Strategies to Ease US-China Tensions over Taiwan: Ryan Hass / Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

US-China tensions are rising in the lead-up to Taiwan's January 2024 presidential election. While the US reaffirmed its strong ties to Taiwan with President Tsai's visit to the US, China continues to try to gain influence over Taiwan from its side. Where do US-China relations stand now, and what can the US and its allies do to keep peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait? Ryan Hass, former National Security Council director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, joins the conversation.

Del Irani
DEEPER LOOK Host

Ryan Hass
Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Transcript

00:12

Hello and welcome to DEEPER LOOK.

00:14

I'm Del Irani, it's great to have your company.

00:16

In January next year, Taiwanese voters will go to the polls...

00:20

and the world will be watching as it's a critical election.

00:24

The Taiwanese people won't just be choosing their next President

00:27

but their vote could impact the future of US-China relations.

00:33

In recent times, Taiwan has become a flashpoint between the US & China...

00:38

In April this year, shortly after the Taiwanese President met the current U.S Speaker of the house in California -

00:46

China conducted large scale military exercises around Taiwan for three days.

00:52

And China welcomed former Taiwanese President Ma, who is a member of the largest opposition party in Taiwan,

00:59

as the first former or current Taiwanese leader to visit China.

01:04

So when it comes to Taiwan - where exactly do the relations between the US and China currently stand?

01:12

And what can the US as well as it's allies do to keep peace and stability in the Taiwan strait?

01:18

Joining me now to talk more about this is Ryan Haas.

01:22

He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution,

01:24

he served as the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, on the National Security Council under the Obama administration.

01:33

His new book, "US-Taiwan Relations: Will China's Challenge Lead to a Crisis?" has just been released.

01:40

And he joins me now.

01:41

Welcome to the program, Ryan Haas.

01:43

It's great to have you with us.

01:44

Thank you, Del. It's wonderful to be with you.

01:47

So, Ryan, let's just begin by describing how much of a flashpoint is the issue of Taiwan,

01:53

when it comes to US-China relations?

01:56

Well, the Chinese refer to Taiwan as the core of their core interests.

01:59

In other words, the most sensitive, most important issue that they have in their portfolio.

02:04

And the reason why they put so much weight on it and consider it to be so important is

02:08

that it's really sort of fundamental to the founding mission of the Chinese Communist Party.

02:12

So, if you go back 100 years, to when the Chinese Communist Party was being founded,

02:17

they really basically said that they were going to do two big things for China.

02:21

The first, they were going to unite China, and the second, they were going to avenge past humiliations.

02:27

And so, if you look at where they've gone over the past 100 years,

02:31

China is, you know, objectively stronger now than it was previously.

02:35

Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong are under China's umbrella.

02:40

Taiwan is the one jewel that stays outside of the crown.

02:45

And so that is sort of, in a nutshell, why the Chinese are so fixated and so focused on Taiwan.

02:52

But of course, it's not just China that cares about Taiwan, the United States does as well.

02:57

For the United States, Taiwan is a valued friend and partner

03:01

with whom the United States and Taiwan share similar values and interests and concerns.

03:07

But Taiwan is also America's eighth largest trading partner.

03:10

And Taiwan is seen as sort of essential to the credibility of America's commitments to its security partners,

03:16

for allies and partners around the world.

03:18

And at a broader level, Taiwan is critical to maintaining peace and stability in East Asia,

03:24

which is a vital interest in the United States.

03:25

So much so that recently, the Taiwanese president visited the United States.

03:30

And shortly after that visit, China conducted large scale military exercises for three days.

03:36

Can you just describe to us

03:37

how significant they were, and what kind of message do you think China was trying to send?

03:43

Well, these were significant military exercises.

03:45

And I think that the Chinese really were working towards two audiences with these exercises.

03:51

The first was a domestic audience, inside China.

03:53

To show the Chinese people that they were punishing Taiwan for flirting with the Americans,

03:58

and that they were on the case, and we're imposing cost to Taiwan for their actions.

04:06

But I think the second audience was the people of Taiwan.

04:10

China wants to wear down the psychological confidence of the people of Taiwan in their future

04:15

and try to impress upon them this notion that that resistance is futile.

04:20

That there is no one who will come to Taiwan's defense,

04:23

and that the safest surest path to peace and prosperity is to sue for peace now.

04:28

And so that that was also an important sort of subtext to these intimidation measures.

04:35

But if you look at how the people of Taiwan responded, life went on pretty much as normal, Del.

04:40

People continue to go into the markets.

04:43

The stock market actually went up during the military exercises,

04:47

and public support for President Tsai's transit of the United States was, was more than 50%,

04:52

which in their context is pretty significant.

04:55

There have been reports, you know, that US officials, including CIA director, William Burns.

05:01

He believes that the Chinese President has directed his military to be capable of seizing Taiwan by 2027.

05:09

What kind of evidence is there that China might be thinking about taking such action?

05:14

Well, I think that the reports are significant, in no small measure,

05:18

because Bill Burns is one of the most impeccable figures in America's, you know, foreign policy landscape.

05:26

But there's two ways to look at this, Del.

05:28

The first is that it is really concerning that Xi Jinping is instructing his military to have the capacity

05:34

to use military force against Taiwan in 2027, if he chooses.

05:39

And there is no insight yet on whether or not he has made that choice.

05:43

And it's unlikely that any leader would box himself in four years in advance on a decision of that consequence.

05:49

So, I think it's still uncertain.

05:51

But the other way to look at it is that it's an acknowledgment that the Chinese military recognizes it is not ready today.

05:56

And it will not be ready tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year,

06:00

to conduct the type of military scenarios that would be required to impose their will on the people of Taiwan.

06:07

Ryan, during a time at the White House, when you served on the National Security Council,

06:11

you were advising the Obama administration, exactly about these types of issues,

06:16

you know, particularly Taiwan, China and so on.

06:19

Was the policy the same towards Taiwan?

06:22

And if you were, you know, in the White House today, advising President Biden, what would you tell him?

06:27

Is he on the right track?

06:29

Well, Del, I think that if we are going to put an objective eye to this,

06:35

the reality is that China's behavior has changed, and America's behavior has changed in recent years.

06:40

And so, China has just demonstrably increased the amount of pressure it is applying upon the people of Taiwan,

06:46

both military-pressure, but also non-military pressure.

06:49

You know, economic, diplomatic, psychological, cyber, across a full spectrum of issues.

06:55

And as Chinese pressure has intensified against the people of Taiwan,

06:58

the United States has felt a need to offset that pressure

07:02

by demonstrating more visible, stronger support for the people of Taiwan.

07:06

And we saw this just in microcosm over the past Several weeks with President Tsai's transit in the United States,

07:12

the Speaker of the House of the United States House of Representatives meets with her.

07:16

China responds militarily, the United States moves military assets near Taiwan.

07:21

And the spiral goes round and round.

07:22

And we've just sort of been stuck in this cycle for some time.

07:27

Where I think that things may have shifted somewhat - to try to be responsive to your question -

07:33

is that we, the United States has lost a little bit of discipline and precision

07:38

around the way that it articulates and executes its policy.

07:43

And going forward, I hope that we can tighten that up a little bit.

07:46

So, if you were advising President Biden today, what would you be telling him?

07:49

Well, what I... first of all, he doesn't need my advice.

07:52

But what I can tell him is that that words matter, that we need to be consistent,

07:58

that we need to demonstrate confidence, assuredness and resoluteness

08:05

that that we are absolutely fundamentally committed to preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,

08:10

and that we maintain the capacity to do that.

08:12

Sometimes I think that senior officials, particularly in the Department of Defense,

08:18

want to raise awareness and concern about the situation in Taiwan.

08:23

But they do so in ways that undercuts Taiwan's own interests.

08:28

When there are newspaper headlines about Taiwan being the most dangerous place on Earth,

08:33

it has a chilling effect upon Taiwan's ability to attract foreign investment which it needs to continue to grow its economy.

08:39

When, when American generals and admirals are warning about the risk of conflict,

08:45

it makes it more difficult for President Tsai to recruit people to join the all-volunteer force for defending Taiwan.

08:51

And so, we just need to be thoughtful, I think, about the second, third order consequences

08:55

of some of the actions and statements that we make.

09:04

So, shortly before President Tsai's visit to the United States,

09:07

the former Taiwanese President Ma recently visited China.

09:11

This was pretty historic because it was the first time a current or former Taiwanese leader has visited China.

09:18

Can you just explain to us like the significance of this visit?

09:22

What this visit really did, I think, was it exposed this philosophical divide inside Taiwan,

09:27

about what is the best way to protect Taiwan security and its future prosperity.

09:32

One view that President Ma holds and members of his political party, the KMT, is

09:36

that the best way to protect Taiwan security is to cool things down with China,

09:41

to establish a more stable, predictable relationship with China.

09:44

And that will lessen the risk and the threat that the people of Taiwan face.

09:48

President Tsai and her political party, the ruling party believe that

09:52

it's really going to be hard to satisfy China's strategic ambitions

09:57

because ultimately, China's strategic ambition is to absorb Taiwan.

10:00

And therefore, the best defense against that ambition is to move closer to the United States,

10:06

and to really strengthened Taiwan's relations with the rest of the world.

10:09

And so, in this split screen of Present Tsai being in the United States and President Ma being in China,

10:14

we saw these philosophical divides out in the open.

10:17

And we are in the midst of a presidential election in Taiwan right now.

10:20

And ultimately, the Taiwan voters next January will have a say

10:23

in which path is most profitable for protecting the people of Taiwan going forward.

10:30

As we head towards elections, what kind of strategies do you think that China is going to try and deploy

10:36

to gain influence over the Taiwanese public and the economy?

10:40

Well, it's... the honest answer is, I don't know.

10:43

But I expect that the Chinese will have an interest in trying to influence the outcome of the election.

10:48

It's clear that they would prefer for the opposition party, the KMT, to prevail in the upcoming election.

10:54

So, I think part of the effort on their part will be to try to raise concerns both inside Taiwan

11:00

but also in the United States and elsewhere, that if the vice president becomes the next president,

11:06

that that could bring catastrophe to Asia and the world,

11:10

and therefore all must all efforts must be made to prevent that horrible outcome from occurring.

11:15

The truth, Del, though, is that every time in the past that China has tried to manipulate or influence the outcome of elections,

11:22

is more often than not at the opposite end of the intended effect for China.

11:27

And so, it's quite possible that China could be a bit over exuberant in its efforts

11:32

to influence attitudes in Taiwan and have the opposite of the intended effect.

11:39

French President Emmanuel Macron, recently visited China.

11:42

He said that Europe had no interest in the accumulation of the crisis over Taiwan,

11:47

and that they would pursue a strategy independent of both Washington and Beijing.

11:54

And does it weaken the US position given that its own Western ally is saying,

11:59

we're going to have a strategy independent of the US?

12:02

Well, I had an opportunity to speak with French counterparts after President Macron made these comments.

12:07

And what they tried to explain to me is that what President Macron was trying to say is that

12:12

Europe needs to get Ukraine right if it wants to have credibility on other issues.

12:16

And that, therefore, the focus needs to be on making sure that Ukraine

12:20

prevails or at least does not lose in the face of Russia's assault.

12:24

Now, President Macron clearly had an inartful way of expressing that,

12:29

that sent tremors throughout Taiwan and the rest of the world.

12:34

And it was unfortunate.

12:36

I wish that he wouldn't have said it.

12:38

Because it reinforces a view that Taiwan is alone or has limited support in dealing with its bully 100 miles to its west.

12:46

But I would note that the G7 Foreign Ministers, which includes France,

12:52

met in Japan and reaffirmed that that France, along with all other members of the G7

12:58

remain very committed to upholding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

13:01

So, I expect that the overall policy direction will remain unchanged.

13:07

But this was certainly an unfortunate blip that Emmanuel Macron introduced.

13:12

So, Ryan, I guess, finally, you know, what can the US and its allies do

13:16

in order to preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait?

13:21

Well, it's an absolute essential question.

13:23

And I think that there are a few things that they can do.

13:26

For one, we know that President Xi Jinping has significant influence over decisions in Beijing.

13:34

And foreign leaders need to be very direct in expressing their interest in upholding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

13:42

This is not an issue that can be cabined.

13:44

It is an issue that has global ramifications.

13:47

But secondly, I think that it's important for the people of Taiwan

13:50

to know that they are seen and supported by the rest of the world,

13:56

and that they are not left to their own devices to deal with bullying from Beijing.

14:01

And so, the more that countries can demonstrate visible support to Taiwan,

14:07

and have an interest in deepening ties with the people of Taiwan, within the bounds of their existing policies.

14:15

I think that that's all to the good.

14:16

If the goal, which I believe it is, is to preserve peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

14:22

Ryan Hass, thank you so much for your time and your insights.

14:24

We really appreciate having you on the show.

14:27

Thank you, Del.

14:29

The US and China may have several disagreements when it comes to Taiwan but there is some common ground

14:36

and that's in maintaining global peace and prosperity for as long as possible.

14:41

It's not just in their interest to avoid conflicts but the interest to the Asia-Pacific region and the world as well.

14:50

I'm Del Irani, thanks for your company.

14:52

I'll see you next time!