely to be the case, faces significant headwinds at home—economic, infectious disease, climate change-related, you name it, unemployment. Whether he is likely to turn to foreign policy as his political safety valve. And if so, if he were to, whether that would, in a sense do what he would want it to do. Whether that does satisfy an otherwise frustrated populace, or whether he simply can’t do that trick.
Evan, what do you think about that? Actually—
MEDEIROS: I think—
HAASS: Oh, go ahead. I’m sorry.
MEDEIROS: Richard, I think, first and foremost, Xi Jinping faces these challenges right now. I think the next five years are probably going to be more challenging than the last five years, but the last five years were fairly difficult. I’m not terribly concerned about the proverbial wag the dog scenario, the whole diversionary war thesis, that Xi Jinping facing challenges at home will lash out to divert people’s attention, because the leadership that he’s put in place all supports him. I don’t think he’s really concerned about political challenges.
The theory that concerns me is one in which, when China feels itself to be facing a variety of domestic economic, political, social challenges, that they become hypersensitive to the external actions of others. So it’s not deliberately the tail wagging the dog, but an excessive sense of insecurity that grows as a result of domestic challenges. And that results in overreach and overreaction on the part of the Chinese.
We’ve already seen this in the 2017, 2018, even 2020 time period, when as the Chinese in particular were facing real challenges with COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, you had a variety of different assertions on the part of the Chinese with—against the Malaysians in the South China Sea and then, of course, with the Indians. So I see it less as the tail wagging the dog, but rather heightened sense of insecurity that may result in overreach on the part of the Chinese.
HAASS: Oriana, let me reframe the question slightly differently for you. There’s a school of thought that the next five years are a very dangerous time, simply because on the one hand China’s amassed a lot of capability. On the other hand, they are facing these internal challenges at home. It’s this combination of capacity and weakness or problems that makes for a dangerous brew. And historically, major powers feeling that combination of effects, can act in a fairly aggressive way. What’s your reading of this situation?
MASTRO: So I think it’s important to note that a lot of people, including myself, project that the next five years are going to be somewhat turbulent, in particular over Taiwan, and that there’s a higher likelihood than not, at least in my view, that in the 2025 to 2027 timeframe, China is going to use force against Taiwan. But the reasons that I have are very different than the ones you laid out. I’m with Evan and Jessica on this. I see no evidence, first of all, that Xi Jinping feels the need to be assertive to maintain his power. I think Xi Jinping could leave Taiwan alone for fifteen years and stay in power for fifteen years.
I also—this sort of argument of China’s peaking power, the bottom line is, even on the—if you look at the military side, if the Chinese economy was completely stagnant for the future years—which is unlikely and it’s also strange in a globalized environment that their economy is stagnant and the U.S. economy is unaffected. But just hypothetically, even if it’s completely stagnant, they’ll have more resources, their economy is going to be larger, for the next twenty-five years than it was in the past twenty-five years.
And on the military stage, with very—with far fewer resources than the United States. And at some point—remember, twenty years ago, their defense budget was less than the amount we spent on nuclear weapons—they were able to build a military that can challenge the U.S. and some contingencies in Asia. I also see no indication in Chinese writing, speeches, anything, that they think their rise is over. So I don’t see the argument that they have to go for Taiwan because it’s now or never. The bottom line is, the trends look pretty good for China, in aggregate power, at least in the military realm, vis-à-vis the United States indefinitely.
So my view is that if the United States did take significant actions in the economy and military realms to enhance our deterrence, we could convince Xi Jinping to wait. Because his window of opportunity is not closing. I think he’s just motivated to do this as soon as he can.
HAASS: So just so I—just to paraphrase you then, you’re basically saying: If he were—because you said you think there’s a decent chance he’ll move during—towards the end of this third term. It wouldn’t be—how would I put it—it wouldn’t be a decision taken out of necessity to distract in order to maintain power, but it would essentially opportunity. That he would see, to use an old Soviet phrase, the correlation of forces would look very good for him to act at that moment. Is that—I don’t want to do damage to your statement. Is that about right?
MASTRO: Yes. And I’ll just add that China—people always say, don’t they have long-term planning and thinking. And that’s absolutely true. We are just at the tail end of the seventy-five years of long-term planning and thinking. And so now he will have what he needs to get this done at an acceptable cost. And I think that’ll be tempting for him.
HAASS: OK. So I want to switch now a little bit more to U.S.-Chinese relations. And I realize I have to move things along at a pretty brisk pace, but I want to get some things on the table. And I’m going to read a few sentences from the just-released National Security Strategy, released by the Biden administration. And there’s a paragraph that goes as follows: Russia and the People’s Republic of China pose different challenges. Russia poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system, recklessly flouting the basic laws of the international order today, as its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has shown. China, by contrast, is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.
Is that a—Jessica, I don’t know if you actually helped write that while you were there. Is that a—is that something that you would sign off on? Or do you think that’s too alarmist or negative about China, either in terms of its capabilities or its aspirations?
WEISS: First, the language also appeared in Secretary Blinken’s speech in May, laying out the Biden administration’s China strategy. And so I am familiar with the language. I think it’s important to recognize that “reshape the international order” is very different from “undermine” or “subvert” it. And so I think that there are certainly aspects of the international order that the Chinese Communist Party led by Xi Jinping are very dissatisfied with, and particularly at the emphasis on universal political rights, the rights of individuals. They would like to see and international order that is much more sovereignty focused, premised on the U.N. charter and not interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.
Now, there’s a tension here.
HAASS: I’m just going to interrupt. If that’s the case, it seems to me they’re guilty of hypocrisy on steroids in their reaction to the Ukraine aggression of Russia.
WEISS: Absolutely. It’s one of the areas in where—in which China’s strategic interests, their desire to work with Russia to resist what they see as a U.S. effort to contain or undermine their rise, has trumped their principled insistence that they are the defender of UN-based, sovereignty-based system. And so I think what we see is that I think there’s a big question as to China’s future capabilities. As we’ve just described, there are a lot of domestic challenges that are making it perhaps more difficult over the long run for China to achieve, not maybe necessarily its military objectives, but its long-term ability to lead in the global system to provide public goods, in the way that the United States once had.
And I would say that here the question is, where is the international system going? Is there room for, as the National Security Strategy states, possibilities for peaceful coexistence? And what might that look like? Now, U.S. policy toward China was really premised on the idea that it was better to have China inside than outside that system. And I think that that largely paid off, and it’s still better than the alternative. But what exactly in between our vision for the future world order and China’s vision, where might there be overlap? And I think that’s an area that we still need to envision.
HAASS: Picking up on what you just said, if I were going to take a twenty-five year look at U.S. policy towards China, I actually think we have seen a fundamental change. Where twenty, twenty-five years ago the United States specifically said: We welcome China’s rise. And indeed, we want to integrate China into the institutions and mechanisms of global governance. For example, the World Trade Organization. Now we have the United States essentially trying to stop China’s rise, reduce or eliminate its access to certain technologies that would help them economically as well as potentially in the national security space.
I mean, Evan, I’ll throw this to you first. Haven’t we essentially shifted from a policy that you might call integration to a policy of containment?
MEDEIROS: Essentially, yes, Richard, but I think we did so for good reason, right. Our policy has had to shift. The balance between the competitive and cooperative dimensions of policy has had to shift in the last decade because China’s behavior has changed.
I can remember my first job out of being a PhD student at the Rand Corporation. I wrote a paper very early on in the early 2000s essentially analyzing the question, as China’s capabilities grow, will its ambitions change, right? It was a very hard question to answer in the early 2000s because we really didn’t know how rapidly they would grow as an economy and how effective they’d be at translating economic power into new military capabilities.
But here we are in 2022, and I think the answer is pretty clear. As China has become more powerful, its diplomatic ambitions, its military ambitions, its economic ambitions has grown, and as somebody that was in the White House during the transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, I sort of lived on a day-to-day basis the evolution of a China being led by somebody that was—had much greater ambitions—they wanted to make China strong—a much greater sense of urgency, and a much greater tolerance for risk and friction.
So yes, there is a greater element of constraining Chinese power in U.S. policy, but I think that’s a reflection of the ambitions and the policies and the behavior that China has exhibited over the last ten years. Now does that rule out the possibility of coexistence? No, it doesn’t. But trying to figure out what combination of policies will get you to a coexistence is hard because the way the Chinese have articulated their interests—that we need to respect their core interests, right—Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang—all of that makes coexistence very, very, very difficult, and so I think we’re still far from it.
HAASS: It’ll actually make for some very interesting doctoral dissertations in the future. Whether you’re looking at U.S.-Russia relations or U.S.-China relations, to what extent were their deteriorations inevitable? To the extent they were inevitable or close to it, to what extent were they functions of the decisions, behaviors of Russia or China? To what extent do they also reflect policy decisions or even errors made on our side? I think quite a few PhDs will get minted.
MEDEIROS: So can I come in on that quickly, Richard, because I think one of the big questions that—or one of the pieces of evidence that weighs on this is I can tell you from personal experience in the Obama administration, right, we tried several different efforts at strategic dialogue at multiple different levels looking for opportunities for cooperation, and the reality is, is the Chinese were really not that interested, right.
And I don’t say that as a former Obama guy trying to shill our policies, but to suggest there is some evidence about testing the proposition about whether or not the Chinese as they became more powerful, especially after the global financial crisis, were actually interested in dialogue, diplomacy, and cooperation, and I think the answer is they weren’t really that interested.
HAASS: I’m going to turn to Jessica on that, and then, I’m going to turn Oriana on Taiwan. But Jessica, one follow up on what Evan just said.
In a recent issue of a certain magazine I have a certain connection to, Foreign Affairs, which we publish here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I hope everyone watching or listening today is a regular reader of. And if you’re not, you should revisit that decision.
In the September/October issue, you called for what you described as meaningful discussions between the two countries not only about crisis communications and risk reduction, but about plausible terms of coexistence and the future of the international system.
So my question to you is, given what we just saw in Beijing, given what we now know about Xi Jinping after a decade, do you still think that could bear fruit if we had something like a strategic dialogue, however you structured it? Wang Yi, until recently the foreign minister, it looks like he’ll be the senior person responsible in the party for foreign policy and the like. He would probably be the Chinese figure or his boss, Xi Jinping. On our side it would be Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, the secretary of state, or President Biden.
Do you believe that given where China is now, given the national security strategy, that there is still a window for what you call not just meaningful dialogue, but I would say, productive dialogue?
And if so, what specifically do you think? Where’s the low-hanging fruit?
WEISS: Well, I don’t know if it’s low-hanging fruit, but I think Taiwan is a good place to start. First of all, I think that such a dialogue or discussion, however construed, is probably more important than ever.
I share Oriana’s concern that we are headed towards some kind of crisis or showdown, but for very different reasons. I think we are currently in an action-reaction spiral, and we have presidential elections on Taiwan scheduled for 2024. It also coincides with our presidential election cycle here, and I’m very concerned that if we don’t find ways to mutually lower the temperature, in terms of the pace of operations in and around Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait, that we will be on the precipice of some kind of crisis.
And the definition of crisis is that you can’t really predict how it’s going to end, and so, in my mind, these conversations, however construed, in the current atmosphere of deep distrust, we’re not aiming at—I don’t think we should aim at cooperation. I agree with Evan that cooperation may be too far a bridge to cross.
I think that bounds on competition—what are sometimes referred as guardrails—but what exactly that looks like to my mind has to involve voluntary steps to limit the extents to which we are mutually willing to go to outcompete the other, and I think that—
HAASS: Just to interrupt for a second, based on everything you heard at the recent Party Congress, is it your assessment that Xi Jinping—given what’s happened with Hong Kong, given what he's said about rejuvenation, given the apparent willingness to think about coercible, forcible efforts—do you think that we have a partner there, that China is willing to forgo its goals of what they would call rejuvenation with Taiwan?
WEISS: So I don’t think that there’s room to change China’s strategic objective. National rejuvenation and Xi Jinping linking that to, quote/unquote, “reunification,” that is not removable. But I don’t think that China is looking for a war over Taiwan. They want to win without fighting.
And so, of course the option to use force remains on the table. They’ve always had that on the table. And there may be some signs that Xi Jinping is not more dissatisfied than previous Chinese leaders with the maintenance of the status quo, but there are ways short of persuading China and Chinese leaders to give up that objective to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
HAASS: Oriana, so let me turn to you on that. Imagine you had President Biden’s ear—and you may—what would you recommend that we do in order to shape Xi Jinping’s calculous—not that he would give up a strategic goal of reunification; as they would call it, rejuvenation—but that we would get him to, shall we say, postpone it or simply not act on it for the foreseeable future?
What would you have us say? What would you have us do to shape China’s calculous?
MASTRO: So if I could describe the Biden administration’s current approach, it’s speak loudly but carry a small stick, and I would like to carry a big stick but speak softly.
So the first thing I would tell them is stop making all these statements about Taiwan. And I know Richard you might disagree with me on this, but strategic clarity, which is this idea that the United States makes a very clear commitment to the defense of Taiwan, does not enhance deterrence against Beijing.
Beijing has long had to assume U.S. military intervention in any Taiwan conflict—and by the way, their uncertainty about U.S. commitment is not about whether we’ll defend Taiwan, it's how long we’ll last. And honestly, like—if we’re all honest, we’re all uncertain about that, right—the casualties the United States is willing to absorb in the defense of Taiwan.
But all this is doing—and I was just on a call for a couple hours last night with some colleagues in Beijing—and I really believe this—is creating this view that the United States is using Taiwan just to try to get ahead in the great power competition, that we might be supporting Taiwan independence—all of these things that are pushing hardliners in Beijing to be able to say, like, we have to use force.
So for me, I think all those political maneuverings—do we or do we not change the name of Taiwan—none of that is useful for deterrence. What we need is military forces forward. What we need is intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the second island chain, which is just a military term of saying we need to have the ability to shoot stuff into the Taiwan Strait in real time because the biggest problem is the United States is not going to have sufficient warning to bring all of our forces into the conflict quick enough.
My biggest concern is a fait accompli— that in a hundred hours, according to some Chinese military writings, they sail, they step foot on Taiwan, the government capitulates, and then, there’s very little the United States can do.
So a lot of this has to do with working with our partners and allies. I think most Americans don’t realize how far we are from getting real military support. The South Koreans won’t even let us use our own assets in South Korea, right. That’s what we are hoping they’ll agree to.
The Japanese, in conversations with the government they’ve said to me that they won’t sanction China afterwards. They have said that an attack of a U.S. base on Japanese soil does not constitute an attack on Japan. The bottom line is, if Japan committed to defending Taiwan, Xi Jinping would never attack because he could never win.
So it takes a lot of diplomacy and a lot of actually getting our allies on board, and the Biden administration what they would say in their defense is they got Japan to say the word Taiwan in a joint statement. That’s good, but that doesn’t translate into military capability.
So what I would like to see is actual—the militaries of the region being willing to support operationally the United States.
HAASS: And just—I could take on a lot of things you’ve said, but I’m not a participant in this, I’m just presiding here. Let me just ask one question, though, to get you—something you implied.
You think, though, we should take these steps because you do believe that Taiwan, one, is worth defending, and is defendable. Again, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I just want for the purposes of this conversation, though, to clarify that.
MASTRO: Yes, though, let me just say on the defendable, there’s no situation under which Taiwan can defend itself. I know in our poll one of the questions was, like, should we just sell weapons to Taiwan?
They have 180,000 members of the military. I mean, if I had the ability to show a chart, I would show the balance of forces. So they—all we’re hoping is that they can hold out long enough for the United States to get there, but there is no realistic policy option that Taiwan defends itself without direct U.S. assistance.
HAASS: No, when I said defendable, I meant with the United States, Japan, and so forth, essentially a collective coalition that, despite the proximity to the mainland—if Taiwan were willing to fight and if we provided it with relevant capabilities, if we had more forward-deployed forces, if we had done the preparations with Japan and the like—that this is a viable proposition.
MASTRO: Yeah, more than viable, it’s solved. It’s solved. Like, we can defend Taiwan, Xi Jinping won’t go for it, and then, we’ll return to talking about the South China Sea.
HAASS: So, Evan, let me ask you a version of that, which is, why is it important—and again, maybe you disagree—that we do get to that point? Why is it important? Because there’s a lot of people who would say too hard, too far away, not vital to the national interest.
So, even if we could do it, Oriana just said it, they would basically say not worth doing. Where do you—what’s the case to be made for the importance of doing this?
MEDEIROS: Richard, I think the Taiwan issue is fundamentally changing as a topic in international politics. It is both internationalizing and it’s militarizing or remilitarizing. I think we need to appreciate that Taiwan is very rapidly becoming what the Germany issue was to the U.S.-Soviet competition. It’s internationalizing in the sense that Europe is now very actively involved in Taiwan articulating views, providing assistance. You even have French and British naval vessels that are transiting through the Taiwan Strait.
And so the whole issue of Taiwan, protection of its democracy, its self-determination has now become a global issue, but it’s—of course it’s also remilitarizing —or militarizing. Because after Nancy Pelosi’s visit, that visit afforded the PLA a very unfortunate opportunity of creating a new normal of persistent and consistent presence around Taiwan in which they could expand or contract their presence as a way to put pressure on Taiwan in ways using grey-zone tactics that don’t really rise to the level of eliciting a response from the United States.
And so I think that that new normal is something that Taiwan is struggling with, and it’s a big problem for U.S. policymakers. So I think the Taiwan issue is now something that is seen as a symbol of the protection of democracy resisting aggression from an authoritarian state. It’s always been one of the tests of the creditability of the American alliance system in East Asia, and now that there is a new military reality around Taiwan, I think that that calls into greater question the whole issue of whether the United States is going to be willing to meet its commitments under the TRA.
So I think we need to appreciate the fact that—
HAASS: You can’t say things like TRA. You have to explain that.
MEDEIROS: Yes, the Taiwan Relations Act—the 1979 legislation that guides the American commitments to Taiwan, including providing for Taiwan’s necessary self-defense needs.
So as the Taiwan issue changes in global politics by internationalizing and militarizing, I think that the stakes for the United States have multiplied and diversified, and I think for all of those reasons we need to appreciate the fact that Taiwan is very rapidly becoming the center point of this era that we’re in of U.S.-China strategic competition.
HAASS: Quickly, Jessica, you obviously favor more of a dialogue between the United States and China in part because you don’t want a Taiwan crisis to emerge.
Are you, though, comfortable with the sort of preventive steps that Oriana was outlining, basically saying we need to do those things in order to provide a backdrop to successful diplomacy, or am I going too far there for you?
WEISS: Oh, absolutely. And first of all, I think that the U.S. strategic interest here is in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. It’s what it’s been, and it continues to be even as the dynamics change, and that there are certain steps that are necessary to shoring up deterrence, the threat part of deterrence, including efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s sort of asymmetric defense, the sort of porcupine strategy that makes Taiwan a very difficult target for mainland China—or the People’s Republic of Chin—to take.
What I would caution here—and this is maybe where Oriana and I have a little bit of a difference—which is that the military balance is not going to be, perhaps, the determining factor that leads the PRC to attack or not to attack.
I don’t think that once China can do it, it will do it because it’s tempting. I think—and conversely, if even before Xi Jinping feels like the People’s Liberation Army is ready to go, he may still launch an attack that he feels like is necessary to prevent certain things from happening—like Taiwan’s formal independence or proceed to permanent separation.
And so the risk of war is not just about the military balance, even though it’s important to shore that up.
HAASS: OK. We could go on for a long time, but we’re going to show collective restraint here, and what I want to do at this point is invite all of you who have been watching and listening to this point to join us directly with your questions.
We’ve got a lot of you. That’s the good news. The bad news is not all of you will probably be able to get your questions in. But if you keep them short, I will try to use whatever limited influence I have to keep the responses fairly short.
The way it’s going to work is Sarah will provide you some instructions on how to get in the queue, and she’ll let you know when we’re ready for more questions.
So, Sarah, let me turn things over to you at this point.
OPERATOR: As a reminder, to ask a question, please click the raised hand icon in your Zoom window. When you are called on, accept the unmute now button, and then proceed with your name, affiliation, and state, followed by your question.
You may also submit a written question by clicking on the Q&A icon. We ask that you include your affiliation and state. Please use the thumbs up icon to vote for others’ questions that you would like to hear answered.
We will take the first question from Malcolm Shroyer.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me?
HAASS: We hear you perfectly. Thank you.
Q: OK. I’m Malcolm Shroyer. My affiliation, I’m part of California Lutheran University. My home state is actually Baja, California, so in Mexico.
My question is, in the last congress China did, I heard the ex-president Hu Jintao was arrested. I don’t know if that’s true, and if that’s true, what does that mean for the CCP, and also what does the Japanese rearmament mean, like the two aircraft carriers they’ve been building? Thank you.
HAASS: Thank you. Jessica, why don’t you take—how are we to interpret the treatment of Hu Jintao, and Oriana, why don’t you maybe take afterwards the question of Japanese rearmament.
WEISS: Thanks. So what we saw at the Chinese Twentieth Party Congress was Hu Jintao being escorted out in the middle of the proceedings. There has been a lot of speculation ranging from health concerns to an effort to humiliate or in some ways demonstrate that Xi Jinping has firmly consolidated power and sidelined his immediate predecessor.
I would say that at this time it’s premature to draw conclusions, but regardless, the symbolism of that event, that development being caught on camera I think it will probably take on a more important meaning as we find out more.
HAASS: Well, I would basically venture that it’s not that hard to interpret it, and I think it was a pretty clear humiliation. If it had simply been health-related, there might have been other ways to have handled it, but that’s just one man’s—unlike the three of you, I’m not an expert. I’m just a generalist.
Oriana, over to you.
MASTRO: Yeah, let me just say a quick thing about Hu Jintao because it’s very confusing, for me at least, as someone who follows this, because Hu Jintao’s basis of power Xi Jinping decimated it ten years ago. So it seemed really unnecessary for him to do that, which made me think—and let me just connect this to Taiwan—I’m constantly looking for indicators that maybe I’m wrong in my assessments about China.
And this went against—because I always thought Xi Jinping was very pragmatic. I didn’t really see him as motivated so much by personal insecurity in the same way that maybe others did, so it makes me feel worried. Like if he feels the need to do that, what else does he feel the need to do?
In terms of Japan’s rearmament, I don’t like the word rearmament only because to me they are far from rearming. Like that’s wishful—like I would love to see Japanese rearmament. But a certain increase in defense spending, modernization and incorporation of certain systems, all of that is welcome.
But the bottom line is, right now is Japan is really focused on the defense of Japan, and so unless these assets are going to be used in contingencies involving, for example, the defense of Taiwan, they’re not particularly relevant to the deterrence against China.
I’ll also just say, aircraft carriers—one of the reasons I say that it’s so important for Japan to play a role in this conflict is because the bases that are open to the United States, like, move from the one air base we have in the vicinity of Taiwan—we only have one; China has thirty-eight—to then being able to use all the bases and dual facilities that Japan has to offer.
And so, at least for me what’s really important is actually the military bases and access on Japanese islands themselves versus aircraft carriers, which are useful farther afield in projecting power. But again, unless Japan is willing to use those and these contingencies we’re talking about, which to date they have very clearly said—they would have to revise their constitution to do so. It doesn’t help the United States as much as it seems on paper.
HAASS: Evan, are you desperate to weigh in here, or can we go to the next question?
HAASS: OK. Sarah, over to you.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Fateh Ahmed. How, if at all, has Xi and his government responded to the National Security Strategy submitted by the Biden administration?
HAASS: Evan, why don’t I turn to you on that. Have they officially responded to it?
MEDEIROS: I believe there was an official Foreign Ministry response, but I see it as more boiler plate and box-checking than a substantive response. I’d note to the listeners today that there were a variety of amendments made to the Chinese Communist Party’s Constitution.
One of the phrases that was inserted into the constitution was, quote, “uplifting the fighting spirit and enhancing the ability to struggle.” That refers to foreign affairs. So what’s most notable about the events of the last week is that the Communist Party under Xi Jinping has articulated a pretty dark view of the international community, right.
They now talk about external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure on China. This is a group of people that no longer see China as in a unique and distinct period of strategic opportunity. They no longer really talk about peace and development being the trend of the times. They talk a lot more about turbulence and change.
So while there’s been no sort of explicit fulsome response to the national security strategy, I find absolutely no comfort in that. I think it was largely because they were preoccupied with the Party Congress when the national security strategy was articulated.
I think the next shoe to drop in the relationship and something we should all be watching is how the new leadership under Xi reacts to that very substantial semiconductor technology denial package the White House adopted about a week and a half ago because I think that’s exactly the kind of attempts to contain, blockade, contain China, that Xi Jinping has been talking about. And I think it’s their response to that that will encapsulate this new sort of fighting spirit and spirit of vigilance and struggle that we’re likely to see going forward.
HAASS: Wouldn’t it likely reinforce Xi Jinping’s already existing policy of self-reliance? He’s been arguing all along that you can’t rely on the West. He watches the sanctions against Russia. I would assume, particularly if he’s thinking about Taiwan, he needs to—he’s probably thinking he needs to somewhat sanctions-proof his economy. So wouldn’t that be the one general thrust of his response, probably?
MEDEIROS: One hundred percent. If there’s one policy conclusion I have coming out of these personnel changes, it’s that they’ve created a leadership focused on hardening the Chinese economy and Chinese society because they see struggle—economic struggle, geopolitical struggle—as the main theme going forward. And increasing self-reliance is absolutely part of it.
But the big question is, Richard, how can they do that, and will they be able to do it? Because if it requires them to slow growth down to 2 to 3 percent, that puts them on a very difficult challenging pathway, not just for the next five years, but much longer going forward.
And final point, for an economy like China’s that is not yet exited middle-income status and faces the real prospect of falling into the middle-income trap, right—becoming Mexico, not South Korea—I think those kinds of economic changes to promote self-reliance, to promote the role of the state over the market, may actually seal China’s fate in terms of what its economic pathway looks like going forward.
HAASS: Well, particularly since they seem to have largely ruled out a significant role for the private sector going forward.
HAASS: So, again, it’s very hard to get private sector results without the private sector.
Why don’t we, Sarah, get another question?
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Sarah Phillips.
HAASS: Go ahead, Ms. Phillips.
OPERATOR: Please accept the unmute now prompt.
Q: OK. Sorry it wasn’t coming up, but Sarah Phillips here from International Rescue Committee in Arizona.
And my question is that there is an apparent undercurrent of us versus them when it comes to U.S.-China relations—whether we talk about military might or economic power, et cetera—I wonder if the panelists see this public opinion perspective and political school of thought as helpful or harmful? Does this perspective—i.e., the U.S. versus China, us versus them dichotomy—limit the scope of solutions and opportunities in U.S.-China relations? I see similarities with U.S.-Latin American relations in the twentieth century and parallels between U.S.-Russian relations from the Cold War era, and even today with this dualist point of view. Is history repeating itself?
HAASS: Well, Jessica, you’re probably the one who has most recently served in government. When you were on the inside, did you feel constrained public opinion and by the somewhat growing concern about China?
WEISS: Absolutely. One of the reasons that I wrote the piece in Foreign Affairs that you mentioned called The China Trap is that I felt like despite what the Biden administration is trying to do in terms of managing competition responsibly, putting a floor under U.S.-China tensions—even as we strengthen our capabilities here at home and work with allies and partners abroad—is that public opinion is—and particularly the political climate on Capitol Hill and more broadly, in Washington—really incentivizes efforts to get tough on China, to beat China, without necessarily prioritizing the kind of affirmative vision of the world that we want to live in, which, of course, it could nonetheless be compatible with competition, but the competition be subsumed with and disciplined by the kind of principals that we want to live by.
And so I worry that U.S.-China competition risks becoming an end unto itself, which really feeds instincts to counter efforts—every initiative or project that the other puts forward around the world and makes it harder to address, not in terms of cooperation, but simply crowding out the time, attention, and resources needed to address shared challenges.
And I worry—if you’ll let me—I think that this is going to have a negative impact on the United States’ democracy and vitality at home. Already, more than 60 percent of Chinese-born scientists working here in the United States report in surveys that they are considering leaving the United States because of the combination of xenophobia as well as policy efforts that have been ramped up to protect research security from legitimate concerns about Chinese intellectual property, theft, and espionage.
And so we have to be very careful not to fall into these old habits kind of intolerance at home and overextension abroad, which I fear that if we don’t check ourselves are likely to fall into.
HAASS: Thank you. OK, Sarah, let’s get another question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Yunfei Liu. Li Qiang is said to be both a loyalist and also a competent pro-business, pro-markets, pro-tech technocrat. What do you think his appointment says about Xi’s agenda for market economy?
HAASS: Who volunteers to take that?
MEDEIROS: I’ll take that one, Richard.
MEDEIROS: So I believe that you’re referring to Li Qiang, now the number two in the Communist Party, who’s likely to be the next premier. Hard to tell what his appointment really signifies beyond the fact that he—the Chinese system is no longer a meritocracy, right. He’s the first premier, I believe, in the reform era that’s never served as a vice premier or at least at a substantial role in the state council. His tenure as party secretary of Shanghai was pretty mixed, marked in part by the very poor handling of the COVID lockdowns in the spring of this year. So Xi Jinping is, clearly, surrounding himself by a bunch of loyalists.
Very difficult to know if any of these guys really believe in market forces. I mean, the China’s—the Chinese relationship or the Communist Party’s relationship with the market has always been an arm’s length one, and Xi Jinping, I think, started out being ambivalent about the market, sort of saw it as a necessary evil, and I think increasingly over time, over the last ten years, he’s moved from being ambivalent to contemptuous of the market.
And I think the fact that there was a whole variety of folks that didn’t make it onto the Central Committee who were much more market-oriented, people like Guo Shuqing and Yi Gang, who will not be part of this future leadership, I think, raises real questions about the extent to which the Chinese economy is going to rely much more on the state—state-owned enterprises, state-directed development strategies—to bring about these themes that Richard and I talked about related to self-reliance.
So I don’t find his appointment even sort of remotely reassuring. Any party secretary in China has had experiences with both the private sector and foreign investors. That doesn’t mean they’re going to start—suddenly defer to Xi Jinping, given his very strong preferences.
HAASS: OK. Let’s get another question, Sarah. We’re going at a good clip here.
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Earl Carr.
Q: Thank you. Earl Carr, representing CJPA Global Advisors, based in New Jersey.
My question is what crisis management mechanisms should be put in place to lower tensions between the U.S. and China, particularly on the issue of Taiwan. Thank you.
HAASS: Oriana, why don’t you take the first swing at that one?
MASTRO: Yeah. So, first, let me just be clear that my number-one concern about Taiwan is deliberate escalation.
If Xi Jinping does not think that the timing is right for his military to try to take Taiwan, no amount of, like, accidental collision or congresswoman visit or whatever is going to push the Chinese to move from crisis to conflict. So, first, let me say that.
But in terms of the mechanisms—so I spent seven years writing a book about negotiations and I will say that one of the biggest problems or obstacles is keeping dialogue open.
There’s nothing theoretical that says that when you’re upset with someone you should stop talking but there is this psychological impact of the silent treatment, which we also do in our personal lives, that makes it seem like discussion or dialogue is a reward.
The United States uses it all the time as a reward and so does China, and that’s why China recently has cut off a lot of our channels after Nancy Pelosi’s visit.
This is highly problematic, not only because you don’t get that information—you don’t have a channel to communicate—but also because it creates this idea that your willingness to talk is a sign of weakness, that now you’ve given in, that things are so bad for you, you want to talk.
So I would say the first thing for the United States to do is to announce a blanket policy. Kind of like how we don’t negotiate with terrorists, we have a blanket policy that we are open for discussion and dialogue from day one of any crisis, any conflict, anywhere in the world to try to remove it from that psychological viewpoint of you only talk when you’re backed into a corner.
So we should be continually reaching out to the Chinese saying, we’re sorry you’re not interested in dialogue but we are interested, not only to leave that as a door open but for our allies and partners it’s important for them to understand if a war does happen that the United States did everything that it could.
HAASS: Oriana, let me interrupt there for one second.
I was in government in 1989 and one of the first crises of the Bush 41 presidency was the crisis with China over the collision of the planes, and we reached out to China for quite a while and we kept knocking on the door and there was nobody home. We couldn’t get China to interact with us to defuse the crisis.
Is it your sense that China’s evolved since then, that they took from that any lessons that they need to change the way they do business amidst a crisis?
MASTRO: No, and that’s, largely, because they know the United States is afraid of inadvertent escalation while they don’t believe that that happens. Like, the Chinese viewpoint is wars happen based on deliberate decisions to fight wars. But they manipulate that because they know we get fearful in crisis.
So I also don’t like it when the United States is constantly reaching out, being, like, we want to talk, we want to talk, because it shows our anxiety about the potential for something to escalate, which gives China the upper hand.
That’s why I think our policy should just be always maybe there’s some guy sitting at a desk at the Pentagon or something and which he’s, like a watchman. His job is just like China. We are open for dialogue. Whenever you are ready we are here, and then we just leave it at that and we don’t make this constant plea for it.
MEDEIROS: Richard, can I—
HAASS: Maybe everybody else—let me just post it on the table. Maybe, Evan, you can help us here. What is the extent of hotlines between the United States and China, whether it’s military to military or President Biden to Xi Jinping? If there were some sort of a need to get in touch very quickly—when you were at the NSC, what sort of thing happened?
MEDEIROS: They are absolutely—those technical capabilities exist, but they still require the political intervention in China of Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound, for example to approve and then connect the Chinese leadership—the Chinese military leadership to the U.S. military leadership. So the technical ability to do so exists and, in fact, it can be done in a secure way, and I believe there are even video links to do that, Richard.
But it really comes down to political willingness, and Oriana is absolutely right. The Chinese see crisis management, effectively, as a tool for the United States, license for the United States to push China even more. That’s the principal driver of their reluctance to engage in confidence-building measures and crisis management.
So the reality is—and I say this reluctantly and unfortunately—but we’re probably going to need some very substantial crisis in the U.S.-China relationship to convince the Chinese political leadership to engage the kind of crisis management tools we had with the Soviets.
I mean, the reality is, is the Cuban missile crisis did result in a fundamental change in the nature of U.S.-Soviet conversations about unilateral steps, the kind that Jessica’s referring to, and, ultimately, arms control measures, and it’s about internalizing the view that restraint is a source of stability, and the Chinese have not internalized that.
Xi Jinping sees restraint as a tool for the United States to keep pressing China more and as a sign of weakness. And, unfortunately, it’s probably going to take a crisis—hopefully, not a Cuban missile level crisis—to dissuade the Chinese from their views.
HAASS: Let me put something else on the table.
Jessica, I’ll start with—actually, no, let’s continue with questions. I’ll intervene in a minute if it doesn’t come up naturally.
So, Sarah, one more for you.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Cheryl Van Den Handel.
Can you comment on the Belt and Road Initiative and competition with the U.S. in the globalized world?
HAASS: Who wants to take that?
MASTRO: I can—I want to say one thing about the Belt and Road because I’m currently working on a book about how China competes, and the bottom line assessment is that China has tried to differentiate itself in many ways from the United States. It just makes sense not to try to do things exactly the way the United States does because it threatens U.S. equities and it also doesn’t cater to Chinese competitive advantages.
So the Belt and Road Initiative is, really, I think, an example of an entrepreneurial approach to foreign policy, and it’s not only leading with development and, basically, large infrastructure as something that China provides that the United States can’t provide.
But it’s also somewhat of an alternative to the U.S. way of having global influence, which is based on U.S. military power projection. So this sounds like a judgment but I don’t mean to sort of condemn U.S. policy. But I just want to give you this statistic, that the war in Afghanistan—the twenty years the United States spent in Afghanistan—cost ten Belt and Road Initiatives.
So the Chinese that—I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the strategic side of what the Chinese think about Belt and Road, and they’re very clear that they think it’s a more effective way of influencing the internal and foreign policies of other countries outside of Asia to go that development route versus to go with the overseas bases for the military intervention route that the United States has pursued, and then they build onto Belt and Road things, like, to support their space program. They offer Belt and Road countries the ability to go into space, to go to their space station, which is all very attractive so that they can build ground stations along the whole Belt and Road.
So a lot of people look at it as kind of like a money suck, but at least, strategically, it’s less of a money suck than the hundred and five foreign military interventions the United States has engaged in since the end of World War II.
So compared to how the United States does this strategy, Belt and Road seems to be a pretty smart way forward.
HAASS: Well, I don’t want to go down a Belt and Road rabbit hole, but I do not see it as that successful or effective and I think we have many alternatives to compete with it.
Jessica, I want to put a question to you again on the table because we haven’t gotten to it, which is why is it the United States does not support Taiwan’s independence, and when people speak about fidelity to the One China policy, just for—make sure everybody understands that, what is that and why is that so significant and do you believe that the United States should continue to adhere to that?
WEISS: Absolutely. I think that there’s a couple of things on the table here.
There’s the One China policy in which the United States does not challenge and at various points has acknowledged but doesn’t recognize the position that there is One China that people on both sides of the strait see it this way. Sorry, I’m bumbling. Exactly—you should go exactly to the right word that’s very important that all policymakers and, generally, we understand, what has been policy. Because when we call for new things they’re read very carefully in Beijing and in Taiwan to see whether or not the United States is moving.
I think it’s also really important to note that—
HAASS: Let me interrupt. Just to be clear, make sure that we do—why don’t you clarify exactly what the United States signs up to and why it is important, from your point of view, that we do not move away from that?
WEISS: So, essentially, when the United States established diplomatic relations with Beijing—with China—in the 1970s, we moved away from a formal alliance relationship with Taiwan and switched diplomatic recognition, and one of the obstacles there was Taiwan’s political status and since then we really have not taken a stance on it and have instead stated that the peaceful resolution of differences across the Taiwan Strait is our focus and that we would implicitly accept any outcome—in fact, this was stated in the 1990s—would accept any outcome that was peacefully arrived at with the acceptance of the people in Taiwan and both sides of the strait. And so that emphasis on the process rather than the outcome is, I think, a core part of the One China policy.
Now, when people talk about the One China policy they also refer to the three U.S.-China joint communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act that Evan mentioned earlier, as well as the six assurances to Taiwan. And so those are the formal—the formal catechism or incantation of the policy.
But at its heart it recognized or stated that we are not going to acknowledge Taiwan as a separate independent political entity—a sovereign state in the international system.
HAASS: And to those in Congress or outside Congress who call for us to do just that, who think the United States should, essentially, take into account Taiwan’s separateness, its lack—and we ought—for those who, basically, advocate that we ought to stop finessing this but, instead, what do you see as the consequences or costs were the United States to move to what you might call a two China policy? What do you think would be the consequences of such a change on our part?
WEISS: So, I would refer you here not just to my opinion but a recent poll that the Center for Strategic and International Studies did of experts, that if the United States were to move to diplomatically recognize an independent Taiwan we could expect—I think a large majority expected that Beijing would attack—would launch a military attack on Taiwan within the next several months. And so the consequences—
HAASS: That would be—that’s seen as a casus belli from China’s point.
WEISS: Yes. Yes. That would be the reddest of red lines. And we can talk about the many ways in which U.S. policies evolve and I would say, see China’s reactions to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit as an effort to deter further the incremental steps toward, quote/unquote, “creeping independence,” from Beijing’s perspective.
What is being—what we are talking about is very different from that—that is leaping across that line and saying we no longer have a One China policy. And that, I think, would be very, very dangerous.
MEDEIROS: Richard, I have to say—jump in with two things.
Number one, if the U.S. were to abandon the One China policy not only could it provoke Beijing but we would probably also lose support for many of the members of the international community in Asia and in Europe.
So it’s not just about provoking Beijing. It’s about going to war alone and being seen as the provocateur of that conflict, which makes it even more challenging, given all the commentary we’ve had today about the importance of allies and partners if we’re actually going to go to war with China.
The other piece of this to bring out is the infamous phrase of strategic ambiguity, and strategic ambiguity is not being ambiguous about the status of Taiwan, though Jessica was spot on correct that the whole essence of the One China policy is sort of the fudge about the status of Taiwan.
Strategic ambiguity is something different and that’s ambiguity about if, when, and how the United States might come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of heightened coercion or aggression. And, obviously, Richard, you have very strong views on this, which have only become more relevant of late.
But I would just encourage our readers to think about the whole issue of strategic ambiguity about the U.S. being ambiguous about if, when, and how it would come to Taiwan’s defense as a continuum and not a binary, and it’s very clear the Biden administration has sought to move away from the high degree of ambiguity and be a little bit clearer about the conditions under which it might come to Taiwan’s defense and the argument is, is that that clarity or that reduction in the ambiguity reinforces deterrence, and we’re living through that experiment today.
HAASS: And the argument by those who put it forward is that it does reinforce deterrence. Second of all, though, going back to something Oriana said, is it has to be paired with capabilities. It can’t be, simply, a rhetorical posture. It’s got to be backed by realities. And thirdly, it’s not unconditional. It’s not a license, say, for Taiwan to act in ways that would actually trigger the very crisis we want to avoid.
So there’s—those who call for clarity as one of them have it packaged in something much larger including, by the way, continued fidelity to what we were just discussing, which is the One China policy.
It’s really—it’s, simply, a question of how we implement that and decrease the chances of a crisis and that’s—that was the argument or the thinking that led to it. But it’s not a change in the policy. It’s, simply, a change in one aspect of how we would go about implementing the policy.
HAASS: So I just want to underscore that.
MASTRO: Richard, can I—
MEDEIROS: But the real challenge that the proponents of that argument face, Richard, is the emerging political reality on Taiwan itself and especially as we enter into a new presidential election period in Taiwan are there political actors in Taiwan that will see greater clarity on the part of the United States as the very license that you’re not trying to give them.
HAASS: Well, all I can say is, Evan, as someone who has been involved in those conversations with people on Taiwan we have been very clear about the conditionality and it’s not a blank check. It’s not a license to take unilateral action.
Indeed, recently, President Biden—I think it was in his speech before the UN just a few weeks ago in September—was very clear in his opposition to unilateral action by either side that could undermine stability and I think that’s important that our support for Taiwan not be taken, again, as license to act recklessly, and that has got to be something that is underscored as often as is necessary just so there’s no misunderstanding there.
It’s both a message to Taiwan but also a way of reassuring the mainland about what our policy is not, and I think that’s just as important as making clear what it is.
MASTRO: If I can just—I just want to add something to what Evan said about losing the allies and partners, and I just want to be clear, maybe, for some people who are watching that don’t follow the military operation side.
The United States is not a resident power in Asia. We rely on access through our allies and partners to be able to engage in any military operations in Asia. So this is unlike—maybe some people are listening that are, like, well, who cares if the other countries don’t support us.
China is an adversary that would be very different than the wars we’ve fought in the Middle East, for example, in which we’re just flying around and no one’s up there flying with us. We cannot fight a war in Asia without some support from our allies and partners.
So I just wanted toclarify that as well in case people listened to Evan and they were, like, well, I don’t care if our allies like what we want to do. It’s extremely important that we have their support.
MEDEIROS: Well, Oriana, to your very good point, I mean, Japan and South Korea, collectively, hosts about seventy thousand U.S. forces—airmen, naval forces, Army and Marines, et cetera. I mean, we really do rely on the forward deployment of those forces in our—among our allies to project military force.
HAASS: OK. Sarah, let’s see if we can get one or two more questions in before we run out of time.
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Mary Cerbone.
HAASS: Go ahead, please.
OPERATOR: Please accept the unmute now—
Q: Good afternoon. This is Mary Cerbone.
HAASS: Good. We can hear you.
Q: Thank you. This is Mary Cerbone representing the United States Army.
So from an ideological standpoint, a Chinese attack on Taiwan would constitute a step backwards in democracy. However, for the—(inaudible)—that powers U.S. advanced weapons system. In the calculation of whether to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, is the U.S. willing to—(inaudible)—to military—(inaudible)?
HAASS: I couldn’t understand most of that. My connection kind of faded there. I don’t know if any one of the three of you could get that. If no, OK.
Sorry. I want to thank you for your service but not for your digital service there. So I’m not sure you can restate it very quickly or, if not, we’ll have to go on to someone else. And I feel badly but we just couldn’t make head or tail of it.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Michael Falcon.
Is there any hope for a return of the Trans-Pacific Partnership? What other big options are there for asymmetric response to increased Chinese military aggression in the region?
HAASS: Well, I’ll just say there’s hope but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. It is remote. And people often call for bipartisanship in the United States but we have significant bipartisanship when it comes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the bipartisanship, essentially, is opposed to it. So I, simply, don’t see it.
Any one of the three of you want to disagree with me? I think it’s highly unfortunate. I think we are denying ourselves a powerful economic, strategic, and diplomatic tool. But the fact is that I see virtually no evidence that either party is prepared to move forward on U.S. membership in what used to be called TPP.
Does anybody disagree? And if not, what is it you would recommend? Is there any way—I mean, there’s this new Indo-Pacific Economic Forum. Are there ways, if you will, to if you can’t get a full loaf to get half a loaf or a quarter of a loaf to work around the fact that it’s politically not on that we would join this agreement? Can we somehow compensate or make up for it through this new framework or some other way?
WEISS: I mean, I’d say it’s, certainly, worth trying. But, nonetheless, I think that there’s still a lot of skepticism that this will really deliver on the ground what countries are looking for as a potential alternative to China.
And so this is one of the reasons why I think that these domestic divisions that we face at home are really—and I know you agree—are impeding our ability to lead abroad and that this is not yet the right time to be ramping up a kind of no holds barred competition with Beijing because I’m not sure that we’re going to necessarily win, especially if we are competing—as some folks would say, competing with one hand tied behind our back in terms of trade and making it work for our domestic workers here at home. It remains a critically important question and we seem to be at an impasse there.
HAASS: Let me just go to a lightning round. I’ve got all three of you here. We’re going to revisit the poll.
So let me go to a very quick lightning round, which is if each one of you had one thing you could recommend that we would do on the U.S.-China relations front diplomatic, economic, military, that you felt was desirable and feasible, either—for whatever set of reasons, what would you recommend right now?
Oriana, I’ll start with you.
MASTRO: Getting Japan on board economically and militarily. I focus on the military aspects. I think it’s easier than economics.
But if Beijing thought that their trade would be suspended indefinitely with all U.S. allies and partners after any attack they would not do it.
MEDEIROS: Ensure substantial and enduring alignment with the power centers in Europe on the China challenge for the foreseeable future.
HAASS: That’s interesting. What both of you have in common is it’s an allied-first approach. Interesting.
Jessica, you get the last word before we turn to the polls.
WEISS: Make sure that we invest in ourselves at home so that we can run faster rather than focusing so much on tackling China.
HAASS: As someone once wrote a book called Foreign Policy Begins at Home, I see a lot of wisdom in what you just said.
OK. So what we’re going to do is, very quickly, return to the five questions.
So, as you see there on your screen and, again, vote on them and then submit your answers collectively, not individually.
First one is which best describes the way you view China in relation to the United States and, as you can see, from existential threat through partner.
By the way, if the not sures or unsures go up as a result of this conversation, I’m not sure if that’s an implicit criticism or praise. I’m going to focus on that.
Secondly, do you think U.S. foreign policy toward China is too confrontational?
Thirdly, how likely do you think it is that China will invade Taiwan over the course of the next five years, which happens to be the third term of Xi Jinping?
Fourthly, should the United States send forces to help defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese blockade or invasion? You’ve got a number of choices.
And then, fifth and last, our defense budget, its total between 3 and 3.5 percent of GDP. Just as a slight historical factoid, that’s only a fraction of what it was during the Cold War. We were often up in the 6 to 7 percent range as a percentage of our GDP then.
But given what we’ve been discussing here as well as other threats, would you support an increase in defense spending?
So I think we’re going to close the polls in fifteen seconds or so and then we’re going to look at the results.
And while we do that, I just want to thank all of you for being with us today. I’m encouraged that we had this kind of interest, and I also want to thank these three individuals—Evan Medeiros, Jessica Chen Weiss, and Oriana Skylar Mastro.
I want to thank them not just for today but for their contributions to the conversation and debate in this country about these important issues, and I also want to thank all three of them for their public service.
It is—for me, it’s just reassuring and then some to see such talented individuals decide they want a life in the public space, and so I want to thank you all for what you’ve done, for what you’re doing, and for what I know you will do in years and decades hence.
Let’s just look at the polls. So, here, how to think about China, a majority now sees China as our greatest rival.
Irina, you or someone is going to have to remind me whether there was a significant shift here.
Secondly, do you think U.S. foreign policy towards China is too confrontational—again, about half think—almost half think it’s too and about the same percentage think it’s not confrontational.
Actually, no. I take it back. About half thinks it’s too confrontational, about a plurality thinks it’s about right, and a minority thinks it’s not confrontational enough.
Likelihood of Chinese invasion—two-thirds thinks it’s highly likely or somewhat likely over the next five years—an invasion of Taiwan. That’s quite high.
Do you think the U.S. should send forces—again, very split—almost evenly split. Slight majority—sorry, plurality in favor of us sending forces, but 37 percent against it.
And the question of the defense budget, 49 percent favor increasing the defense budget—we don’t say by how much—and just slightly less than that—44 percent—presumably, think it should either stay the same or even be less. We weren’t specific on that question.
Again, I just want to thank you all. I hope, whether your views changed or not in the polls, that your thinking comes away richer as a result of this really informed conversation.
Again, I want to thank my three colleagues here just for being so smart and so articulate, and I want to thank all of you for giving us an hour and a half on this fall day.
With that, be safe, be well, and in two weeks, please, go out and exercise that right of voting. It’s significant, and I hope you all use the opportunity.
Thank you very much.
WEISS: Thank you, Richard.
MASTRO: Thank you.