The United States needs detente with China to deescalate the danger of an armed conflict over Taiwan, losing control of maritime routes through the South China Sea and other potential Pacific region hotspots.
This requires looking past China’s rhetoric about achieving broad technological dominance and recent provocations to focus on China’s economic concerns and desire to play a more assertive role in global diplomacy — for example, its success in helping normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and a proposal to end the conflict in Ukraine.
China won’t indefinitely accept a subordinate status to the West across leading-edge technologies. China already is out in front in battery technology, for example, but it will always need the West.
Neither China, the U.S., the EU nor Japan have large enough domestic markets to support the scale in R&D or monopoly on engineering talent to accomplish across-the-board technological dominance. Consider the multinational character of semiconductor supply chains and recent U.S. breakthroughs in battery technology.
China’s economy is too dependent on trade and its navy too formidable to be confined within the First Island Chain running from Kuril Islands through Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Taiwan carries strategic status as the manufacturer of more than 90% of the world’s most advanced computer chips. Capturing Taiwan would give the Chinese Navy a base of operations to push the overstretched U.S. Navy into subordinate status in the Western Pacific. China then would control the vital maritime lanes from Asia to the U.S. West Coast.
Maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence is essential to American interests. Deterring an invasion from China will require arming Taiwan with the most sophisticated weapons and not permitting Beijing to become more confident by allowing Russia to defeat Ukraine.
The losses Russian forces are taking in the Ukraine should give China’s President Xi Jinping some pause, but the outcome is critical. Even if Russia manages to hold on to a piece of Ukraine in addition to Crimea, NATO has been hardened and expanded. Chinese provocations are causing a similar shoring up of U.S defense arrangements in the Pacific.
The long-term prospects for the Russian economy are poor, with its exodus of talent, closure of traditional markets for its oil and gas, and limited access to Western technology. Western sanctions and Ukrainian valor have forced Russia into dependency on China to sustain its economy and war effort.
But China needs good relations with Europe and a better image there. With Americans tightening controls on China’s access to U.S. technology and lobbying allies to do the same, Xi must cultivate Europe to assure continued access to western knowhow and broad foreign markets.
Yet significant majorities in Germany, France and most of Europe view China unfavorably. Consequently, Xi should see advantage in pressuring Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to deal. At the conclusion of his April meetings with Xi, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “I know I can count on you to bring Russia back to reason and bring everybody to the negotiating table.” His critics notwithstanding, Macron may be spot on.
Accessing China’s leverage with Russia by bringing it into a five-sided process — the United States, Europe, U.K., Russia and the Ukraine — would permit Beijing to buff its global image by playing a constructive role in a high-stakes European security issue.
With the war in Ukraine resolved, the United States could then devote more resources to the Pacific and would be in a stronger position to negotiate with China to deescalate tensions. A deal would be terribly difficult — neither side is about to give up Taiwan — but both sides could accept naval parity and agree to curb their arms race.
Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.
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