How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
As Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden sit down for a rare face-to-face meeting in Bali, Indonesia, on November 14, both leaders are confronting acute challenges at home. Despite his newly confirmed third term as China’s top leader, Xi faces far-reaching economic challenges. He is grappling with how and when to loosen the draconian zero-COVID policies that have angered Chinese citizens and battered investor confidence. Adding to the pressure are the country’s flagging growth and ambitious modernization targets, which have been further challenged by a new U.S. ban on advanced semiconductor exports to China. For his part, Biden faces a difficult domestic political environment, despite better than expected results in the U.S. midterms: with high inflation and potential loss of control of the House of Representatives, he now confronts the prospect of strengthened opposition to his administration and its policies.
Yet these domestic challenges should not distract from the strategic value of the Biden-Xi meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting, the first direct encounter between the two leaders since Biden’s election in 2020. In fact, even if they make it politically more difficult, the domestic headwinds that each leader faces may offer further incentives to both stabilize the spiral of actions and reactions and establish new rules of fair play and an affirmative vision to discipline the competition. In the meeting and beyond, both leaders have a crucial opportunity to put a floor beneath the relationship in ways that benefit both countries.
For one thing, amid acute political and economic challenges on both sides of the Pacific, it is no longer clear whether time is on Washington’s or Beijing’s side—whether the future will increasingly favor China or the United States. That means both sides have every reason to seek greater stability in the near term, even as they invest in their ability to compete for the years to come. So long as this goal does not require either side to make fundamental concessions or accept a subordinate status to the other, both the United States and China would benefit from a period of détente. Moreover, bending the trajectory of competition away from enmity and conflict will also free up the political space and resources on both sides to drive forward an inclusive, affirmative vision of the future that measures success in terms of positive achievements rather than by the extent to which the other’s capabilities and initiatives can be downgraded or blocked.
Accordingly, in Bali and in the weeks to come, Biden should make clear that the United States is prepared to work with China through multilateral forums such as the G-20 to address global challenges, including debt sustainability and food insecurity, while seeking a mutual understanding with Xi about what kinds of actions are in and out of bounds. Efforts by the two leaders to establish a modus vivendi will be made more challenging, but no less important, by recent U.S. actions to restrict China’s access to advanced semiconductors, combined with growing congressional activism and Biden’s own recent statements on Taiwan. Although each side is likely to treat any assurances and diplomatic overtures from the other with skepticism, both Biden and Xi should come prepared to test the proposition that the two governments could begin a range of discussions in areas of shared concern and explore potential terms of coexistence, including a positive-sum vision of global governance that both sides can plausibly live with. Such an approach would need to be backed up with meaningful actions to demonstrate good faith and would likely take time to achieve tangible results. But the alternative—an accelerating spiral toward crisis or even conflict without meaningful channels of communication—would be far worse for the two countries and for the world.
As I wrote in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs, the United States and China have been on a collision course. Worse, the action-reaction dynamic has increasingly pushed policymakers in both countries to define success in terms of their ability to thwart the other. If not checked, this escalatory spiral could lead to a crisis over Taiwan, exacerbate the erosion of the “rules-based international order,” and further constrict domestic space in both countries for pragmatic policy discussions that focus on results rather than on sounding tough. In the months since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, this cycle has continued, despite efforts by both governments to prevent demonstrations of resolve from precipitating a direct military conflict.
Indeed, despite fragile efforts to avoid a crisis, a growing chorus of commentators, and even some U.S. officials, have warned that Russia’s war in Ukraine is just a “warm-up” for a much more significant and protracted conflict with China. Some analysts have even suggested that war with China over Taiwan is unavoidable. Many of these comments refer to a supposed deadline or window for China to use force to retake Taiwan within the next two to five years. The theory is that Xi is looking for the earliest opportunity to attack Taiwan, whether because he is becoming more confident in China’s military capabilities or because he perceives that military and political trends are tilting against China.
A war over Taiwan is no longer unthinkable, but it is by no means inevitable.
But there are many reasons to think that such assumptions are misguided. For one thing, the argument for a near-term action against Taiwan presupposes a deadline that Xi has not actually set, conflating military modernization goals with a timeline for using force. Although Xi has previously linked the Party’s 2049 goal of “national rejuvenation” to “reunification,” his address to the 20th Party Congress in October did not include accelerated targets for military modernization or more aggressive language against Taiwan independence. In fact, Xi emphasized that China "will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort.” And as John Culver, former U.S. National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, has pointed out, there is no sign that Xi is currently mobilizing the military or country for a major assault or invasion of Taiwan. More concerning is the risk that politicians in the United States and Taiwan take formal steps to assert the island’s status as a permanently separate and sovereign country. Already, a number of former U.S. officials have called on Washington to reconsider its “one China” policy and recognize Taiwan as an independent state. Rather than dissuade Beijing, such dramatic steps could hasten even more coercive measures against Taiwan and ultimately provoke the very attack the United States seeks to deter.
A war over Taiwan is no longer unthinkable, but it is by no means inevitable, especially if the United States acts to bolster the credibility of the conditional threats and conditional assurances that have preserved the peace for decades. The growing fatalism of some commentators neglects the interest that the United States, China, Taiwan, and the world all share in avoiding a shooting war. Even if such a conflict were restricted to conventional weapons and avoided nuclear escalation, it would likely involve casualties on a scale not seen since the Vietnam or Korean Wars, the devastation of the global economy, and the destruction of the lives and hard-won democratic freedoms of 24 million people in Taiwan. And although there may be bipartisan support in Washington for getting tough on China, polling makes clear that there is no such consensus over whether the United States should risk the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. troops to defend Taiwan. Despite this uncertainty, many well-intentioned calls for change in U.S. policy underestimate the possibility that change could make the situation far worse. Consider that in a September survey of U.S. experts and former government officials about China’s approach to Taiwan, 77 percent said China would immediately invade if Taiwan were to declare independence, whether or not Beijing felt confident it could win that fight.
As the United States and Taiwan pursue efforts to make the island harder to invade, the best strategic bet is to play for time. This does not mean backing off or simply acquiescing to Beijing’s demands. No unilateral concessions—either given or demanded—would be wise, in view of fears on each side that such accommodations would be pocketed or exploited by the other. But coordinated measures taken in reciprocal fashion could enable Washington and Beijing to move back from the brink without sacrificing defense preparedness or deterrence. In fact, mutual, proportional steps taken to reduce the frequency and proximity of military operations near Taiwan, including finding ways to dial back the recent increase in Chinese maneuvers across the centerline of the Taiwan Strait, would be beneficial to the island’s defense.
Efforts to lower the temperature should also be paired with efforts to jump-start discussions on issues where the United States and China could work together, both bilaterally and multilaterally. Such steps would also go a long way toward reassuring allies and partners that the United States shares their desire for a productive relationship with China, and that Washington’s recent unilateral export controls do not herald a fundamental shift in U.S. policy that is aimed at containing and isolating China.
The United States and its partners can still shape a modus vivendi with Beijing.
The United States and its partners can still shape a modus vivendi with Beijing by making any rewards and punishments conditional on Chinese actions. This requires making clear that if China’s leaders change their behavior, they can expect to be rewarded rather than exploited. As former U.S. National Security Council official Mike Green recently noted, “The current U.S. approach has left allies and partners wondering what the American endgame is for relations with China. If they haven’t given up on shaping China, neither should the United States.”
Renewed efforts at diplomatic engagement are unlikely to bear fruit immediately, given the deep distrust on both sides and the challenge of establishing channels of communication that transcend exchanges of talking points. But high-level diplomatic engagement is valuable for empowering policy officials to begin a process of working out potential terms of coexistence and competition that would set expectations, reduce the risk of war, and make space for cooperation on shared interests.
Biden should also use the rare meeting with Xi to address any misunderstanding created by his comments about Taiwan to 60 Minutes in September, despite his reassurance that the United States is “not encouraging” Taiwan independence. (He said in the interview that “Taiwan makes their own judgments about their independence. . . . That’s their decision,” raising concerns that the United States was making an unconditional commitment to defend Taiwan, even if the island were to formally declare independence and provoke a Chinese attack.) Biden should clarify, as he did at the UN General Assembly, that the United States continues to oppose unilateral changes in the status quo by either side and would act to oppose unilateral steps toward formal independence, permanent separation, or U.S. diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. The credibility of U.S. assurances to maintain the status quo is essential to the success of U.S. deterrence efforts. Biden should also make more explicit the conditions under which the U.S. would expand or relax restrictions and sanctions against China, so as to make clear that U.S. policies are a calibrated and proportionate effort designed to shape Chinese policies and behavior rather than unconditional efforts aimed at containment.
By setting the stage for officials on both sides to reopen and expand channels of communication, the meeting could begin to put the relationship on a better course—marking the first signs of an inflection point that begins to decelerate the spiral toward conflict. Otherwise, U.S.-Chinese competition risks becoming an end unto itself, pressing leaders in Beijing and Washington to embrace maximalist positions meant to thwart each other and crowding out attention and resources for tackling global challenges such as climate change and pandemics. For the welfare, freedom, and prosperity of peoples in both countries and the wider world, leaders in Beijing and Washington should invest more in strategies and metrics of success defined by the future they seek, not the future they fear. But without greater efforts to put a floor beneath the U.S.-Chinese relationship, including clearer expectations about which competitive efforts are above the belt and which are below the belt, the current dynamic will continue to strengthen the most hard-line voices on both sides, marginalizing the voices and judgments of those who would pursue competition on less zero-sum terms.
Threats, Assurances, and Effective Deterrence