Will US-China Tensions Boil Over?


China’s strategy has been to advance its foreign-policy objectives largely through bluff, bluster, and bullying. Without sparking direct armed conflict, China’s leaders have sought to intimidate and coerce neighboring countries into yielding to their demands.

In contrast to Russia’s frontal assaults on Ukraine, China’s expansionism in Asia – from the South China Sea to the Himalayas – has been pursued incrementally. For example, China’s ongoing military standoff with India along the two countries’ disputed Himalayan border was triggered by its stealthy land grabs in Indian Ladakh in April 2020.

The last thing China wants is to get into an armed conflict with the United States, a superior military power, because this would expose chinks in its armor.

By going to Taipei recently, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called China’s bluff. But her visit also served as a pretext for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime to step up coercive pressure on Taiwan by carrying out provocative military drills in a dress rehearsal for a blockade. Long before Pelosi considered visiting Taipei, China had been ramping up its campaign of intimidation, with its warplanes regularly crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait.

Xi’s increasing troubles at home, including economic growth slowing almost to a halt, amplify the risk that he will resort to nationalist brinkmanship as a distraction. The odds are increasing that he will move against Taiwan in the two-year period between securing a norm-breaking third term as Communist Party chairman this November and the 2024 US presidential election.

But, rather than order a full-scale invasion, Xi is more likely to throttle Taiwan slowly. That will leave US President Joe Biden with difficult choices, with inaction likely to prove fatal for the island. A Taiwan fiasco on Biden’s watch, after his Afghanistan debacle and failure to deter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would gravely undermine America’s global power.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2022.