Thucydides Trap – US-China Summit In Alaska: To Avoid A Shooting War Between China and the United States Over Taiwan

Days ahead of Thursday’s high-stakes summit in Alaska between Biden’s national security team and top Chinese officials which will include Secretary of State Antony Blinken and director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi, each side already has conflicting visions in terms of expectations. Washington has recently rejected China’s calling it a “strategic dialogue” while most China watchers say any kind of hoped-for diplomatic breakthrough is very unlikely.

And looming large over the meeting is the Taiwan issue, particularly after the top US commander over the Indo-Pacific region of operation Admiral Phil Davidson gave testimony on the growing China threat before a Senate panel last week wherein he said based on China’s current military expansion he sees a Chinese move on Taiwan “within the next three years.” 

His assessment echoed recent statements of other top Pentagon brass over the past year or so of an invasion in “a few years time”. In its preview of Thursday’s summit, Politico underscores that “It’s a timeline they say has been accelerated by the Trump administration’s repeated provocation of Beijing, China’s rapid military build-up, and recent indications that Taiwan could unilaterally declare its independence from the mainland.” As we saw over the past year in Hong Kong with the large-scale protests and independence movement, we know what that will mean in terms of a Chinese response.

Further Politico emphasizes, “Such an invasion would be an explosive event that could throw the whole region into chaos and potentially culminate in a shooting war between China and the United States, which is treaty-bound to help Taiwan defend itself against Beijing.”

The most idealistic reading of the Alaska summit could see the start of talks that might mark a cooling period between the two powers over Taiwan, particularly after on a weekly or even near-daily basis Chinese fighter jets and bombers have made provocative incursions into the island-republic’s airspace. At the same time the US has sailed warships through the contested Taiwan Strait sometimes multiple times a month over much of the past half-year.

“War over Taiwan would be unthinkable,” Eric Sayers of the American Enterprise Institute was quoted in the report as saying. “A major challenge Washington faces is that Taiwan has been viewed by many as a 2035 planning problem. … The [Chinese army’s] capabilities have now matured to such a degree that this is no longer a dilemma we can afford to push off.”

So on the radar, Thursday is how to avoid precisely this “unthinkable” scenario, though with each side unwilling to abandon their hardened rhetoric, including the ‘defending democracy’ rhetoric that guides Washington, which China has lately condemned as a violation of the ‘One China’ policy (or more particularly the steady US weapons sales to Taipei that goes along with it).

The other pressing and awkward elephant sure to be in the room is the fact that Biden has largely kept Trump’s aggressive policies in place regarding relations with Beijing, including sanctions of top officials related to the Hong Kong crackdown. This is sure to be a non-starter in terms of any breakthrough with China. Politico continues: 

The new Biden team knows the U.S. is in a competition with China, and Beijing’s coercion of Taiwan will be a major point of discussion. For now, they are keeping pressure on Beijing applied by Trump through tariffs and sanctions. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are in Japan for the first stop on a joint visit to Asia, where countering China’s rise will be at the top of the agenda. The two will travel next to South Korea, before Austin heads to India and Blinken to Alaska, where he will be joined by national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

And the sanctions have gone the other way too…

But this is precisely what helps put the two sides on a collision course in Taiwan and the South China Sea. One senior Pentagon official was quoted anonymously by Politico further as pointing out, “If we interject ourselves, we are the reagent catalyst that will make this problem hotter.”

“Militarily we know that if we do too much, push too hard, China will use that optic and they will do more against Taiwan,” the official added.

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